Using “Category Essence” to Supercharge a Big Brand Idea

Guest blog by Prasad Narasimhan, brandgym Managing Partner for Asia, based in Bangalore.

All efforts to grow the core need to be anchored on a Big Brand Idea. This is central to how consumers perceive the brand, and is a valuable ‘point of view’ that the brand reinterprets repeatedly & in fresh ways, for consumers to relate to. Arguably then, the larger the Big Brand Idea, the greater is the growth potential for the brand. So it makes sense for brands to ask themselves “how big is my Big Idea, really?”

We see from Implicit Segmentation maps such as Needscope™ that the biggest & the most profitable brands often sit like big blobs in the ‘centre’ of the market. Kings of their castles, they continually fend off attacks from more differentiated/ niche brands, choosing instead to be ‘distinctive’ on core category needs. Gillette is a prime example – it has been the dominant brand in men’s shaving for more than a century. But how do they get to be in that powerful central position in the first place?

What’s your Category Essence?

Leaders brands are consciously or unconsciously positioned along their ‘Category Essence’. This is the primal code of the category, often linked to the original purpose the product served in peoples’ lives. Arrogating this primal meaning and ‘owning’ it within a category allows brands to increase their chance of consumer relevance, and hence scale & success.

Gillette, ‘the best a man can get’, sits tight on the Category Essence of male grooming for success. By growing this core aggressively, they have comfortably defended their dominance from challengers including Wilkinson Sword & Lynx from Unilever. And by finding new meanings to grooming through their latest pro-style launch, they have further cemented their position as the kings of male grooming.

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Similarly, Colgate owns the Category Essence of strong white teeth, and sitting astride this core consumer priority, they have happily withstood several fringe attacks from specialists like Sensodyne (for sensitive teeth) and generalists like Close-Up (the confidence to get up close) by developing appropriate brand extensions.

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The pattern repeats across categories

Coffee was first discovered in Ethiopia by a shepherd who noticed that goats grazing on the leaves of the coffee plant suddenly became frisky & energetic. Since then, coffee has travelled the world and acquired several associations. But at its heart, it remains the drink to awaken the senses, to wake-up with. Brands including Folgers & Nescafe have leveraged this essence to lead the category across markets.

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Chocolate evokes several feelings, but self-indulgent, sinful pleasure is at the very heart of the primal meaning of chocolate to adult consumers. The movie Chocolat exaggerated this very essence. Even as there are scores of chocolate brands positioned on a wide spectrum of benefits that include purity, goodness, luxury, provenance, status, energy boost, perk-up, fun snack etc.; the biggest brands in most markets are often those that sharply focus on pure pleasure. Galaxy, Silk, Haagen Dazs & Magnum are some brand leaders who have leveraged the platform of pleasure to create strong businesses.

Harnessing the Category Essence

Category Essence is like ‘that one wave’ that can create a great lift for the brand. To win, brands must ‘read’ the wave and ride it. To create value, brands must explore symbols of the mythology, history & culture. It is then that the layers of meaning associated with the Category Essence become evident.

To illustrate, let us consider the Skin Lightening category in India where thousands of years of history precede current perceptions of skin colour. In a hot country where people’s skin colour was affected by how much they needed to work in harsh external conditions, one’s caste (originally intended as a shorthand for profession) acted as the key factor in natural selection. Over centuries, upper castes evolved lighter in skin, whereas lower castes were darker. And this became self-fulfilling – fair become good and dark become evil. Gods were fair-skinned and demons dark & swarthy. Fair skin was pure, clear & blemish-less. Dark skin found new associations; vamp, siren & sultry.

In such a social context, the pressure on women to look fair is enormous, even unhealthy. The use of fairness creams sometimes starts as early as when a girl is eight! This is the cultural landscape that frames the Category.

Fair & Lovely from Unilever commands 70% of this huge market. Promising a magical transition from dark to fair, it pioneered and now owns the Category Essence of transformation. In a very contested category, the nearest competitor is one-tenth its scale!

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Essence is how you juice it

Tea in India has always been about more than just refreshment. Almost a food, it is brewed rather than boiled, and it is enjoyed strong, thick & sugary. Often ‘cooked’ with ginger or spices, tea is often about kicking you awake, not just refreshing you. Several big brands played around refreshment including Taaza & A1 from Unilever. But the leader Tata Tea’s launch around a positioning of ‘Jaago Re’ (Wake Up!) hit the spot on the Category Essence. They underlined this with a memorable campaign that exhorted Indians to wake up to range of social issues around them & urged to raise their collective voice to drive change.

Pepsi juiced the Category Essence nicely when they repositioned their mango drink, Slice. Realizing that a mango (Aam in Hindi) is the most special fruit to Indians and mining into a mother lode of mythology, they identified the Category Essence of the mango around ‘fruit pleasure’, not fruit goodness. They then took a creative leap, positioning Slice as Aam-Sutra, a suggestive take on the ancient Indian erotic text, the Kama Sutra. The resulting creative work has helped them create a very distinctive brand in a few years.

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Bottom Line

Category Essence offers a crucial lens that can inform a brand’s Big Idea. When identified with sensitivity & intuition, and when expressed in a bold & creative way, it can lend the relevant distinctiveness that is gold dust to brands today.