Knowledge Bank Blog, Category Strategy, Range & Portfolio, Shopper Communication

Reinventing Categories

What comes into your mind when you think of a circus?

Sawdust, benches, a big tent? Clowns, lion tamers, trapeze artists, tightrope walkers? Maybe a flamboyant ringmaster?

That is essentially what a circus was from when the concept was first introduced in the 1770s through to the 1980s.

That was until a new concept of the circus came along.

One that did away with sawdust and benches but retained the iconic tent. One that did away with all the unrelated acts for one storyline. One that did away with jeopardy (what will the lion do…?) but kept the thrills through artistic flair and intellectual wonder.

This new kind of circus was called Cirque du Soleil. From their initial performance in Quebec in 1984 it has developed into one of the world’s most famous live spectacles.

Their productions have been seen by over 180 million people in over 400 cities in over 60 countries. They currently have 5 residencies in Vegas.

They took the best of the circus and combined it with the best of theatre to create a set of spectacular shows.

They have delivered on the name of one of their first productions “We Reinvent the Circus”.

Why are we talking about this? Many FMCG categories face the challenge of reinvention.

Reinvention of what they sell. Tea is about much more than bags of builders’ tea. Bakery is about much more than sliced prepacked bread. Reinvention of where they sell. Think the growth of the value channel. Think the emergence of fast delivery services. Reinvention of how they sell. Think the HFSS rules that are about to hit many categories. Think sustainability.

These things are all important. But we think underpinning all these things is the need to reinvent the role a category plays.

Cirque du Soleil didn’t just make a few tweaks to the circus they fundamentally changed its role.

We think there a few categories that we can learn from.

Learning from Mixers. Mixers is a great example of a secondary product elevating its importance to become nearly as (sometimes more…) important than the primary product – spirits. A challenger brand, Fever Tree, made it happen. They are now the lead brand in the category.

They triggered this reinvention by reframing how consumers should think about the mixer “if ¾ of your gin & tonic is the tonic make sure you use the best”. Then delivered a range of well-crafted tonics supported by pairing guides to match the right tonic to the right gin (they are now doing this with sodas & other spirits).

From a category where you didn’t care much about which tonic you had. To one where you actively chose which tonic you prefer. To one where you sometimes choose the tonic first and then decide on the gin. The reinvention is complete.

Learning from Beer. Until fairly recently the in-home beer market was about selling big cases of beer on deal. Brands competed for share. Retailer used it to pull shoppers into store. Fosters on deal this week. Carling next week. Carlsberg the week after. What does it taste like? It doesn’t really matter, it’s cheap.

But then craft came along. It said maybe we should all care more about taste. Maybe we don’t sell big cases of beer. Maybe we don’t promote so often, so deep. Maybe we do tasting notes. Pairings. Maybe we can sell this at £2 or £2.50 or even £3+ a can. Craft is now a big part of the category. Shoppers are happy to pay those prices. The category has changed course. From a race to the bottom to a race to the top.

Learning from Feminine Care. From beer to feminine care. That’s a bit of a pivot, right? This used to be a category that wasn’t talked about much. One that had many taboos attached to it. But this is changing.

The leading feminine care brands are talking more openly (maybe too openly for some…) about women’s lives and needs. From a category that focused on problems to one that is focused on solutions. That is offering different solutions – see the move towards reusable underwear. That is intent on breaking taboos.

The bladder weakness category is on a similar journey for both women and men. We’ll know that journey is complete when a group of men are in their local, sharing an expensive craft beer, comparing notes on the new TENA shield.

Learning from Frozen. Frozen was always the poor relation to fresh. Shoppers used a simple rule of thumb. Fresh is fresher. Why? Err… because it’s fresh. But the frozen category has challenged this perception.

You had the Birds Eye “freshness locked in fast” communication. A leading brand driving a wider category campaign to challenge perceptions. You have M&S using a “locked in goodness” message on their freezer cabinets. You have Aldi using a “picked at their peak” message on their frozen vegetables cabinet. The category has given a very simple and compelling answer to the question “why buy frozen?” Because it’s fresher than fresh.

Your category will always be your category. But where a category is now is not where it always will be or always should be.

Cirque du Soleil is still a circus. Just a different kind of circus.

Feel free to forward. Have good weekend. Speak to you in a fortnight.