How to be a challenger

The absolute need to challenge (even if you’re not a challenger brand)

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Every day, business owners are pitched opportunities to take their brands in a ‘new’ direction or to stay the course—by colleagues, by their agencies, because of the actions of competitors or by delegations of customers or suppliers. When everyone has a tactic and everything is presented as a panacea, how do you sift the wheat from the wonk? How should brands commit to their future? The secrets I suggest here are singularity, over-commitment and a fundamental drive to keep challenging.

Competitively strategising and managing your brands can, as many a marketing manager has told me, be bewildering. And many struggle to balance the strategic need to move the brand forward over the longer term with the plethora of more immediate demands for response or action or the urgings of one messiah or another to take their brand down a particular route.

Locked into frantic compliance

Two of the biggest obstacles to success, in my opinion, are group-think and, in Hilton Barbour’s words, ‘shiny bright object hunting’. Companies are so busy trying to stay ‘current’ in these times of endless change and so determined to do so in a risk-averse way that they have devolved to ‘frantic compliance’: working faster and faster to be more like, sound more like, work more like and brand more like the companies around them.

They spread themselves too thin. And while they may do a lot, they don’t necessarily achieve a lot in the sense that, though they may be building their brand’s presence through noise, they often fail to underpin brand loyalty and brand value.

Many choose to see what they are doing as risk mitigation or as discovery. “If we try a lot in the market, we’ll identify what works and then we’ll do more of it.” Or they look at others, see them doing something that works and resolve to do the same, only “different”.

But let’s get back to the question. At a time when the role of running a brand is beset with challenges, how should brand teams make decisive moves? Perhaps by choosing to always think of themselves as challengers, regardless of their position in the market. And by acting in that manner to actively address  what is challenging them.

That does not necessarily mean they are challenger brands; what it does require is that they continuously challenge themselves to do more and to do better in ways that are decisive rather than reactive or fashionable. And to make that happen, there are indeed some healthy cues from the way challenger brands think that brands competing at all levels of the market, including market leaders, should adopt if they want to stay competitive.

Learning to over-commit

There are many wonderful ideas in Adam Morgan’s classic book about being a successful challenger brand, Eating the Big Fish—one of my favourites is the concept of over-commitment; of being willing to see past what others simply accept and choosing instead to throw an uncommon level of resource at an idea that will allow your brand to stand out.

That, as Morgan points out, comes down to being able to boldly and insightfully translate strategic intent into behaviours; behaviours that separate those who say they do from those who seriously seek the prize.

Marketers talk (a lot) about the ideas they are committed to—storytelling, experiences, digital transformation, relationships, purpose … And they are quick to tell themselves and each other that they are doing a good job of bringing these things to market. But the numbers tell a different story. One piece of research I saw recently said that while 85% of brands think they are delivering great experiences, only 15% of customers think they are receiving them.

So there’s a significant gap between what brands believe they have committed to and what customers feel they have committed to. I’ve seen similar discrepancies around other things that brands hold dear.

(Before you say it, I know we all see stats every day and that, to put it politely, interpretations vary. But I’m not talking about the numbers themselves so much as situations where brands see themselves achieving one thing and customers don’t, because that’s where the opportunities lie to apply Morgan’s thinking.)

It’s easy to somehow blame the customer when things like this are pointed out; to say that one group of consumers or another are difficult to please or that they are disloyal or disinterested. But I suspect the key reason lies elsewhere. Marketers are distracted. They are trying to juggle all the different  coloured balls as well as everyone around them, instead of doing what Morgan has suggested: doing one thing to an extraordinary degree.

But thinking like a challenger requires rethinking not just what your brand does, but why. It takes discipline to step back and reflect on two disturbingly simple thoughts: what short-fall do we want to be famous for addressing; and what will it take for us to succeed at that (when so many others haven’t)? It’s never going to be easy to put all the other juggling balls down and just focus on one. That level of clarity and reductionism is going to make everyone nervous because it looks so risky, so speculative; it feels like an “all-in” strategy.

Over-commitment is much more calculated than that of course. It stems from seeing—really seeing—what is missing in a market and choosing to back yourself to deliver that in ways that no-one else has. To go back to that research earlier about the experience gap, while every marketer today may be talking about experiences (in fact, I suggested recently this particular concept was quickly becoming the new sugar), one brand could challenge itself to close that gap in ways others wouldn’t dare. Same goes for storytelling, relationships, purpose … the opportunities are there for brands to over-index in a particular competitive aspect if they are prepared to focus on that and ask themselves the hard questions needed to make that happen.

