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MUZEABLE’s ESSENTIAL GUIDE to GROWTH No.375: Understanding the ‘Category Rhetoric’…

Posted by on Apr 8th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 7 Posted by Tim Brooks 8th April 2013

Quick summary before you use some of your valuable time reading the article.                                                                                     

All categories have a ‘rhetoric’; an established short hand or set of rules, insight, messages, behaviours, buying processes etc. that manage how it works. This ‘language’ becomes established and then usually, over time, entrenched and then without truly breakthrough innovation it is tough not to end up relying on it [and being me too] and risky to ignore it in search of ‘differentiation’.

Growth is hard and usually requires change. We believe that most people make the mistake of starting their quest for this change by seeking a big idea [usually mythical] to drive it. What we should do is seek to first understand how ‘growth works’ in the category. We call this GROWTH MECHANICS™ – the CATEGORY RHETORIC fits within this.

Understanding the category rhetoric and how entrenched it is will define the nature of your growth and change journey. It’s more than situational analysis/research because it delivers a clear sense of how to grow – i.e. drives tangible actions/imperatives.

Using this approach has forced us to totally reassess the nature of change in categories we’ve worked in for many year and thought we knew. It shows you where you need to re-enforce and where you might be able to re-invent the category [despite alack of big innovation]. It is also a neat way to shape & improve your current innovation approach.

Along the way we talk briefly about Innocent Drinks and Blackberry/the Smartphone market by way of examples.



CATEGORY RHETORIC is how we describe the set of established rules, insights, messages, behaviours, buying processes, needs etc. and, very importantly, ‘language’ of a category. This ‘language’ is the basis of communication and understanding between brands, channels and customers/consumers and it is essential to the working of the category. The mistake most of make is thinking that it is in our market research, some of it is, but it requires a more multi-faceted commercial analysis to make it meaningful.

Over time – in the absence of step change innovation – in most categories this becomes established and then, sadly, entrenched. This is reasonably inevitable for commodity categories as we all have limited capacity for ‘new stuff’ and this process helps them work on autopilot. But even, high engagement categories have a RHETORIC that needs to be understood if you are to change your performance dynamics and win. Understanding this is a key step – and challenge – in building a GROWTH PLAN.

GROWTH is hard. To grow faster than you are at the moment, 99 times out of a 100, something has to change– a new need is discovered/created; a step change or strong innovation launched; some great marketing executed; a competitor’s misfortune exploited, a new channel leveraged etc. Sometimes it’s a ‘mover’ advantage – first & fast, or second & better – sometimes it’s just strong incremental input that gets traction. Whatever, GROWTH is still HARD to come by.

In order to understand how to GROW – especially in the absence of step change innovation – we believe you should always start with an attempt to understand how growth works – the GROWTH MECHANICS™. We don’t believe this is best done via a quantitative only mechanistic BUSINESS ENGINEERING process, but by blending creative & reflective thinking with the hard data to create a fresh, but robust input:

  • We deconstruct and reconstruct how growth currently works in a market or environment.
  • We examine the CATEGORY RHETORIC; how it works and how entrenched it is
  • We then consider how our client’s business works against this blueprint.
  • We then layer over that a sense of the key disruptions and change potentials that might matter in the short and longer term.

We would recommend you did all of these exercises at some point. The result should be a granular map of the key forces and futures that can accelerate our progress or run us aground on the rocks. It still surprises us how the clarity it brings forces strategic decisions. It should create a set of imperatives for GROWTH and provide a brutally realistic assessment of the task. Within this, whatever business you work in [B2B, B2C or B2B2C] we would recommend that you have a deep, considered and documented understanding of the CATEGORY RHETORIC before attempting change. Recently, I was consulting in a category I had worked in for 20 years as client and consultant – the CATEGORY RHETORIC exercise alone COMPLETELY CHANGED my preconceived view about the task and growth challenges. It clarified all the mistakes I’d been making for years and why I’d been naive in my attempts to create a killer idea that would deliver change in one fell swoop. This is a frog kissing exercise that usually ignores the context and reality – the place where the solution is hidden.

It’s not just more situational analysis

Oh it’s just a ‘situation analysis’ I hear you say. We can’t deny that’s kinda true, but everything in this world is about inputs and outputs. This is more of a ‘why’ and ‘how’ input than a ‘what’ and ‘where’ exercise. Not just USEFUL, but USEABLE and [hopefully] USED.

