New Category Scorches Competitors In A Fire Suppression Industry

New Category Scorches Competitors in a Fire Suppression Industry

Developing a new category for an innovative product allowed our client to shift the marketing conversation to focus on their industry-changing fire suppression technology.

Services | Strategy, Messaging, Creative Communications


Business insurers know that when commercial buildings burn, water can often cause more damage than the fire itself. The reason, of course, is that most buildings come equipped with sprinkler systems. When fire erupts, sprinklers kick in. They douse the flames, meaning commercial buildings rarely burn to the ground, but there’s a catch. Water spouting from fire-triggered sprinklers can create untold havoc – drenching and destroying furnishings, equipment and infrastructure like computers and data storage containing priceless customer and financial records. Who knew life-saving water could cause so much destruction? I’ll tell you who: our client.

How so? They invented and marketed a system that puts out fire without liquid of any kind. Their product should have been #1 in their category, right? Wrong. At least until 5MetaCom invented something else for them: a new category for their product that left their rival outside, looking in.

Our client launched their new technology into an old category: “fire suppression.” It was a commonly used category name for products that put out fires in commercial buildings – and it included scores of water-based products and systems along with new, more revolutionary products. It wasn’t the right fit for our client.

Marketing-wise, the category proved even worse than could have been imagined. You see, building owners mostly saw water as a good thing that put out fires, protected buildings and saved lives. (All true, by the way.) More than that, in the world of commercial buildings, water had become the accepted paradigm. For architects, engineers, construction companies and building owners, fire suppression meant sprinklers and water.

On the other side was our client saying, “Not so fast…use our product instead of water.” But this “our product is better than theirs” messaging didn’t resonate. It highlighted a difference (non-water), but lacked relevance, because non-water didn’t fit the paradigm. This made it hard to gain attention and even harder to get considered. The tide worked against the non-water solution and remained this way until our client brought 5MetaCom on board.

The Work

Starting out, we had a couple of hunches: 1) their obstacles centered on a lack of relevant differentiation and 2) the category could be a big part of the solution.

After a series of discovery research interviews, that second notion proved out. No doubt, the product was different. But anchored in a category with water, we were drowning in competition and irrelevance.

So, we asked, what if…?

What if we weren’t lumped in with water? What if we created a different category? And what if the new category plainly pointed out our difference and hinted at the problems caused by putting out fire with water? What if we turned the marketing fight from a clash of products into a battle of categories: water vs. non-water? Would people pay attention? The answer: yes.

Here’s what we did. Step one: created a new category. Step two: focused our client’s marketing on the differences between two very different categories. And the new category we created – “Waterless Fire Protection” – entered the fray vs. water. Step 3: built a series of marketing tactics to help equip the sales force in belly-to-belly discussions and provide air cover communications in the marketplace.

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As they say, “less is more.” That one word – waterless – turned the tide. It changed the conversation; it transformed stale product pitches into deep dialogues about category differences and utility. Salespeople opened conversations talking about categories with words like this: “I’m here to talk about the fire protection for your buildings and the differences between sprinklers and waterless fire protection.”

Reactions from prospects tended to go something like this: “Wait a minute…we use sprinklers.” (Relevance.) And “How can you put out fires without water? What’s wrong with water?” (Differentiation.)

That one word – waterless – served double duty, making us relevant while spotlighting our difference. It implied problems with “the other guy.” And it opened the door to discussions on the merits, utility, pros and cons of water vs. waterless. Sales conversations evolved naturally into dialogue about the ins and outs of our product line, installation procedures and economics. As is often the case, prospects in this market welcomed an exchange of ideas and opinions on a new and different category (vs. a “product pitch”).

Did our client make every sale? Of course not. But did the game change? Yes. And in the end, our client became #1 – a happy ending, at least until their patent ran out.