But how? How does a brand go about deciding to over-commit? Camelia Ghiurca makes some great suggestions in a piece on winning strategies.

  1. Go binary – simplify the choice set for your brand and for consumers by making the market about ‘them’ and ‘us’. As Ghiurca points out, “most brand leaders normally operate with a “just enough” strategy. In order to have a chance, [challenger] brands must over-commit and, of course, over-perform.” To do that, they must first over-simplify everything around them. So they must reduce everything that’s being presented to them (particularly internally) to the resolution of a singular issue in a way that everyone else won’t or can’t.

She then quotes Stephen King to define what it takes for a brand to succeed:

  1. Be coherent (not compliant). In other words, make sure that everything you do reports to an idea (but not necessarily a creative expression) that customers come to rely on you to deliver in exceptional ways. And, by implication, commit to making that a reality as a business.
  1. Remain unique—by staying ahead of others as they seek to close the gap. Over-commitment requires over-planning. It’s about knowing not just what you have committed to, but what you will need to commit to going forward in order to stay ahead of the pack. Too many brands that instigate something interesting don’t follow up on it fast enough or dramatically enough to continue taking the rest of the market by surprise.
  1. Be immediate and salient for your customers. Judge the success of what you have over-committed to by how deeply they choose to commit to it.

Some will say this idea is reminiscent of the once-fashionable “one big idea”. Except that in order to work, over-commitment is less about banging a single brand  message drum and much more focused on solving a problem that consumers really care about. It plays out less in what customers see and much more in what they receive and why that appeals to what’s important to them.

Understanding your own strategy

One of the reasons marketers may be finding it difficult to commit is that many don’t really understand their own strategy. As Greg James observed, “Many brands define themselves as ‘challengers’ without really understanding the difference between a true challenger brand and simply not being market leader.” They may, for example, choose a challenger strategy because they like the idea of being a challenger brand, without necessarily knowing whether it is the right approach or not.

Challenger brands, James says, operate within clear parameters:

  • They are neither the number one player, nor a niche player – but they have their eye set on outsmarting the competition that is bigger than them and often on their own turf. They are the masters at playing the underdog and they use that to paint the number one player as over-strong, over-confident and disproportionately empowered
  • Their state of mind rules them – they draw on the thing they have over-committed to and push themselves on to achieve that. They obsess on over-delivering on the thing that they know matters most to consumers.
  • They see every success as proof that their over-commitment is worth it, which is how they talk themselves into being (and staying) resilient.

Here’s some further thoughts on when brands should consider taking a challenger role.

Disruptors on the other hand, says James, don’t take their reference from other players or indeed from any other aspect of the status quo. Instead they are looking to change the game and play by new rules:

  • Their goal is to use new platforms or technology to change how the very business of the sector is one. They are the ones that look for blue oceans.
  • Because of this, they often come at things from a product development, technology or engineering perspective, rather than focusing on marketing
  • They build their appeal through early adopters (compared with challenger brands, for example, that look to appeal to the dissatisfied)

Driving both ethos, says Lorraine Carter, is the influence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That Revolution is hailed as a new era that will fundamentally change how we live and work because of the massive technological changes made possible by digitisation and the effects they are having on standard and legacy business practices.

Challenger brands will come at that from within the marketplace as it exists right now, using tweaks and attitude to make buying from them feel like an act of protest. That’s because at the heart of challenger brands, says Carter, lies singularity of heart – and she backs that up by quoting from the CMO of Adobe, “Essentially the heart of a challenger brand is the passion, process and tools they use to create and magnify customer advocacy … The heart of the challenger brands’ success is their ability to turn emotion and affinity into a customer acquisition machine.”

Disruptors on the other hand will look to redefine the very basis of the marketplace in order to establish a new set of rules to play by. Their bet is on singularity of perspective which is why they invent categories, and in so doing offer new ways to do things that often leave the incumbents flummoxed and perplexed. But – and it’s an important but – many disruptors (especially newcomers) will die in the attempt, because they will lose the momentum or funding to see their dream through or because the realities of the market are at odds with their disruptive view of how things should be.