If you work in a mature category the likelihood is there is an ENTRENCHED RHETORIC. The products, claims and messages in the category are commoditised, there is parity of insight, the consumer/customer substitutes with ease, own label probably does well or is growing, and a set of well-resourced brands and businesses slug it out toe to toe with little step change emerging etc.

Too often it is imagined [particularly by comms agencies] that you can create a huge disruptive big communications idea or brand personality and everything changes. We wouldn’t say ‘never,’ but if you understand the CATEGORY RHETORIC first, we would argue that most of these attempts would be either stopped before they started or be of radically different construction. It is a strange arrogance [insecurity?] of us marketers that we always believe in the hegemony of our own ideas. Building a sparky personality or disruptive comms idea can work, but only if it plays with and appropriately against the rhetoric in a really precise way. This is rare.

Remember, the rhetoric is in part ‘entrenched’ because consumers are content with it that way. It works, they understand it, they draw comfort from the clichés and they are cynical about your ability to change things! Categories like painkillers [most OTC medicines actually], detergents, basic foods, beer – half the supermarket – are there or drifting that way. Watch the ads and they all use the same constructs and clichés, with a different logo appearing at the end [often unremembered!].

Can you ‘change’ the rhetoric?

So, a key task is to assess how you might and if it is possible to change the rhetoric. As said, in the absence of big innovation you need to find an insight of behavioural disruption and this usually has to be a medium term strategy i.e. no quick fixes. This is partly because we are genetically predisposed to avoid change! We would argue that the few comms led disruptions that have worked were actually changing the rhetoric – even if they didn’t know it! Further, if changing the rhetoric is really hard you should consider another route to growth than relying on the agency to ‘communicate’ your way to growth.

Innocent Drinks won in a category with some established rhetoric by changing it over time. They de-commoditised/established some core messaging on CSR/naturalness/quality/taste etc. [these are now established parts of the evolved rhetoric], they innovated, but it was their challenger[1] mind-set and the engaging, disruptive personality they created that found a space in the vacuum. We would argue that consciously or unconsciously their approach to the CATEORY RHETORIC was a key factor in making the brand/comms approach work.  It’s an overused example, because good examples are rare.

Blackberry Z10, smartphones and category rhetoric…

Where categories are emerging the rhetoric is probably more like setting jelly than an established structure. Here there might be opportunities to change and segment it further to create opportunities. But even then, never underestimate the way the GROWTH MECHANICS and RHETORIC might be working to keep things the same.

We saw a little piece on Blackberry Z10 recently.

Whether the Z10 is the answer to Blackberry’s malaise, who knows? The launch gets some good press [1m sold] and, as in this article, lots more cynical/negative coverage. Our view is that it is hard to see this innovation enabling Blackberry to win in any meaningful sense. Why? It’s not challenging the established CATEGORY RHETORIC.

The IPhone changed the mobile phone category and wrote a new smartphone CATEGORY RHETORIC [inc. new channel and business model rules]. The Android/Samsung competition has aligned with this, added little bits of value, but primarily ‘joined the party’ – re-enforcing the RHETORIC. Whilst it is not impossible for Windows/Nokia or Blackberry to do ‘ok’, it’s hard to see step change and victory. The rhetoric and business models are not yet entrenched, but they are established. The Z10 is a good product, but it works entirely within the category rhetoric – it changes nothing really. If the competition was standing still and not attached to strong established brands, maybe a ‘good’ product might make a difference and re-enforce the rhetoric to their advantage, but they are not. The short term sales boost is better than before, but it is based on another piece of the rhetoric/MECHANICS… magpie like attraction of some consumers to new things and some early adopters wanting to be ‘different’… so if Z10 suddenly becomes the fashion accessory of the decade it might work, if not…

In this situation we have a head to head between 2 powerhouses who built and ‘own’ the rhetoric. We have 2 other players trying to get to the table and whilst both have new things to talk about; currently none of them seem to have the potential to change the CATEGORY RHETORIC. It’s a hi-tech, fast moving category, so clearly something new could arrive to entirely REPLACE the current rhetoric, but as time moves on and we build our lives around the tech, this becomes harder to do. So, until someone rewrites the CATEGORY RHETORIC and unless the current rhetoric owners/leaders really fail to deliver even incremental progress, then, what we’re seeing isn’t enough to win. What’s sad is the lack of evidence that either challengers tried this. They are trying to win by doing good ‘innovation’ and great product launches. Good luck.

