As a manager in a company which has been successfully developing a commercial platform with its major customers, using category-based propositions, I read your article on category management (MW February 1) with a curious mixture of thoughts, ranging from “totally agree” to “what nonsense”. Ultimately my concerns centred around the fact that the concept whose demise was being forecast bore virtually no resemblance to the category development work being conducted by successful suppliers and their customers.
Anybody who still believes in a template-led approach to category management solutions is deluded – templates have a role to play but not a central one. Indeed, the initial category management programme I worked on at Unilever with Glendinning in 1991 (some four to five years before the trans-Atlantic migration of the category management process described in the article), contained no such templates, but instead focused on what still applies for consumer goods suppliers today. That is, defining a vision of the category, based upon real consumer insight, which then sets the context for the development of that over the next five years. This is a methodology which enlists the full and active participation of consumer marketing.
The template approach often misses marketing’s critical role within a category development framework – the consumer marketers’ category vision, followed up by relevant new product development and supported by strong consumer communication plays a greater part within category development than a template approach ever can. What the template approach undeniably does provide is a thorough understanding of how a category is performing and why. However, the data is retrospective and commonly available. The strength of the analysis and the strategies which result from it is therefore dependent upon the skills of the retailer/supplier team. The outputs from this approach are likely to be ones which a strong supplier’s customer marketing team can initiate and manage with a retailer: range, promotional strategy, merchandising, etc. These are all fine as far as they go but between them they cannot deliver a complete category development mix.
To get a real platform for category development, a vision-led approach must be coupled to a less time-consuming and more targeted version of the template method.
Finally there is the implementation of the category management plan. Successful implementation relies on point of purchase reflecting the learning, understanding and insight in a clear and unequivocal fashion. Without effective implementation by both retailer and manufacturer nothing is going to happen. Any process that doesn’t effect significant change at the point of purchase is only ever likely to produce the lacklustre results described.
If the category management process you describe is in terminal decline then good riddance. Anything that took the focus away from the consumer was not delivering real value in the first place.
Customer marketing controller