When should brands challenge

When should brands choose to challenge?

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Is there ever a right time to get on the front foot and challenge your competitors by name?

One of the very first rules I was taught as a junior copywriter was to never give your competitors real estate that you had paid for. Don’t compare with them, don’t criticise them, don’t even mention them … And yet that’s precisely what Motorola did some time back when they suggested that smart phone buyers should skip the Apple release of the time and invest in their new model instead. It got me thinking about what other prompts, if any, challenger brands should be looking for when deciding whether to attack full-frontal.

Challenger as a strategy

First though, why be a challenger? Challenger brands have one simple motivation for being the brands they are. They want to rewrite the rules of the current market. If you believe in Rule of Three dynamics (the top three brands in any category dominate that category and drive the rules), then any brand below that in the pecking order either needs to grow their way into that top set, or challenge their way to a viable market or disrupt the category completely. Challenger brands have the ambition, but they need an effective means. And that means often consists of rewriting the dominant narrative by telling a different type of story that redefines their place in the world.

According to The Challenger Project, there are three ways that challenger brands look to do that:

  1. They stand up for the consumer against perceived exploitation.
  2. They bring a rich sense of purpose to a market, actively advocating for change in what they see as ethically or ideologically wrong.
  3. They position themselves as the ones to whom the baton should be passed – the next generation brand that deserves to take over from the old ways of doing things.

Interestingly, Motorola combined approaches 1 and 3. Their pitch essentially was that consumers were no longer getting the phones they deserved when they upgraded and that, for this upgrade cycle at least, consumers should advocate for greater change by switching.

Four occasions to pull the gloves off

When might a brand openly look to name and blame others? Here are some suggestions on when being a challenger makes real sense.

  • You want to reposition yourselves as a contender – brazen acts generate headlines, and headlines can give an old brand (or an unseen one) new relevance and influence in crowded markets. With this ad, Motorola have looked to step back out of the shadows and reassert their right to be taken seriously. It’s a great approach for brands that really have nothing to lose from taking on the mainstream – and, when done well, it can transform a brand that would have been dismissed into a consideration.
  • The dominant brands have been arrogant or lazy – the incumbent brands have done or said something that has really riled consumers, or they haven’t done enough. This is a classic opportunity for a challenger brand to step up, play the people’s champion and lead the revolt. The message here is: ‘you don’t have to take this anymore’. It requires a very strong and very simple call to action.
  • You want to disrupt an assumption – as noted earlier, most brands work to a predominant narrative, and, alongside that, they encourage look-alike behaviours and processes that work for the brand but can really annoy customers. In this situation, challenger brands can look to feed on people’s indignation at being treated like cattle. The message here is ‘Look what they make you do’. This approach requires not just identifying the behaviour but providing an alternative that is simple, brand-specific and that consumers will (hopefully) see as sensible, enjoyable and a way of voicing their displeasure. Motorola is doing that here by challenging the automatic same-brand upgrade cycle.
  • You want to make them look less appealing – one of the most effective strategies that challenger brands can use is to make the more dominant players look joyless. Here, challenger brands use their informality and cheekiness to call out bigger players as lacking humour and/or humanity. This is an effective approach for brands that are personality-driven and that are looking to pressure a monolith. This is all about: ‘We are what you see. Look at them. How can you trust a brand that seems so faceless?’

6 things you might not know about challenger brands

Interestingly, The Challenger Project also note 6 common misconceptions about challenger brands that sit alongside the opportunities mentioned above:

  • Challengers are always startups – not true. Businesses can successfully re-launch themselves as challengers, regardless of age if they’re willing to break free from the habits and baggage that have defined them.
  • Challengers are always small – not true. Successful challenger brands challenge a broader convention or dimension of their category and can grow into substantial companies on that basis.
  • Challengers are young, edgy and packed with attitude – sort of true. Most are, but they don’t have to be. Young at heart is more important than actual demographics or how many hours they’ve been around.
  • Challengers and disruptors are kind of the same thing – not true. Challengers don’t need to operate in categories driven by innovation in order to be effective whereas disruptors do.
  • Challengers cannot exist within a corporate environment – not necessarily. Challenger brands can live within big structures, if they have the purpose, the culture and the teams to redefine their categories.
  • Being a challenger brand is a phase – not true. Brands that have been challengers can stay challengers no matter how big they get. It all comes down to mindset.

Updated: This article was originally published in October 2016 and has been updated in August 2018. A version of this article was posted elsewhere under the title When Should Brands Challenge Foes?

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