Category of One: Becoming the Beyoncé of Your Space

With hundreds of thousands of startups launched every year, the business landscape is undoubtedly competitive. And, if you work for one of these hopeful startups, I’m guessing you don’t work as hard as you do to become to next “good” thing. You’re working to be the next Beyoncé – that once in a generation supernova that reshapes how we think. In the business world, this is known as a category of one.

According to “Becoming a Category of One” author, Joe Calloway, the most extraordinary companies set themselves apart by focusing on differentiation and thus evolving into a category their own. This differentiation comes from a company’s ability to deliver superior value to their customers – think Apple, Coca Cola, Disney or Tesla. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to obtaining this standout success. You must determine your company’s own path to delivering truly unmatched value to would be customers in order to outpace competition so drastically you create a new category.

This is exactly what the team at BlueConic, a Boston-based customer data platform, is aspiring to achieve. BlueConic aims to provide marketers with unified – but more importantly actionable – data about their customers and / or prospects. While they are still very much in the early stages of their journey (founded in 2010), they are on their way to creating their own category. In 2016, BlueConic achieved year-over-year sales growth of 350% in the U.S. market and was included in Gartner’s latest “Magic Quadrant for Digital Marketing Hubs” report.

I sat down with the company’s VP of Marketing, Cory Munchbach, to learn more about their approach to achieving category of one status.

Competition is a Good Thing

“The first piece of advice I’d offer is don’t make up a category just for the sake of differentiation from the start.” says Munchbach. “It’s foolish to call yourself something else because you don’t want to be conflated with the competition. There needs to be a market there, and you need some sort of anchor. Otherwise, you’re beating a drum, but no one else is marching to it.”

In short, competition is a good thing, “Don’t ever say you don’t have competition. If you don’t have competition, something is terribly wrong – you’re offering something no one else thinks is worth pursuing, you don’t understand the market, or you’re delusional. Or wrong.”

The nuance is that you can have competition, and still be differentiated. Unless you are selling commodities, differentiation is a fundamental pillar of your success. Your differentiation shouldn’t be driven by simply making up a new category name, it should be driven by the unique value you provide the market which likely comes from how you solve the problem for your customers.

Simple, Streamlined Value Prop

Because BlueConic is a platform rather than a single solution, it has multiple competitors in a broad array of categories. So early on, Munchbach and team sought to stake out their own territory, which she will admit, is not easy.

“We were trying to do a lot of things and talk about ourselves in a lot of – honestly, too many –  different ways,” she says. “But that approach puts you at risk of either becoming a jack of all trades, master of none, or being unable to effectively convey your specific value proposition. Either way, your message is muddy.”

BlueConic has learned to streamline its value prop into a clear message that actually resonates with its target market. Doing so wasn’t easy, but it’s paid off in spades. “It’s tempting, as a platform, to try to be all things to all people,” Munchbach says. “But you only confuse people if you can’t articulate what you do and what that means for your audience in concrete terms. You’ve got to commit.”

For BlueConic, that meant doubling down on some features and making some others secondary in order to focus the product around the core value proposition.

Beyond making hard choices, the other half of commitment to a clear and defined identity is putting your money where your mouth is. “You really need to invest in creating resources and a body of work to support what you’re doing,” Munchbach explains. “I know too many vendors that say they’re one thing, but when you read their content it has nothing to do with who they say they are. If you’re going to make a claim, you damn well better be able to back it up. Otherwise, people will quickly perceive you as shallow, and no buyer has time for that.”

Meet Your Audience Where They Are

Once you’ve done the fine tuning necessary to hone your value prop so that it clearly defines who you are and what differentiates you, it’s time to translate that identity into strong thought leadership to educate your audience about what makes you unique.

Munchbach stresses the importance of meeting your audience where they are. “We focus on the real, specific needs of our target market,” she says. “And we make sure it’s clear that the reason we’re focusing on these topics is because we know marketers have these pain points, rather than that we’re trying to create pain that isn’t there.”

To support this promise, Munchbach and her team hold themselves accountable for use cases and measurements and are very concrete about the value BlueConic delivers. “Everything we talk about is derived from knowing the market has a specific gap or challenge,” she says. “Then, we can explain in very concrete terms how we solve that problem and what the process is to overcome the obstacles that exist between where a customer is and where they want to be, whether it’s a small step or a big leap.”

The overarching driver behind this strategy is utility. “It’s important that what we’re saying in our thought leadership not only gives a marketer a kind of ‘lightbulb moment,’ but also gives them a way to take action on the issue,” says Munchbach. “The emphasis is on understanding the marketer’s challenge and being able to solve it at a product level, a case study level, or a partnership level so we can deliver that utility and that value. That’s mission critical for us.”

This is just one perspective. Are you aiming to build a category of one? We’d love to hear from you. What strategies have and haven’t worked? Let us know in the comments.

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