Two Rules for Winning for Challenger Brands

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

Most brands are challenger brands. Probably yours.

It’s not just a matter of share. If you have fewer resources than your competitors, you’re a challenger brand. You might have a smaller budget. Lower awareness. A short-handed sales team. Or all of these, plus a few things I haven’t listed, you lucky devil.

I’ve been fortunate to work on challenger brands for my entire career, in both brand management and consulting. I say “fortunate” because victory is sweeter when you come from behind, or when you achieve more with less.

Around 20 years ago, I was the brand manager of Airheads candy. At the time, our two largest competitors, Skittles and Starburst, outspent us by about 20 to 1. Despite this, we tripled our sales in less than five years. And we launched what became the fastest-selling non-chocolate single in the country. (The Airheads 6-bar package can still be found near cash registers today.)

The lesson I learned early: “In business, as in boxing, it’s foolish to trade punches with a stronger hitter.” You can’t mimic your competitors, but with fewer resources, and somehow expect to come out on top. That’s insanity. But for some reason, brands try it all the time.

To win, you must choose your own path. I’ve adhered to two simple principles to grow challenger brands in atypical ways. And though situations vary, I’ve found that these principles hold pretty universally.

The two principles? Focus and creativity. Let’s discuss each.

Focus on the Who

If your resources are limited, you need to make them work harder. And focused resources work harder than unfocused ones.

So you must get focused. The only question is on exactly what. Or, more precisely, on whom.

To get focused, challenger brands ask questions like these:

  • Who derives the greatest benefit from your offering?
  • With whom do you have a true right to win?
  • Who is your team most passionate about serving?
  • Who is under-served by your competition?
  • Who are the first adopters or strongest influencers?

The goal is to be as specific as possible about who you serve. No more of those all-inclusive target definitions like “Women 18-45”; that includes high school seniors and grandmothers, people. Be precise. And, of course, the better you know your consumers, the better you’ll be at both defining and serving them.

“But, Matthew,” I’m sometimes asked, “won’t narrowing our focus cost us sales?” Quite the contrary. It’s not like you’re refusing the business of people who don’t fit your target precisely. All you’re doing is placing your largest bets in the area of greatest reward. And, as a proverb states, “If you chase two rabbits, you’ll catch neither.”

Get Creative With the How

If I know nothing about your and your competitors, I can say this with certainty: What got them to where they are won’t get you to where you want to be.

Limited resources bring an unheralded benefit: They force you to get creative about your path to victory. This makes you a better marketer.  Creativity is the secret weapon of challenger brands.

I often advocate conceiving of your brand experience in two “buckets” – what you say, and what you do. The latter matters more, but get creative in both. Challenger brands, ask questions like:

  • Now that you know your “who,” how will you best reach them? Where and when are they most receptive to your message?
  • If your business existed only to serve that consumer, what would you start doing? Stop doing? Continue doing?
  • What are your strongest assets? How can you leverage these to create a superior brand experience?
  • How can you maximize every point in the value chain?
  • What is the system by which your competitors go to market? How can you improve upon, challenge or reinvent that system?
  • How can you offer “fewer, better” products or services to succeed by specializing?

Clearly, these principles aren’t mutually independent – for instance, a bold choice of “how you serve” begs the question of “who cares about that.” It’s an iterative process – different combinations of Who and How will yield vastly different strategies.

What Focus and Creativity Do for Challenger Brands

When you’re focused and creative, you’ll enjoy a number of benefits: Increased sales, better word-of-mouth, improved margins, increased pricing power, improved efficiency and effectiveness.

Most importantly, though, you’ll be serving people in a way that matters to them. And there’s no better way to build a brand than that.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2015 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.