We’re going to own the bedroom. We’re going to own travel. We’re going to own [insert object, place, activity or any other noun you can think of.]

The idea of owning a category is not new—there have always been market leaders and those who desire to become them—but the leaders and brands who have defined the last decade of brand building gravitate to the term even more, second only to “disrupt,” the younger sister to “own.”

“Owning” a category is mostly a theoretical idea, divorced from actual market share statistics, which are usually estimated anyways. But what does it really mean?

  1. Does owning a category mean a single company has more than 50% of the market share? Uber owns well beyond 50% of the rideshare market in the U.S.
  2. Does it mean that it has more than any competitor? Kleenex had 47% of the facial tissue market in 2011, with Puffs in second place with nearly 25%. Apple has over 40% of the smartphone market but less than 50%.
  3. Or is it more of a nebulous idea that a company is the category leader even if it actually isn’t? Apple makes the best computers by many measures but owns less than 10% of the global computer market.

When it comes to modern brands born during and slightly before the 2010s, the third definition gets used the most. But it is highly misleading. Harry’s has less than 3% of the razor market. Warby Parker has around 1% of the eyewear market. Casper has less than 4% of the mattress market. Away’s revenue is one-tenth of Samsonite’s.

Have these brands made a dent in legacy brands’ business and sucked up an immense amount of attention and publicity as a result? Absolutely. But they have also warped the definition of what “owning” a category means, the amount of time it takes to accomplish such a bold claim, and the amount of capital it takes to get there. This insight also challenges how far PR itself can take a brand—sales still matter more than impressions.

The idea of “owning” a category should not be the main goal. Building a sustainable business should be the first priority, and leading or dominating a category should come after that. A brand could be a category leader today, but without sound fundamentals, there is no guarantee it will be one tomorrow.