A new input to innovation?

Finally, when you innovate, don’t just think about the ideas and concepts – think about consciously innovating [or re-enforcing] within the rhetoric to position your NPD. This is potentially a powerful new approach to innovation, or a key step to ensuring your existing innovations work better. It enables consumers to know what to do with your new idea and where to position it – incremental or step change etc. and it enables you to maximise differentiation for even the smallest ideas.

Muzeable and our thinking is founded on the belief that GROWTH is more often delivered via an approach that provides deeper reflection versus one that searches for [usually] mythical, home run, big ideas snatched almost out of thin air. So as you set out to change your current situation and GROW faster and more sustainably think about the CATEGORY RHETORIC you are trying to shift, re-enforce or re-invent. Think about how you build a picture of that RHETORIC and the GROWTH MECHANICS™ in a different and more actionable way… then, and only then – when you have worked  out HOW TO GROW – should you think about strategy and executional ideas.

[1]Acknowledgement to the work of Adam Morgan of Eat Big Fish fame. If you haven’t read the book ‘Eating the Big Fish’… do so.

CATEGORY RHETORIC© and GROWTH MECHANICS© are the IP of Muzeable. Please acknowledge us if you use them.

The inexorable rise of the ‘commoditised category’.

Posted by on Mar 4th, 2013 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

Muzeable Thinking No. 6 Tim Brooks 3rd March 2013

As more and more categories become ‘commoditised’ brands need to find new and better responses. No quick fix, but a focus on deeper holistic thinking and rigorous execution has a chance…

Consumption without consequences

We already live in a world with too much choice. This is not made any easier by the rise of the commoditised category – where the choice itself becomes of increasingly marginal interest. Some of these categories are still packed to the brim with brands and brand owners who might be doing ‘ok’, but they are rarely growing sustainably and are often in denial about the reality of their situation. Beyond offering some sign posting – giving shape to the bun-fight – they cannot hide from the fact that the category is basically commoditised and consumers substitute with grim alacrity. The signs are clear; the steady growth of own label sales; over promotion feeding the habit of consumers/shoppers who’ve become promotional junkies; the increasing number of fixture/ message magpies – attracted by an minor increment of difference, but not seeing much added value. Consumers bounce around making often ad hoc choices, but with no real personal consequence or risk. It all does the job. The worry for brands is the number of categories that are – if we’re honest – creeping towards this slippery slope. OTC medicines, financial products, lots of food categories, everyday toothpaste etc. are knee deep in this reality.

Other categories are even worse off and the market [or sometimes just the retailer] has decided it doesn’t really need brands at all. I have been going bananas recently; I mean working in the bananas category. It might be the most challenging category I have ever looked at – much fun though it is! In the UK there are no brands [except Fair Trade which in this context doesn’t really count] in the major retailers… all this in a category where arguably the UK’s first food brand was created [Fyffes Blue Label]. Categories like this have drifted into uninspiring, un-engaging, undervalued and mundane shopping rituals. But, people still love bananas… Europe imports over 5m tonnes a year. So, surely this situation does not have to be an inevitable outcome? So, in the context of growth, how much does it matter?

Obviously, lots. Because if the consumer and just as worryingly, if they are your key route to market, the retailers see little point to your brand beyond product supply and – perhaps for the major mults – your cash, then you are on borrowed time. Theoretically the category would function just as well with or without your brand or even your investment. All it needs is an alternative supply chain

 Is this the end of brand loyalty?

The implication of all this is that there is no value in brands or consumer brand loyalty left. HOGWASH [NB remember we are talking about categories we describe as ‘commoditised’] it is just that loyalty fits into a new context – and understanding this is part of the solution. In a world where your loyalty is defended by superior quality or there is a perceived quality compromise in using the alternatives it is robust and protectable. Once this is differential removed or overtaken by value considerations or parity creep – where all the products AND messages in the market are the same – the consumer will park their loyalty and over time this evolves into entrenched behaviour. It doesn’t mean there is NO loyalty, it just means it is part of a behavioural repertoire, not a given. We have to work to leverage it EVERY TIME the consumer enters the fray.

What worries us about this situation is the way the tools of response are too often vested in sales/retail strategy – price and promotion, category rhetoric etc.  These are vital, but rarely will deliver a sustainable solution. They are too reactive [to customers] and not broad based enough to deliver a sustainably winning response. We value category strategy, but it is a subset of the solution.

