Breaking Free of the Category Construct

Consumers don’t speak category. You wouldn’t ask a colleague “For lunch today - do you feel like fast casual or quick serve?”  You’d say “Do you want to go to Chipotle or Taco Bell?”

Categories are a construct of industry and those who analyze it. They are an attempt to create an organizing framework around the things people buy so we can watch, measure and track them.  That’s how business thinks and how companies go to market.  But that’s not really how people think.

In every day consumer life, categories are becoming increasingly blurred. This is especially true in the retail channel. Is Wal-Mart a clothing store or a grocery store? Is Whole Foods a grocery store or a restaurant? Why do you think travelers like renting cars from National’s “Emerald Aisle?” Because, rather than specifying a mid-size or a full-size (what does that mean!?), they just walk down the aisle and pick the car that looks best at that moment.

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There is a lesson here for packaging innovation and design.

In the packaging world, we tend to fall into the category trap. The first thing many package designers do when starting a new project is look at the existing products on the shelf… within the SAME category.  That’s a fine starting place, but stands only to yield incremental improvement based on the existing category language.  

At MeadWestVaco (MWV), we develop packaging solutions for many categories including beverage, food, home, garden, health and beauty. Rather than approach each space independently, we work to leverage the diversity of our end markets. We include healthcare packaging experts in the creative development for home and garden innovations, and we tap beverage designers to consult on retail solutions for beauty and personal care.  

We recognize that breaking category boundaries is where innovation lies. This is especially true as we recognize universal human needs and wants.

Why does this “cross-category” approach work? When you look across categories, you begin to see patterns of opportunity.  Example:  Adherence is not just for healthcare anymore.  Humans benefit from sticking with maintenance regimens related to food, hair, gardening, and beyond.   Our adherence expertise in healthcare can help us develop better packaging for other categories. Using consumer insights related to adherence, we can work to understand the links that drive certain behaviors irrespective of product. The same is true for child resistance, metered dosing and numerous other consumer needs.   

There’s a reason categories were created in the first place; they can be helpful to a point. A category provides a comparative foundation for judging a new design or idea once that idea exists.  But to generate better ideas, start by looking outside.

About Tracy Doherty

Tracy Doherty is the senior director of strategic design at MWV, the brand behind the brands you know. The global packaging company helps shape consumers' experiences with products in healthcare, beauty & personal care, food, beverage, tobacco and home & garden markets.