Brand Strategy

Are You a Challenger Brand, or Just Challenged?

Share This

Bill Winchester


Share This

Often at LSB we encounter brands who are not No. 1, or even No. 2 or 3 in their categories. Clearly, if you’re not No. 1 you probably have a few challenges ranging from a general lack of budget to more specific strategic challenges like awareness, distribution, lack of clear business objectives, no purpose or differentiation, fuzzy positioning, bottom-line-growth, demand generation … the list is almost endless and in 40 years in the industry of working with challenger brands, we’ve seen it all.

Often brands who have these challenges (and nearly all do, to varying degrees) define themselves as challengers — but whoa, hold on a minute. Are they really? Just because you have challenges doesn’t mean you’re a challenger.

Defining challenged brands and challenger brands

A challenged brand is simply getting the living hell beat out of it by a bigger competitor. It can’t outspend, out-distribute or out-maneuver the competition because it insists on playing the same game on the same playing field as the other guy. The result? A downward spiral and a living demonstration of the double jeopardy principle as outlined by Byron Sharp in “How Brands Grow.”

On the other side of the coin is the challenger brand. Rather than follow the rules dictated by larger competitors, these brands change the game and the playing field. Rules that can give you a distinct advantage over the big guys or at the very least, allow you to stay competitive.

The challenger brand isn’t defined by budget or size, but rather by a mindset.  And because this mindset embraces changing the rules, the first question you have to ask as a CMO or Director of Marketing is: Do you have the kind of organization that can embrace a different way? Does your organization recognize the risk inherent in the status quo?

Or maybe an even more fundamental question is: Can you break the rules set by your competitors? If the answer is yes, then read on.

We’ve broken the process down into three steps:

challenger brands1. Discover the category conventions.

The first step in becoming a true challenger brand is to examine the category. Honestly, it seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how many brands don’t realize where they stand, the category they compete in or what the emotional triggers are.

It’s very important to know what the category conventions are, because to win you’re going to have to break them to pieces. The leader in the category is using them to their advantage and your disadvantage. You’re going to have to reinvent the category, rethink your consumer, respond to the current culture or retool your offering.

Seem hard? Sometimes it’s amazingly easy when you dump all the pre-conceived notions. The leader has often gotten lazy and is happy with small incremental gains.

Hey, Hannibal beat the Romans, the English beat the French at Agincourt, Uber beat taxis. These unlikely victories pitted convention against challenger mentality. These examples prove that large isn’t always an advantage.

It’s worth noting here that one of the biggest hurdles for challenger brands is hesitancy in upper management. You’re fighting the corporate pipe dream that starts with, “If we just turned this dial just a little …”

There are many ways to go at this. At LSB, our process involves getting everyone who has a voice, from the CEO to the CFO, and anyone who has an important say, in a session we call “Jumpstart Day.” This is a day-long (we’d love to do a week, but that’s our pipe dream) session that examines everything from the history of your brand, the headwinds facing the brand, category norms, competitors, brand purpose, positioning, packaging, product offerings, design and distribution.

We do a lot of listening and a fair amount of guiding. We put the business problem squarely at the center of the table and attack it from every angle. We ask tough questions. You ask tough questions. We chase skeletons out of closets and embrace frank discussion. We need to know everything because knowing the accepted ground-rules and challenges allows us to break them.

Interestingly, the problem is often something pretty far upstream from marketing. Maybe the real problem is a lousy product, or a kludgy consumer experience. Identifying these problems helps us address them efficiently, rather than using marketing to solve something that is best addressed another way.

It’s amazing when you forget the rules and examine the problem from a completely different angle how it looks different and solvable.

challenger brands2. Challenge the conventions.

Someone once said, “status quo” is just Latin for “the mess we’re in.” We couldn’t agree more, so the next thing we do for challenger brands is to find ways to challenge conventions.

With the background and business challenges in mind, we set about finding a position for your brand that challenges the category conventions and creates demand. Ideally, this is a point of view about the market, the consumer or something that changes the playing field. It defines the way you’re going to compete against both the competition and against the category status quo.

We accomplish this by using sophisticated data mining and social listening. Sure, everyone has data, but we’ve found that by burning a large number of brain cells to analyze data and human behavior, we can discover distinctive emotional spaces where your brand can challenge convention. We look for fundamental category drivers, the way the consumer shops or consumes the product, the culture surrounding the category and whether there’s some dimension where the category leader can be attacked. We then craft an ownable strategy that makes your brand matter to your consumers and challenges the established leaders.

Taking the entire brand into consideration, we look for opportunities throughout the entire consumer journey. The opportunity may be upstream from any actual advertising. For instance, we might find the consumer could shop an entirely different way and recommend a new way to distribute the product. Or we find the culture has changed and is demanding a different experience.

Having the possibilities (and your eyes) opened up gives you and your management team options and choices on how to attack the competition and the category.

challenger brands3. Captivate the consumer.

Successful challenger brands do more than just advertise to consumers, they seek to create a tribe by creating an alluring brand platform. Done right, challengers change the marketing equation from brands seeking consumers to consumers seeking brands. They captivate because they are different from the category. 

Captivation is the combination of two things which need to be linked together for any marketing efforts to be successful. Media: Paid, owned and earned allied to a captivating strategic and creatively-driven brand platform that challenges consumer complacency. A platform that tweaks the part of the brain that says, “That’s a new way of looking at it.”

Being the creative thinkers we are, and knowing that rules are made to be broken, the first question we ask is: Does it have to be advertising?

A captivating creative platform often doesn’t actually require advertising per se. Think of Method, their creative platform was packaging. Starbucks was a consumer experience.

You can even go way back. Braniff painted their airplanes with Calder art. Was that advertising or a cultural milestone?

Often, finding the place in the consumer journey that makes the most difference and throws the biggest wrench in the status quo is the most rewarding place to concentrate. Is it the cultural stance the brand has taken? An interesting consumer experience? The product itself? These all are potential captivating creative platforms and figuring out how to best activate them and with what media is key.

In other words, ideas that matter to people delivered at in places that matter and at moments that matter.

The ideal idea often generates its own earned media because it’s simply more than an advertising/marketing idea. Brand ideas that appeal to the consumer in a completely different and alluring way are our holy grail.

The question is: Are you satisfied being challenged? Challenged for budgets, challenged for consumer attention, challenged for a winning position? Or, do you have an appetite for becoming a challenger? While undertaking the challenger journey is a challenge in itself, we believe the benefits far outweigh the work you put into it.

Bill Winchester


Has actually won a bagpiping contest.

What’s your digital strategy?

Do your landing pages pay off your paid strategy? Is your digital content optimized for performance? Do you know what your website visitors are doing?If you aren’t sure, you might need our help. Lucky you, we do free 30-minute consultations.
Get My Free 15-Minute Marketing Consultation

Brand Strategy

Brand strategy isn’t something we do from time to time, it’s one of the cornerstones of our business. So we think about it a lot.

learn more


We've been growing brands for a long time. You could be next.

About LSB