Micro-Dictionaries and Self-Categorization

Successful undertakings have one thing in common: micro-dictionaries. Self-categorize your business by creating a micro-dictionary

History is written defined by the victors. And so are ideas.

Take the example of Article Group, a San Francisco-based product marketing agency. With their website decorated with the logos of Google, General Electric, and Amazon, they certainly have the patina of “victors”, at least in the world of creative agencies where big-name brands matter.

So it didn’t surprise me the other day that they made definitions the centerpiece of their newsletter article. 

Not only did they make definitions, but they also put them together, intentionally or not, into a micro-dictionary.

In consulting, we are instructed to reframe, reframe, reframe. Reframe the question, as in actually re-word it, get approval for how you have reworded it, then answer it. This is reframing.

By publishing a micro-dictionary of brand personality, Article Group is preemptively reframing this and related concepts. I’ll come back to this later in this article.

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There’s a similar principle at work if you have ever learned:

  • a programming language
  • a framework built on top of a programming language
  • an application platform built on top of either or both 

Each of these three layers will have its own micro-dictionary consisting of a vocabulary that you must learn and absorb. In other words, you must learn not just the literal definitions of programming terms but absorb the thinking behind them; understand how they relate and are meant to be used in conjunction with the other terms that comprise the vocabulary.

Take the web application platform Drupal, which is built on top of the PHP programming language and the Symfony framework. In Drupal, you have to learn the definitions of some 200 terms to build applications. Node, module, hook, theme, etc.

Those words all have other meanings, both in the standard dictionary and in other contexts, in other frameworks. But in the Drupal world at least, they are objective and unchanging (in theory).

But the Drupal world has also created many subjective terms. These aren’t used to write code but to define what Drupal is to the world. They are equally important to Drupal’s survival. These terms talk about Drupal’s:

  • technical architecture
  • code/infrastructure management
  • core competencies from a business perspective
  • organizing principles and values as a community of people

They explain how it works to newcomers who want to become Drupal developers or (in theory) product designers, or why a patron business or institution should decide to invest millions of dollars in an un-ownable open source project. Or simply why you should hire a Drupal agency to build your presumably complex website or web application.

An example of such a term is “Community Open Source”, which refers to a subcategory of open-source, where a large (and presumably diverse and widely geo-dispersed) group of people collectively create a product. This is meant to differentiate from what you might call, Sponsored Open Source, where a single individual or company drives the project (eg. Linus Torvalds for Linux, or Automattic for WordPress). In the latter case, random-person-from-random-country can contribute, and sometimes they do, but they’re not shaping the direction of the product or coming anywhere close to contributing the majority of its codebase.

As a side note, most Community Open Source projects ultimately become Sponsored Open Source over time – and Drupal is no exception. Which makes for some riveting and sometimes hilarious forum threads.

But Drupal still tries to define itself.

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Drupal now self-categorizes as a “Digital Experience Platform (DXP)”. This is partly because it’s possible and even convenient to use Drupal to build any type of software, not just web applications.

Self-categorization is the creation of a new category of business that applies only to your own brand. This can be either an industry category, a capability/expertise category, or an audience category.

Self-categorization is both a brand identity exercise and a positioning effort. Its meant to influence how your audience thinks about your brand by preventing comparisons to competing brands in more generic categories.

It’s also meant to highlight a special trait, especially a special capability. As such, a self-categorization often becomes a brand’s de facto tagline.

The Digital Experience Platform

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Back to Article Group’s micro-dictionary, which you might call the Article Group Micro-Dictionary of Brand Personality.

FWIW, the 4-term dictionary is as follows (these are Article Group’s definitions, not mine):


Article Group Micro-Dictionary of Brand Personality

Brand personality. Every brand has a personality. And that this personality has its own anatomy. The key traits of that personality are voice, tone, and style. Properly defined and combined, these brand personality traits (a) collectively represent a product and (b) allows for flexibility in how the brand is presented to it audiences.

Voice is the rock-solid constant in the personality profile. It expresses the core traits of the product in language. Wherever the product speaks up — in display ads, thought leadership pieces, videos, shopping guides, social media and more — the well-defined voice is clear.

Tone is the sum of the ways a brand expresses itself to fit specific media and applications. [Sidenote: Maybe this definition needs work because right now it seems the same as their definition of style; another possibility – I have misunderstood what they meant]

Style is grammar, capitalization, formatting and other mechanics suited to given uses cases. With style, flexibility is important. A person doesn’t write a tweet the same way they write an email to a friend, and neither should a product. But no matter the platform, the voice must remain true to the product.


This is a great little dictionary and probably forms a subset of the larger dictionary that exists in the minds, writings, and conversations of Article Group. Part of the reason I wanted to share it with you is that it’s doable. 

A good place to start might be to follow Drupal’s example and self-categorize. For some of you, this will be incredibly easy, others not so much.

But even if naming the subcategory is easy, defining it might be hard. That’s where your micro-dictionary comes in. It might help answer those, “Ok and what does that mean” questions that are so common in our increasingly fractured economy of millions and millions of micro-specializations.

Have a good one and keep re-framing (: