All creative work starts with category
One of the first questions my team and I ask our first-time author clients is this: “What kind of book is it?”
Rarely do they know the answer. They’ll say something like “a good one” or “one that will help everybody.”
But that doesn’t work. Readers don’t want to be one of many any more than authors do. We all want to be unique. We want to feel special. And we are. But all specialness begins with belonging: writers must first step into a space, some category or genre to which we would like to belong.
The reassuring news for creators is that truly inspiring art doesn’t stay in whatever category it begins. To paraphrase a quote attributed to Picasso, “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” This is how you stand out, how you create a perennial seller, how you launch a sincere blockbuster.
Why is this the case?
If you are competing with someone who already owns an idea in the marketplace, trying to beat them won’t work. Al Ries calls this The Law of the First in his book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.
The idea here is that if you are first in your category, you win. And if you can’t be first, you have to change the category. When a brand is first to market a product, it owns the category. For example, we call most facial tissue “Kleenex,” even if it’s a box of Puffs. We do the same thing with Q-tips. These are not products; they are brand names. But because those brands were first to market, they now own the category.
This is true in your space as well. Who was first? They likely own the lion’s share of the attention, and it’s going to be very difficult to shift the focus from them onto you. Don’t try. It’s a waste of energy. Rather, find a new category in which you can be first.
For example, who was the second person to fly a nonstop transatlantic flight from the US to Europe? If you ask a group of people, a decent number of them will know it was Charles Lindbergh. But the second? No one ever remembers second place. Why would you?
We actually do know who the second person was, and here’s where things get interesting. It was Amelia Earhart, who is arguably more famous than Charles Lindbergh.
But Amelia Earhart is not known as the second person to fly across the Atlantic in an airplane without stopping. She’s known as the first woman.
That’s what changing the category is all about
You and I already own a category called “our work” that nobody else can compete with. Last week, we called this your mixtape. The problem occurs when we fixate on other people’s categories, areas in which other people or organizations have already arrived in the first-place spot. We are never going to beat them. What we need to do is find a new category that we can dominate.
One way to do this is to take two categories that are quite different and combine them. Apple does this, creating well-engineered products that were also beautifully designed. You can do the same by finding two leading brands or groups of people in your industry, asking yourself what single thing they do well, and then combining those two things into something new and useful.
Hamlet, but with lions
This is true in literature and art as well. The same stories keep getting repeated over and over again, just with new spins. Did you know that The Lion King nearly didn’t get greenlit for production because the executives were skeptical? No one got it, and it wasn't approved until someone in the meeting said, “Wait, this is like Hamlet, but with lions.”
Hamlet. As in that four-hundred-year-old play by Shakespeare that has proven its relevance over and over again to new audiences. We know Hamlet works. But to just do another Hamlet is not interesting. It’s expected. Adding lions to the mix makes it unique, doesn’t it?
My challenge to you this week is to go forth and categorize yourself. Find out where you belong, get really clear on the boundaries of your space, and then get ready for next week…cause we’re about to blow the whole thing wide open. Scattergories, indeed.