A point of context…I am always irritated [my problem not theirs!] when brand marketers say that major retailers ‘hate brands’ and unreasonably want to remove them. Having worked indirectly [for a brand owner] and directly [as a consultant] with major retailers my experience is that they are best described as ambivalent about brands. Often [perhaps grudgingly or silently] accepting that the category… even they themselves, need strong brands and they have a key role [beyond the cash they feed into retailers’ bottom lines]. They provide Investment, generate most of the innovation, they invest in consumer and shopper insight and consumption demand, they think more holistically, they even occasionally think beyond this afternoon’s till receipts etc. The commoditised – often stuck – categories are clearly failing to do all, or some, of these things well enough to engage retailers.

In search of solutions…

So, if you work in one of these commoditised or fast commoditising [where brands still do ‘ok’, but are adding so little value that their % of sales on promotion, their static or declining average price, their substitution levels, the volume growth of own-label etc. mean are in reality ‘hanging on’ because of infrastructural and historical precedent] what should you do?

Actually, if you look around there is a lot to give us hope. Ultimately it must start with a clear strategic approach to your future business success. Much is based on an old, dark art… it’s slipped my mind, what’s that thing… oh I remember… it’s called marketing!

Fix 1: The cult of personality.

If all other things are equal, you can create an engaging and meaningful personality. Without a point of salience it is merely window dressing, but… E.g. Innocent. They weren’t the first, but they might have been one of the best… They built a personality in a category of potential commodity, they tied it to some benefits and things that are interesting and/or important to consumers and they executed with absolute single-mindedness – we all read the pack copy with surprise and delight. We all look at it now as if it was obvious, but… most people selling mashed up fresh produce and competing with other people selling similar mashed up fresh produce would have ended up spiralling into commoditisation; over promoting, moaning about retailer own label and struggling to innovate. Innocent had the chutzpah to actually do something about it.

To vastly varying degrees of success and authenticity you see Cravendale in milk, Happy Eggs, Filoppo Berio olive oil, Volvic in water all trying this.

Fix 2: Innovate.

No-one else will… you can innovate in anything. The problem is that most innovation we deliver is flawed and doomed to failure. But, that is not a reason for giving up on it. We believe that we need a new model, based less on ideation and more on understanding the growth context. But that is for another missive…

Some proof of possibility is found in a favourite sub-category [I exaggerate] of mine – cheddar cheese.

When I were a lad there was own-label and Cracker Barrel – which I only remember as a treat for my lifelong bachelor, Bow Bells, East-Ender, Uncle Fred… Now… I counted four brands at my last supermarket visit, some clear segmentation, a premiumisation approach, innovation founded on need-states/occasions – convenience, out of home etc. I haven’t got the data, but I am pretty certain that the cheddar market is healthier now than 10 years ago… and I am certain that at some point consumers and retailers were contented with the commodity status quo of blocks of yellow dairy produce… do they need all the stuff being produced, maybe not, but reality is if they don’t want it… it won’t survive.

Fix 3 Messaging.

We don’t work nearly hard enough on claims and messaging. Innocent didn’t just build a brand they build a language that reflected their personality. It was a way of describing the same things, but in new and engaging ways. We can all do this. It needs to be treated as seriously as innovation, which is why we don’t think you should always see it as part of the advertising/creative process. There claims are often treated as a prop, or in an ad hoc, one-off way… claims are part of a strategic continuum.

Fix 3 Insight and category led approach

This is key. A brand, either versus competition or to engage with retailers must try to own the universal understanding of the category and how it works. We refer to this as the mechanics of growth, the deep and sustainable view of how we’ll physically grow… you look at categories like Coffee… again there was a time when OL and its quality/parity were threatening the brands… but the category development… provenance, occasions, innovation, insight and strong merchandising and fixturisation delivered by Kenco/Nestle has build the category and maintained a meaningful branded premium… great stuff.

Beyond the single, quick fix.

So, a strong, vivid and authentic personality, some innovation, some reworking of the segmentation and fixture can all work, but only if viewed holistically and with a clear sense of category [BUT BEYOND THE CONSTAINTS OF ‘CATEGORY STRATEGY’ PROJECTS] and adjacencies. This must be founded on a clear view of growth and insight.

BUT… never, never, never just start by looking to create a larger than life personality or comms idea, or through up-weighting you ideation/messaging – that’s like kissing frogs… ALWAYS START WITH GROWTH… really understand how the category works/will work then define HOW to GROW [your GROWTH FRAMEWORK] and then define the role of disruption and differentiation. Strategy simply should never start with strategy it must always start with GROWTH.

