Breaking Down the Importance of the Exemplar Brand

Make building the subcategory the priority. The brand is just the vehicle for doing so.

A fourth big idea in the book Owning Game-Changing Subcategories is the concept and role of the exemplar brand in subcategory creation and management. To own a game-changing subcategory, a major task is to become its exemplar brand. An exemplar brand is the brand that represents the subcategory and becomes its most visible and credible brand option.

The Role of an Exemplar Brand

The exemplar brand has the power and authority to build the subcategory into a market winner. It has several jobs, which include:

  • To develop and evolve “must-haves” that will frame the way people view and evaluate the subcategory
  • To create visibility and credibility for the subcategory and use the “must-haves” to position it in the marketplace
  • To nurture the growth of a core customer base committed to the “must-haves” and the subcategory
  • To build barriers to competitors so that they will struggle to be relevant

In addition to building the subcategory, the exemplar brand will simultaneously be making the exemplary brand the most relevant subcategory brand. But it should be recognized that building the brand is a secondary byproduct of the effort to build the subcategory, which should be the priority. The brand is the vehicle to build the subcategory.

“Building the brand is a secondary byproduct of the effort to build the subcategory, which should be the priority.”

How to Become the Exemplar

So, how do you become the exemplar brand?  It really depends on the context. Every subcategory story is different, but there are four guidelines that have proven successful.

Act Like One

First, to become an exemplar brand, act like one out of the gate.  Promote the “must-haves” of your brand and use them to frame the conversation.  Be the subcategory innovator and thought leader.  Build subcategory loyalty.  Do not sound like a “my brand is better than your brand” marketer.  Rather, sound like you are introducing a game-changer, a new experience or relationship.

Successful exemplar brands like Warby Parker, Uniqlo and Tesla did exactly that. They made visible and credible “must-haves,” and created a core customer group that not only valued them but also talked about them to friends and family.

Scale, Scale, Scale

Second, scale as fast as possible even if that means taking financial risks. Aggressive scaling will create buzz and, more importantly, will build the core customer base that will support the initial growth platform and inhibit potential competitors.  It is critical for the “must-haves” to get established.  That might mean taking risks, overinvesting in “must-have” creation, refinement and promotion. It is not important, or even common, for an exemplar brand to be the first brand in the subcategory. It just needs to be the first to get it right and have the commitment, talent and means to scale aggressively.

Game-changing subcategories often can and should start as a crude test product. Airbnb started with two guys with air mattresses wanting to make some extra money to pay the rent. They were able to expand and refine their “must-haves” ahead of competitors.

Brand the “Must-Haves”

Third, brand the “must-haves” or the subcategory itself. For example, Uniqlo’s innovative fabrics have “must-have” brands like HeatTech, AIRism, and LifeWear. Airbnb branded its guest experience program “Airbnb Experience.” The success and power of Amazon is due in part to its branded “must-haves,” such as 1-Click and Prime. A brand signals that the innovation is worth a brand of its own. It also signals that the organization will support it and branding makes the communication task easier. That is what a brand does.

The subcategory itself could be branded as in the case of Asahi Super Dry, Dannon’s Light & Fit or Burton’s Snowboard (far better than Snurfer, its predecessor). 

Build and Enhance Barriers

Fourth, keep building and enhancing barriers.  Become a moving target.  Don’t allow competitors’ openings to become relevant.  Look to Amazon as a role model.  In particular:

  • Reinforce and enhance existing barriers. Improve them. Make them visible.  Energize them.
  • Add new “must-haves” over time to make the subcategory dynamic.
  • Create barriers involving “beyond functional” relationships like personality, values or higher purpose programs that connect with consumers and are hard to duplicate.
  • Own the “must-haves” by branding them and then actively manage and support those brands.
  • Play defense by delivering on the promise every time. Don’t give a competitor a route to relevance because customers have become less satisfied or even annoyed with some aspect of the promise delivery.

The e-book version of Owning Game-Changing Subcategories is now available. The book will be available in early April. 


Exemplar brands are powerful game changers and the source of uncommon growth. By developing “must have” features, they can change the way consumers consider their purchases. And because they are new, they attract attention and build credibility.