To Create a New Category, Name the New Game.

[ CrossPost by  Andy Raskin, Strategic messaging & positioning ]

Brilliant category narratives evangelize a new discipline for winning—while positioning the old one as obsolete. 

In the 1990s, I ran the New York City Marathon three times. 

Each year, the night before the race, I would attend a carbo-load party at a popular running club. Joining hundreds of other runners, I would stuff my face with pasta in the hopes of not “hitting the wall” — running out of carbs to power my muscles across the finish line. 

The final year I ran the race, the club invited a celebrity running coach to be the dinner’s guest speaker. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget his message: 

“Not to ruin your meal,” he said, “but the best long-distance runners now know that the absolute worst thing you can do the night before a marathon is to carbo-load.” 

My fellow runners and I froze, spaghetti dangling from our mouths. Carbo-loading the night before a long race was orthodoxy. It was what you were supposed to do.

Yet, as the coach presented new data and science about athletic endurance, it became hard to dismiss what initially seemed like a radical point-of-view: 

Instead of loading your body with carbs, you should be training it to burn fat.

Much pasta went uneaten that night, and the coach signed many new clients. 

This Is How All Great Category Narratives Work 

Rather than starting with a description of his services, the coach attacked the status quo “game.” Then he evangelized a new one that his services helped clients play. 

In fact, every great category narrative follows this same, simple structure:

  1. Attack the old game—your audience’s orthodox, status quo approach to winning—by credibly showing how it’s now unwinnable.
  2. Name the new game that winners are already playing (and for which your is designed to confer advantage)

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Drift VP of Marketing Dave Gerhardt pitch a roomful of B2B execs. Just like the running coach, he started by by impugning the old game (what follows is not an exact quote, but close): 

“Now that we live in a world where buyers expect immediate responses through Slacking and texting, how come you’re marketing to them with forms that ask them to wait—often for days—for you to get back to them?”

Talk about ruining a meal: When Gerhardt showed the following slide, the CMO next to me dropped her bagel and said, “I just texted my VP of sales that the way we’re selling is obsolete.”

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Next, Gerhardt described the new game: making yourself available to customers for instant, authentic interactions. Of course, he also showed how Drift’s website chat app would help you play that game. 

Eventually, Drift dubbed the new game “conversational marketing”:

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What’s most interesting about Drift is that it was not first to market with a website chat app. There were already dozens of similar offerings when Drift launched. 

But Drift was first to market with a story putting chat apps in the context of a new game. Whereas competitors described themselves as “messaging” tools (which certainly described their functionality), Drift’s old game/new game story was about how those tools helped you execute on a new discipline for winning. It’s the key to Drift’s creation and leadership of a category that, not coincidentally, goes by the name of the new game: 

Old game: Forms marketing (delayed, inauthentic). New game: Conversational marketing (immediate, authentic).

Your Category *Is* the New Game

In The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen, I outlined the structure of a great pitch, starting with “naming the undeniable change in the world.”

A category narrative is nothing more than that first step. It’s not about your company or your product. It’s not about the problem your product solves (as if your product solves only one problem, but don’t get me started). And it’s not just any ol’ shift “from” one thing “to” another that you have a point-of-view about. 

Rather, it’s a new discipline for winning that makes your product a must-have

In other words, it’s the part of your strategic narrative that drives urgency. This declaration by Zuora, which I wrote about in the Greatest Sales Deck post, has powered the company from category creation through IPO: 

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Many have tried to emulate Zuora, but one way I’ve seen teams stumble is by not getting crystal clear about the old and new games. Zuora doesn’t just say #shifthappens; it defines the old and new games precisely

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Of course, in actual sales calls, Zuora talks about how its product—a subscription billing engine—is all about helping buyers win the new game. 

How Do You Tell People They’re Playing an Old Game — and Still Remain Likable?

The old game (carbo-loading, forms, ownership) is really today’s game, at least for mainstream buyers. In other words, a new category story requires you to tell the bulk of your addressable market that they’re “doing it wrong.”

How do you do that without making them hate you? How do you, as that running coach put it, not “ruin the meal?” 

By sharing your own journey from old game to new game. The running coach, for example, admitted to having been an avid carbo-loader, until he learned more about how the body stores and burns energy. 

