What Can We Learn from Challenger Brands?

Mindset Matters:
Thinking Like a Challenger in the Age of COVID-19

Living and working have become especially challenging in the past several months. If these medical, economic and social challenges have taught us anything, it’s how to keep going, how to use technology to stay connected, how to care for and support each other from a distance, and how to find opportunities in the uncertainty.

For 20 years, business gurus have celebrated heroic challenger brands, the companies that seemingly come out of nowhere and change the landscape for consumers and competitors alike. What can we learn from these challenger brands to help us in going forward?

First of all, it’s important to know what a challenger brand is and what it’s not.

A challenger brand is not defined by age or size—it can be a small start-up, yes. But it can also be a century-old, international corporation. Regardless of industry, ownership structure or competitive standing, being a challenger means having ambitions that exceed your marketing resources. To bridge that gap, challengers use creativity, strategy, and hard work.

The primary feature of a challenger brand is a foundational desire to change something—and not, as is often assumed, somebody. Few challenger brands directly take on a competitor. Instead, they seek to change the way things are done for the better. Online optical retailer Warby Parker challenged the idea that designer eyewear had to cost hundreds of dollars. In the process, they changed the way millions of consumers buy eyeglasses.

Challengers begin by challenging their own assumptions, biases, and traditional methods. They emphasize actions over words. And, they don’t try to be everything to every consumer. Beginning in 1994 as a Canadian, alternative punk magazine, Vice Media has grown into a $5+ billion international media empire by challenging the assumption that young adults don’t watch or read news. Not only were they right, Vice really doesn’t care if you like them or not. In the words of co-founder, Shane Smith, “We want you to love or hate us. We just don’t want you to be indifferent.”

So, how can you bring out the challenger in your brand? First, you have to have a why, a desire to make something better along with the belief that you can do it. Who isn’t being served in your category? How can you serve customers differently and better?

Be creative, open-minded and scrappy in your marketing. Try new channels and messaging. Try new distribution methods. Target new audiences, and don’t try to please everyone. Stay focused—don’t be distracted by the latest shiny object or business best-seller. Get clear on your purpose, positioning, culture and messaging, and stick with it. It takes hunger and hard work to achieve your ambitions with limited marketing resources. But that’s the fun of being a challenger.