Why Category Creation is a Long Game, Played with Creativity

Threshold Ventures
Dec 17, 2020 · 4 min read

By Carol Wentworth, Threshold Ventures

Front CMO Anthony Kennada wrote the book on category creation

“There are a lot of great folks talking about category creation, but what I found is that there wasn’t an operator’s manual for how to do it,” says Anthony Kennada, chief marketing officer for Front, the customer communication platform. As Kennada explained during our recent webinar on category creation, he actually did write a 2019 book on the subject: Category Creation: How to Build a Brand that Customers, Employees, and Investors Will Love based on his work as the chief marketing officer at Gainsight. Kennada shared his experiences building brands that are seen as more than products — they’re champions and supporters of the users they serve.

To get to the heart of category creation and brand-building, Kennada likes to quote Aaron Levie, the co-founder and CEO of Box, where Kennada started his career.

“Aaron said that our job as marketers and founders is to build a company that pays attention to customers no one’s paying attention to, so they can feel like, ‘That brand cares about what I’m going through,’” Kennada says. “I think that is both inspiring and is also an opportunity to leverage that idea for a business.”

At Gainsight, which was called JBara Software when Kennada joined in 2013, the challenge was just that: create a new category focused on customer success and help it break out to a recognizable brand with loyal fans. “We were at this fork in the road,” Kennada recalls. “We could go to Forrester or Gartner and try to take a challenger position against Zendesk or Salesforce. Or we could follow our conviction and figure out a way to make these people feel like heroes.”

At a time when the “customer success manager” was just becoming a thing, Kennada and his colleagues brainstormed “Pulse,” a customer event that celebrated people instead of products. “And we developed local chapters of what we called ‘Pulse Local,’ for people who cared about customer success and growing their career,” Kennada says.

“Our job wasn’t to sell software — it was to be the connector that got people together.”

The connections became the category creation for JBara, now Gainsight, which continues to attract thousands of customer success professionals to in-person and online events. The company has even experimented with lighthearted brand-building events, like a “Carpool Karaoke” series in which Gainsight CEO Nick Mehta drives around with other CEOs to sing ABBA and Backstreet Boys songs, badly.

It’s one thing coming up with cool ideas like events celebrating customers or some off-key CEOs — how do you convince board members or fellow executives that they’re a good use of budget and time? Brand is a long game, Kannada says, so whatever you’re creating — whether it’s blog posts or “Carpool Karaoke” — may not pay off for a couple of years. But he firmly believes that when category-creation efforts start to yield benefits, the tail can be long.

“These things can pay off in a meaningful way,” Kennada says. “There’s a six-year-old blog post at Gainsight called The Power of the Quarterly Business Review. It drives 5 percent of Gainsight’s traffic today.

Ultimately, if you’re creating content that is really hitting on a pain point that people have, you can drive quite a bit of value back to the business.

There’s a line I like to use with my CEO: ‘Brand may not help us hit the number this quarter, but it’ll help us double our valuation next year.”

And in case you’re wondering what Gainsight is up to now, in November, Gainsight was acquired by Vista for $1.1 billion.

Kennada brought the same philosophy to Front, which offers shared email inboxes for more responsive customer service. “Being a shared inbox leader wasn’t going to help us scale users,” Kennada says. “We had to articulate why we’re in this business, and the change we want to see in this world.”

The company’s story eventually hinged on people wanting to make an impact during their work-day. “We started talking about Front as the place where teams and customers meet,” Kennada says. “We called it ‘the heart of the business.’”

The “heart of the business” message now finds its way into all kinds of content — from messaging, to podcasts. “Now, if you ask, ‘What is Front?’ we explain that we transform day-to-day work into making an impact by meaningfully connecting our teams and customers,” Kennada says. “That’s a lot more than email. It’s living at the intersection of major multi-billion-dollar markets, between email, collaboration, and help desks.”

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