PS sorry for the cheap plug, but this is what Muzeable do.



Have you worked out how to make your brand an Aggregator Brand? You’d better!

Posted by on Dec 7th, 2012 in muzeable thinking | 0 comments

AGGREGATOR BRANDS – perhaps everything we ever learnt about product/brand marketing is changing? Muzeable Thinking No. 5 from Tim Brooks 7th December 2012

Someday all – ok most – successful, sustainable manufacturing brands will be ‘service-based’ propositions that have become expert in using their service-wrap to sell their products. Ultimately the ability to monetise the service, or parts of it, will be a key success factor, barrier to entry and additional growth opportunity.

Pampers UK Home Page… nearly an Aggregator Brand!

In categories like healthcare and financial services – where increasingly a combination of regulation and intense innovation challenges [not least long lead times and high costs/risk] – this will become even more necessary and prevalent. Perhaps, it might become the only sustainable basis for a business model? These categories will [and do now] often find themselves marketing the ‘same’, or only marginally differentiated, benefits/products with limited opportunity to create image based or perceived differentiation through communication or marketing. Regulatory authorities are actively driving increased product genericisation, which alongside too much transaction-based marketing compounds the challenges. All true, but there is an important additional reason why I would still suggest this will also apply to most categories and brands in the future.

Data obesity and the ease with which we can drown in its soft fleshy folds – immediately, in real time, wherever we are [mobile] and sometimes with the added value of some genuine engagement – is changing how we seek and source things. Basically, we like this change, but it also complicates the simplest of decisions. Comparison websites have been successful for this very reason – without technology they couldn’t exist, but without technology we wouldn’t actually need them! They reassure us in the face of data overload and save us precious time and decision-stress. It might not lead to the best choice, but it avoids a disaster – which is enough for most of us.

As we all churn out more content and as categories segment [hyper segment] and get more complex – even if only as a result of more visible choice – this can only get worse. Or ultimately better if you believe [and I could be persuaded] that data completeness is a good thing. And it could be brilliant, if it wasn’t for the fact that we are all time poor and we struggle with the odious imperfection of comparison. Once most of us find ourselves in the presence of apples and pears we revert to making safe, usually intuitive decisions based on what we already know. Truth is that this might, or might not, be the right choice at that exact moment in time. Sadly, I have not yet found the comparison website for apples and pears? Not ‘simples.’

So, back to the point, in this world the brands that will win will be the ‘AGGREGATOR BRANDS’. [Whilst there is lots of stuff out there about aggregators, I do hope that I can take the credit for coining that phrase, in this context!]. These are the brands that early on, and with 100% commitment, decide they are going to become and own the service platform for the set of choices within the category [and probably some it its adjacencies]. This will potentially make them, if not our ‘friends’, then a necessary support to managing our relationship with the category. This, if done properly, will facilitate product sell opportunities that can be delivered with integrity. This will need a breadth of understanding, an attention to detail and service-design skills beyond the core competencies of the current agency suppliers – this isn’t digital ‘comms’. It will also need some counter-intuitive thinking and behavior for brands e.g. sometimes to fulfill this role they will need to [gulp!] publically concede that a competitor is bringing something positive/better to the table. Without this acknowledgement the Aggregator Brand… just stopped aggregating.

So, where is this happening? I’ve only just started looking, so I don’t know much, but as a starter for ten, I look at Pampers [UK, Pampers Village, link below] and look with genuine respect at the platform they have created with Mums and beyond nappies. Is this marketing edge a direct causal input into Kimberley Clark’s ‘exit’ position with Huggies in Europe? I don’t know and it’s obviously more complicated than that. Did P&G consciously set out to build an Aggregator Brand platform, or even something close to it, for Pampers? I doubt it, it looks like a mix of evolution and opportunity. Is it truly an Aggregator Brand yet? No. But I look at this and see it as ‘Base Camp 1’ for the future of product brands… I see it as leading a silent revolution in ways that really get one thinking… and I take my hat off to them. Bloody well done, I’ve thought about it and you’ve actually gone and started to do it. Their future opportunity has huge potential. I watch this space with interest and a bit of genuine passion.

The concept of Aggregator Brands© is the intellectual property of Muzeable Limited. Please acknowledge us if you use the term.

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