Beware the "Selling Category" Trap

“ won’t find the brand manager at Ford or Chevrolet
approving advertising that encourages you to ‘buy a new car.”

by Michael Cooney

Most mornings, as I’m getting ready for the day, I listen to the radio. Besides enjoying music, it gives me an opportunity to listen to a few dozen radio spots (commercials) and judge them for effectiveness. Among the many common mistakes I hear, one of the most costly is when advertisers fall into the trap of “selling category.”

This problem crops up in all forms of advertising, not only radio. Although a common mistake, it’s one you must avoid if your advertising is to make a profit.

What is “selling category?” To illustrate, I’ll give you some real life examples. First, to set the stage, I’ll point out the one question every ad, brochure, spot or commercial you write should answer: Why should I do business with you instead of with your competitor? If you’re not focused on that, you may be falling into the “selling category” trap.

Examples of “Selling Category”

Now for some examples from recent radio spots: One reminds us that a dirty air filter can cause your car’s gasoline mileage to drop by up to 20 percent. Therefore, you should make sure you change your air filter regularly. (By the way, your car’s manual will tell you how often).

Well, we can thank Allied-Signal Inc. (Fram filters), for the reminder. Now let’s all go to our local auto parts store to get a filter. What would we find? We would see Fram, and Purolator, and AC, and Motorcraft, and K&N, plus one or two more brands. Some consumers will buy on price, some on brand loyalty, some by reading labels, and some (unfortunately) by the color of the packaging.

Now, do Fram filters have more pleats than the others? Does it use a finer filtering element and thus filter out smaller particles? Is it better in some way? From their radio spot, you can’t tell. Allied-Signal didn’t explain why we should buy Fram, instead of another brand. All the spot did was sell category—in this case, telling us why we should buy air filters.

Another example: Jiffy Lube reminds us to change our oil every 3,000 miles -- failure to do so might lead to problems down the line. But why choose Jiffy Lube instead of the other “quick change” shops, or my local gas station? What are they selling? Category -- in this case, oil changes.

One more: Auto Zone, an auto parts retail chain, recommends that we perform preventive maintenance and change our car’s battery every three years. Their point -- hot summer weather can shorten the life of your battery, and you sure don’t want to become stranded somewhere with a dead battery.

(Side note: is this good advice? Most batteries last five years or more, and if you buy a new battery before your old one quits, you won’t get the benefit of your present battery’s pro-rated warranty.)

Again, the Auto Zone spot sold category -- replacement batteries. As with the others highlighted here, no compelling reason was given as to why you should favor them instead of all the other auto parts stores around town.

What Market Dominators Do

In contrast to the above examples, you won’t find the brand manager at Ford or Chevrolet approving advertising that encourages you to “buy a new car.” That’s merely selling category. You also won’t find L’Oreal or Max Factor running ads urging you to “buy makeup.” No, these companies want to make sure you buy products from them instead of from their competitors. Otherwise, why advertise?

There is one exception to the rule, although still not a good enough reason in my opinion. If you own over 50 percent market share, then you may still gain by “selling category.” A few years back, Campbell’s ran commercials extolling the benefits of eating soup. Campbell’s, with over 50 percent market share, can gain from that because it knows that the majority of people responding to the idea and stocking up on soup are going to buy Campbell’s products.

On the other hand, Campbell’s wouldn’t dare run the same commercials in Great Britain, because it is a lesser player there compared to Heinz. If Campbell’s ran the same “category” ad in Great Britain, it would mostly add to the sale of Heinz soups -- not exactly Campbell’s goal.

If you own over 50 percent market share, you may get away with “selling category.” Otherwise, forget category and simply tell your target market the best reasons you can why they should favor you with their business. That is always the strongest foundation upon which to build your ad campaigns.