Be More Challenger – What we can learn from a new wave of challenger brands

By Malcolm Devoy, Chief Strategy Officer, PHD EMEA

It’s been 20 years since the term ‘challenger brand’ was coined. It was written by Adam Morgan in his book ‘Eating the Big Fish’, a seminal study of how smaller brands were stealing share from market leaders. It nearly goes without saying that a lot has changed in those 20 years.

PHD and Adam Morgan published a book in 2012 called ‘Overthrow’, a study of 10 new challenger narratives, and this year we teamed up again for the sequel, ‘Overthrow II: 10 strategies from the new wave of challengers’.

In Overthrow II, we identify challengers not by their size or their newness, but by their ideas on the change they want to make in their category and how they carry out that change. These are brands that are not necessarily looking to challenge someone (such as another competitor or market leader), but to challenge something – something they believe urgently needs to change.

These changes might relate to ethics in the supply chain, or the faceless personality of some services; the appropriateness of the category behaviours for the current generation, or perhaps simply a desire to inject a bit of humour or controversy to a typically staid category.

Challenger brands are therefore not defined by their size. Any brand has the potential to be a true challenger, regardless of how big the brand is, how old it is or how old the category itself might be – it is simply a case of standing up for something that a brand truly believes in and wants to change.

Being a challenger is about using the full force of their brand to drive change. And we mean full force – it can’t just be a marketing add-on. The challenge needs to be deeply rooted. It needs to find space in the company’s culture and their behaviours, as well as their marketing and communications.

The challenger brands that we studied for Overthrow II are varying in so many ways – different categories, different competitors, different brand characters, and yet they have important elements in common. These commonalities appear to be the ingredients behind challenger brand behaviours and their specific media behaviours that ultimately lead to their extraordinary growth stories.

Any brand looking to think and act like a challenger should take note of the commonalities we have observed in challenger brand behaviours:

  1. Effectiveness over efficiency
    Effectiveness is about identifying what to do; efficiency is about how to do it. The current era is dominated by efficiency, with brands optimising towards measurable activation activities – yet media payback has been declining. Challenger brands’ media behaviours sometimes look inefficient, but in fact they are very efficient by virtue of being so effective.
  2. Attitude over audience
    Challenger brands all have acutely defined personalities. They are decisive and, in some cases, divisive. But despite having what might seem to be a polarising attitude, they source buyers from a very broad audience, presumably from making themselves so memorable with their point of view.
  3. Creativity over relevance
    Challenger brands put a much higher emphasis on creativity than on the relevance of the message to the target audience. They demonstrate a confidence of personality that may even polarise opinion – but they would rather do that than try to be different things for different groups in an attempt to appear more relevant.
  4. Rule breakers rule
    Challenger brands tend to break all the category norms and do so to draw attention to their brand. They use communications to achieve greater recall, attention and favourability to ensure their brand provokes a greater sense of value for consumers at those crucial buying moments. Ultimately, they are outstanding at standing out.

What should an established brand do right now? Most importantly, they should re-examine their behaviours, attitudes, principles and practices to determine if they still believe that they are appropriate for a modern era. If this re-evaluation uncovers something that needs to change, they then have the power to be that force for change. And, ultimately, to future-proof their business from newer, scrappier start-ups that might be right around the corner.

Malcolm explored the commonalities of marketing and media behaviours that successful challenger brands use to fuel their extraordinary growth at PHD UAE’s annual thought-leadership conference BrainScape on 30th October at W Dubai The Palm.