That’s because they under-estimate the power of legacy. For all the talk about discovery and innovation brands and the shift to artistry and craft, the power of established brands is their capacity to mix constancy and choice. (In fact, established brands can be powerful disruptors if they so choose because they have brand equity behind them)

There’s always going to be an interest in the new and the newsworthy – people love the idea of choice, even if they don’t act on it – but in sectors like banking for example, there are large parts of the population who want to deal with a name they know. At the same time, they want that brand to keep evolving and changing to meet their expectations.

It’s tempting in light of the above to draw a line of progression, to put craft brands at one end and scale brands at the other, and to see the various options in between as stations on the journey: craft brands become challengers become mainstream become scale become global. I’m not so sure the growth framework going forward is that simple anymore – perhaps it never was. Things feel much more pixellated now, and as a result, it seems to me that the strategy options for marketers are both more varied but more in need of over-commitment than ever. If you want to be a craft brand, focus on that. If you want to be a challenger, make that the thing you concentrate on doing most and best, rather than looking for ways to ‘progress’ to the next stage of growth.

Talking competitively, acting the same

As Adam Morgan himself observed in response to a query as to whether being a challenger brand had just become best practice, “A lot of people now talk what one could say is the language of challengers. They talk about Purpose, and Thought Leadership. They talk of Sacrifice, and Ruthless Focus … But that’s not what it takes to be a challenger, talking … Being a challenger is active … It’s not a strat plan, because it’s never finished. It’s a culture. A series of actions. Trying and doing and failing and progressing and doing again. Pushing the category forward.” And as for whether everyone is a challenger brand yet: “the answer is No. Challenger strategy isn’t even remotely close to being best practice now. I wish it were.”

It’s curious to me how so many brands continue to think of themselves as competitive but in a very uncommitted way.

Denise Yohn is right. You can’t just be an -er brand. You can’t just arbitrarily decide that your strategy is to be bigger, brighter, louder, faster than everyone around you because then you are always comparing yourselves to others (and therefore looking to them for cues) and because of that reference set it’s too easy to lose sight of the customer. What you can do however is choose an absolute that customers absolutely yearn for and commit not just to that but to all the implications of that given the resources you have available. It’s easy for that to sound hollow. But when brands make the decision to chase the -est in a market, it generates a level of focus that provides customers with stark choices and powerful fuel internally for the crucial ability to see “No” to all the shiny bright objects being hailed every day as the next big thing.

And crucially, it provides the impetus to discipline everything you are tasked with delivering as a marketer to the achievement of that over-commitment. Everything Disney does adds to being the most magical brand in the world. Just as everything that Tesla does looks to advance the most fascinating way of delivering the next era of sustainable transport.

The business environment should decide the strategy (not the other way round)

But there’s a step that should precede all of these decisions that often gets missed: identifying the environment in which a company is competing and what is possible within that operating environment.

One of the natural temptations for strategists and marketers is to pursue a strategy and see where it takes them. “How can we execute a Blue Ocean Strategy in this space in order to fundamentally disrupt the market?” It seems at first glance like the obvious question, but it assumes that the environment can and will support a Blue Ocean Strategy in the first place. That may or may not be the case.

In an excellent piece on navigating the dozens of different strategy options available, Martin Reeves, Knut Haanaes and Janmejaya Sinha addressed the dilemma of how to choose the right strategy in today’s complex markets. We have in recent years been besieged by huge numbers of strategic frameworks, they point out, each claiming to outclass and outperform their predecessors. Far from obvious, they say, are the answers as to how these approaches relate to one another or when they should or should not be deployed.

So how should a company decide where it should over-commit? Start, they suggest, by carefully assessing the state of the business environment. Use three factors to do that:

  • Predictability – to what extent is the environment you operate in stable?
  • Malleability – is your sector capable of being shaped, and can you do that alone or will you need to work alongside others to make that happen?
  • Harshness – how unforgiving is the sector in which you compete?

Each of those factors lends itself to a strategic approach:

  • Classical environments are highly predictable and have low harshness but are difficult to change
  • Visionary environments are also highly predictable and have low harshness but offer high opportunities for change
  • Adaptive environments are unpredictable, and have low harshness but are resistant to change
  • Shaping environments are also unpredictable and have low harshness and that lack of predictability and harshness means they are much more open to change
  • Finally, Renewal environments have varying levels of predictability and opportunities for change but take place in an environment that is very harsh.