Recently I watched CEO Amit Bendov launch a new category by doing the same thing. First, Bendov declared to his audience—mostly sales professionals—that the era of sales teams making decisions based on opinions was over (he even borrowed Zuora’s goodbye/hello construction):

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But Bendov didn’t just point the finger. He shared that he had once been an exec at a fast-growing tech company where sales suddenly tanked. Looking for reasons why, he found nothing but opinions. After all, he said, CRMs like Salesforce rely on salespeople to fill out forms like this one to record why deals are lost (“I wasn’t in the zone” is my personal fave):

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Next, Bendov talked about what had changed such that running a sales team based on opinions was now a road to ruin (more competition, more demanding customers, etc.) and, critically, why a “reality” view of sales was suddenly possible: 

“If AI can diagnose cancer better than doctors, why can’t AI understand [sales] reality better than a salesperson?”

Bendov went on to show how Gong’s product arms sales leaders with insights gleaned through machine analysis of sales calls—basically, that it’s designed from the ground up to deliver that reality view. He nicknamed the new game, and the category Gong wants to create and lead, “revenue intelligence.”

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The New Game Is Also the Secret to Engaging Multiple Personas

Naming the new game is also the key to overcoming one of category creation’s biggest hurdles: How do you make your story relevant for multiple target audiences?

For the answer, check out this by Vidya Murthy, VP of operations at MedCrypt, which helps medical device companies build into their products. Murthy started by naming the old game — what Medcrypt calls “reactive security” — in which device makers could win simply by reacting when hospitals or end users reported security issues:

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But, she quickly pointed out, in a world where medical have gotten incredibly sophisticated, buyers can no longer accept that: 

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Thus, the new game—today, medical device buyers demand products that proactively keep their own security up to date and assist in resolving breaches:

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Then, to make her pitch relevant to an audience that included not only C-level execs, but also VPs of product, security folks, and legal/regulatory personnel, Murthy summed up how the new game impacts each of their roles: 

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I’ve learned that a slide like this can be gold for sales discovery— for getting various personas to open up in early conversations about what’s happening for them, and about where they might want help. 

The 3 Qualities of an Effective Category Narrative 

OK, so how do you go about defining the old and new games? Here are a few principles I’ve gleaned working with dozens of leadership teams on this, from early stage startups through public tech companies: 

  1. The old game used to be a winning game. You’re not saying people were always wrong to play the old game. They’re only wrong now because something in the world has changed — there’s new knowledge, new , or new things buyers want. Basically, the old game can’t sound dumb on the face of it (“Goodbye, bad decisions!”).
  2. Winners are already playing the new game. The new game can’t just be something you dreamed up. To drive buyer urgency, you must show that winners are already playing it. Often that means citing winners with more resources than your target buyers (early on, Zuora held up Uber and Netflix as usership winners) or pointing to winners in other domains (the way Gong’s Bendov did with AI’s impact on cancer detection). 
  3. Helping customers win the new game is why your company and its products exist. A category narrative is worthless unless it’s the driving force behind your company, its culture, and its products. When you talk about product, in particular, talk about it solely in the context of how it helps people win the new game. (Yes, helping them win the new game is your mission.) 

Ultimately, Evangelizing the New Game Creates Differentiation and Loyalty

Rattling off the reasons your product is “best in class”at solving some problem—even for a well-defined segment—is a poor differentiation strategy for a few reasons, not least of which is that it comes off as bragging and self-centered. Instead, buyers want a story about themselves, that helps them make sense of their changing world and helps them thrive in it.

A cursory Internet search reveals that, decades later, the carbo-load debate (good? bad?) rages on. I’m no longer willing to risk my knees, but if I were to run this year’s NYC Marathon, I would follow that coach’s advice. I would slow down in training, and eat some cheese before heading to the start. 

Because once someone buys into your new game, it becomes their orthodoxy. They become fiercely loyal to it as an organizing principle for how they act in the world. 

Until someone shows up with another story about an even newer game. That’s inevitable, of course, but hopefully it doesn’t happen until you’ve gotten very successful helping customers win at what will suddenly become an old game.

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