LONDON: Challenger brands tend to be viewed as companies that disrupt perceived wisdom and subvert marketing assumptions, but any brand can learn from their successes regardless of size or category.

That is the opinion of Nick Geoghegan, Strategy Director at eatbigfish, a consultancy that has spent the past 15 years analysing the practices of successful challenger brands so that brands of all types can learn from them.

In a Warc Best Practice paper, entitled "How to build a challenger brand", Geoghegan observed that a major problem faced by incumbent brands is their over-reliance on "best practice" thinking, which simply leads to brands mimicking each other and repeating well-worn marketing techniques.

By way of example, he pointed to the promotional efforts of established luxury watchmakers whose displays at, say, Swiss airports invariably show the clock hands in the 10 past 10 position.

He said that, at some point, marketers must have decided this was the best setting because the 10.10 position comes closest to resembling a smiling face, and the tradition has continued.

Similarly, convention dictates that promotion of luxury watches depends on expensive advertising, involving minimal copy, glossy photos and celebrity endorsement. However, challenger brand Festina overturned these assumptions.

Not having the budget for expensive ads, the Spanish-owned brand invested in a new type of packaging for their waterproof watches that enabled them to be displayed in bags of water for shoppers to touch, photograph, share and ultimately buy.

Geoghegan said there is a phenomenon termed the "Mephisto Waltz" used to explain why so many brands fall in line around an accepted way of thinking.

Named after the astronomical term given to two black holes that get caught in each other's gravitational pull to the point of their mutual destruction, the "Mephisto Waltz" is what is happening to hundreds of categories around the world, Geoghegan contended.

"Challengers create advantages for themselves by breaking away from the Mephisto Waltz in their category, forcing others to play by their rules," he said.

"They find new ways of achieving what they want to achieve by bending certain rules in their favour. In doing so, challengers often benefit the consumer by forcing the category to progress, ending any stasis that might be caused by a comfortable incumbent."

His article went on to identify five key behaviours that challenger brands have adopted that other businesses could apply to create new competitive advantages.

They include embracing "intelligent naivety", or looking at a category with fresh eyes and asking questions that established brands are not. Changing the narrative of a category is also important as well as adopting a challenging point of view.

Stealing ideas from other categories can revolutionise a stagnant segment and, finally, challenger brands should “aim for fame”, or look to smashing indifference to the brand.

"Ultimately, people make challengers, not processes," Geoghegan concluded. "Great challenger brands are exhilarating to work in and to watch, and they rely on people who are fearless, committed and iconoclastic."

Data sourced from Warc