Category Leadership: Branding at the Edge

The thrill of discovery

One of the more exhilarating aspects of working with emerging technology companies is helping them map new ideas, evolving business models, and innovative technologies onto the existing brandscape. Sometimes there’s a clear way to position their offerings that gives them unique ownership of a positioning territory. But there are many times when a company’s offering is unique, original, or revolutionary to the degree that an existing category doesn’t describe them. We call this “branding at the edge” and it requires reframing the brand landscape in a way that allows our clients to define their category leadership, disrupt existing categories, or create new ones entirely. 

When it’s not clear what ‘it’ is called

We see this across multiple industries, but it is particularly true when technologies outpace their categories. Nomenclature and vocabulary don’t always keep up with advancements in the industry, especially for companies innovating in ways that go beyond traditional definitions. And the result is that a company’s offering gets mislabeled with nomenclature that describes a box that doesn’t fit what they do. They could be put in a category that’s shrinking or not reflective of where they’re leading the market. And this has an impact on how people categorize the offering and how customers connect with the company. 

This is when a company needs a technology descriptor. It’s not a name or a tagline, but rather the most important piece of nomenclature they can invest in. It helps customers quickly understand what category you play in. It signals to the press and analysts how you are challenging the status quo. And it names the territory you are claiming in the marketplace. Most importantly, a technology descriptor provides a handle that immediately describes what your product does — in a way that implies its value.  

Why this matters in category leadership

Positioning a brand (and messaging, and copy) without an agreed-upon technology descriptor is problematic—internally and externally. From an internal perspective, the process of coming up with a technology descriptor requires that leaders are aligned not only on how to articulate what they do but also where they want to go. The technology descriptor puts a stake in the ground of where a company wants to take a leadership position. Too high-level, and it doesn’t differentiate. Too specific, and it constrains future evolution. And this is first and foremost a strategic leadership conversation. Externally, a technology descriptor defines the category you want to either redefine or create. It can serve as a declaration of the territory you are claiming, or where you believe the industry needs to go. And it gives your brand a first-mover advantage for storytelling, positioning, and category and thought leadership.  

The solve

Coming up with a technology descriptor requires more than a brainstorming session that produces a catchy phrase. It’s more about defining the DNA of your offering and projecting how you want to grow and evolve your relationships with customers. To do this, we recommend looking at the business strategy and competitive analysis and seeking to understand how your new offering is different from what competitors offer or the current status quo.

A good technology descriptor needs to do a few things:

  • Differentiate your offering from existing players. This is a good place to use language that expresses a strength or differentiator, which will come into play when you do your positioning. 
  • Offer elasticity and expansion potential based on your known or presumed strategic plans
  • Balance the familiar with the new. It’s a good idea to use some terms that will ground your technology descriptor in ideas that people can immediately understand 
  • Get people excited about there being something new and better in this space. The ideal technology descriptor names the offering that people have been waiting for. It should give them a reason to rejoice.

A note about sequencing

Ideally, the technology descriptor should be determined before starting the Brand Positioning process as knowing what ‘it’ is that you’re positioning is generally helpful and will then inform the positioning statement and brand pillars. Together, the Technology Descriptor, Brand Positioning Statement, and Pillars form the strategic platform upon which to develop the rest of your brand’s assets.  



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