The environments in turn lend themselves to a distinctive approach to strategy and to a specific type of over-commitment in order to succeed:

  • Classical environments are all about position, with advantage achieved through scale, differentiation or capabilities based on comprehensive analysis and planning. In this environment, the focus is on achieving the greatest expression of size possible, and established brands are in the best position possible to take on the challengers.
  • Visionary environments favour those who create new markets or to disrupt an existing market. In this environment, companies are most likely to over-commit to being first (and therefore pursuing a disruptor strategy).
  • Adaptive environments are all about continuous experimentation because their volatile dynamics means there is no time for long term planning. In this environment, the highest chances of success come with intending to be some version of the fastest. This is an environment in which it pays to be a game-changer.
  • In a shaping environment, companies are more likely to work together to collectively decide how things will work to their advantage. They do this by orchestrating the activities of other stakeholders, potentially through a challenger strategy.
  • The renewal environment demands companies focus primarily on viability in order to conserve and build the resources they need to survive, and from there choose to change the environment in which they compete to one of the other four in order to rejuvenate growth and ensure long-term prosperity. The over-commitment for companies in this environment is to be the most viable, even as others around you wilt and die.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that not every brand is a challenger brand, because not every brand can operate in an environment where that is viable. But that doesn’t mean for one moment that they shouldn’t continue to challenge how they work and their ability to over-perform. They can still learn from the driving spirit of the challenger brand model and not just try to emulate its language.

8 steps to over-committing the right way

Companies should make the decision about who they want to be, and why, based on the specific environment they find themselves in – and then forge a strategy that fundamentally challenges them to achieve that.

For example, Martin Reeves, Knut Haanaes and Janmejaya Sinha suggest that brands working in a Classical environment and looking for scale and market share may wish to pursue a strategy based on Porter’s classic Five Forces model or something similar. Brands in a Visionary environment on the other hand might look at a disruptive model like Blue Ocean Strategy because the market has high growth potential, white space, no direct competition and probably limited regulation. Brands in the Renewal environment though should probably pursue a prudent efficiency strategy because that’s an approach that makes absolute sense in areas of low growth, restricted financing and negative cash flows.

Challenger or disruptor in other words are really means to an end, and the end is dictated on large part by what the business needs to get done in the market environment it operates in. And so the strategy for getting to your strategy probably looks something like this:

  • Understand the market dynamics of the environment in which you operate – past, current and future (many will change dramatically)
  • Lock down your vision for what you most want to achieve in this environment based on your purpose, vision, mission and values. If they don’t provide you with the license to operate in a decisive way, then re-litigate them based on what you now understand about the market dynamics of your operating environment
  • Decide your audience – who, why and because they need what?
  • Identify the shortfall – the one thing that you are going to offer them that others can’t or won’t
  • Choose your size – how big do you need to be/want to be in order to deliver this profitably (how will you do that, and how long will it take?)
  • Decide your scope – what does your over-commitment entail, how far does it extend?
  • Develop on that basis – and have a clear path to develop to the greatest extent possible (using all the implications of that commitment to inspire new products and ways of telling and delivering your story)
  • If need be, add another brand at another level of activity, with another over-commitment, to defend or attack, disrupt, challenge or undermine.

Each of these steps offers opportunities for challenge in its own right of course, along with rethinking what you are capable of and committed to as a company and as a culture. Together, they should  lead to a powerful point of singularity where your business makes informed and focused decisions to pursue a particular path.

Contrast that with everything you’re trying to be as a business right now; everything you’ve committed to doing, all the ways that your budget is pulled. What would happen if you put most of that to one side and focused instead on doing one thing to the greatest extent possible? How good could you really be if you wanted that to happen badly enough?

Will every brand succeed at doing this? Of course not. Or at the very least not all the time. Some will get distracted, some will find the analysis too difficult, some will choose to carry on as they are. But those that do, stand to gain a much deeper strategy of why they have the strategy they have and what success for that strategy looks like.

In the process of really, really thinking about the implications of your vision and mission (or re-litigating those first to make them strong enough to truly inspire) and tying those aims directly to what that means your brands must achieve, you can pursue a possibility – your  possibility – with an intensity and level of focus that noise-makers and fashion-followers can never hope to achieve.

Updated: This article elaborates on a post originally published in July 2017. It has been updated in August 2018 to include more detail and discussion points. The original version of this article was posted on this blog under the title The Singularity Strategy: Choosing To Over-Commit and a version of that post was posted elsewhere under the title How Over-Commitment Builds Brand Leaders.

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