BY KARTHIGA RATNAM
With great power comes great responsibility — Stan Lee
I love watching superhero movies. When I watched Spiderman 2002, the phrase that stuck with me was Uncle Ben’s quote — “with great power comes great responsibility.” Doing a bit of Googling I found out this quote is also called the “Peter Parker Principle”.
I also love category design. I love understanding how category leaders are created and sustained. Goes without saying I’m a huge Christopher Lochhead fan. I love category design because fundamentally category creators see the world differently. They see the future and create categories for that future.
Humanity is facing an existential crisis. The climate emergency and the problems that go with it threaten the planet that we call home. The world needs a whole lotta different. The world needs category creators.
Category creation in extremely simplistic terms centers on the “magic triangle”. In the Play Bigger book, the authors detail the three elements that make up the triangle — Category Design, Product Design, and Company Design. Companies such as Google, Netflix, Apple, Facebook are all category creators and leaders.
They saw the future differently and created categories for that future. Google search has forever changed how we get our information and data. The iPhone has changed how we interact with one and another. Facebook has changed how we stay connected and do business. Netflix has changed entertainment. These companies have forever changed human relationships.
That’s a great thing. If you sense a but coming, then you are spot on. But…
As category creators and leaders these companies have also amassed power.
⁃ Facebook has 2.7 billion users. If that was a country, it would be bigger than China!
⁃ Apple is worth over $2 trillion
⁃ Alphabet (Google’s parent company) is worth over $1 trillion
⁃ The average user spends 2 hours a day watching Netflix. That’s 60 hrs a month and 720 hrs a year. That’s 30 days a year!
With this power comes even greater responsibility. The thing about creation is you are ultimately responsible for how your creations are being used — the good and the bad.
This is why I propose that we apply the Peter Parker Principle to category creation. A 4th element to the category design triangle — called “Impact Design”.
The category design triangle much like constitutions need to have checks and balances. Category designers and entrepreneurs need to balance power and responsibility.
What impact will this category have on the environment, society, or communities? Granted none of us knew at the beginning that Facebook will have such a profound impact on the very fabric of our society. But that’s where impact design needs to play a much bigger role. Impact design needs to be the moral compass of the category. And marketers are the gatekeepers.
At the heart of impact design for category creation is the idea that categories shouldn’t be functional; they should be behavioral/principled/ conscientious.
smartphone — functional
In Facebook’s little red book, they said that Facebook wasn’t originally meant to be a company. It was built for a social mission to make the world more open and connected. The category should have been a reflection of that. The impact design should be a reflection of that. The category name shouldn’t be a reflection of what it does but a reflection of what it stands for, what impact it hopes to have on humanity.
The moment you make something functional it becomes a commodity. But categories are ecosystems that are living, breathing, and constantly evolving. Ecosystems are founded/based on a set of shared values. Steve Jobs co-created Apple and challenged us all to think differently. He is no longer with us but the category he created lives on.
Here I am reminded of Ben Franklin — a republic, if you can keep it, he said. Just like countries we are all responsible for holding category leaders accountable for their actions. The problem with accountability and responsibility is unless it’s defined at the outset it is extremely difficult to roll back.
This is why I’m proposing adding the 4th element to the category triangle from the outset. At this point in humanity, we need entrepreneurs to think differently, we also need them to be responsible. We need them to understand the impact their categories are going to have on the planet for generations to come. We need to apply the Peter Parker Principle. We need the 4th element of category creation.