By Adam Morgan
Over the years the Challengers we have worked alongside have tended to share common experiences and face common threats, and have therefore drawn on similar principles in order to succeed. But the narrative they tell is of course not always the same. Much depends on the individual identities of the people or brands themselves, and also on the particular strategic stance that each unique Challenger has chosen to employ. Across the last decade we have indeed met many Goliath-slaying Davids, yet we have also met many other characters less celebrated in the Challenger conversation.
The Power of Ten
I am a great fan of indignation.
Last summer we went to interview the founders of Metro Bank, the UK’s new challenger to the big High Street banks. One of the founders, Vernon Hill has ‘previous’ on this (as they say in Jason Statham films): he has already done this very successfully in the US before with Commerce Bank. And what I loved about the way they talked about why they were starting was not the strategy or the constituent ideas, stimulating though they were. What I loved was the indignation about how poorly the High Street banks had treated the UK consumer. God knows how many times Vernon has talked about it, yet still his voice rises a timbre and the blood pressure appears to go slightly into the red every time you start him off on the subject again.
I think challengers need much more of that. Less talk about positioning and more about what they are genuinely indignant about in the first place – where the centre of gravity of their ambition, their purpose lies. This is one of the difficulties for large companies in talking about putting ‘purpose’ at the heart of their brands – they think it, but don’t feel it. You have to feel purpose. And that means feeling what you reject, what you are indignant about, as much as what you want to champion – before, very often, you are clear what you want to champion.
Indignation is, in particular, the mark of a very particular kind of challenger brand: the missionary. The brand on a mission to deliver something the world really needs, whether it realises it needs it yet or not.
The Challenger’s strategic canvas is much wider in potential stances for us to take than Irreverent little player vs. Monolithic and unscrupulous bigger player, although that is what many seem to narrow it down to.
Challengers do, by definition challenge something, but it is not always the market leader. In fact, for all that the David vs. Goliath is thought to be the archetypal challenger stance (Avis vs. Hertz, Virgin vs. BA, Pepsi vs. Coca Cola) in reality it is the most unusual narrative for challengers to tell. And we are going to need that width of possible challenger narratives to be very clear to us, not just to start fresh as we launch or relaunch, but to stay fresh in the story we tell to our consumer.
So for the next few weeks, let’s consider the broader range of challenger stances we can tell. Here’s a brief overview of each. And then in the interviews and subsequent posts we are going to explore a couple of them in particular a little more, and then look at how to use them.
1. The Irreverent Maverick
This stance could be described as ‘counterculture attitude in a box’; think Red Bull, Kulula or Brewdog. The Irreverent Maverick uses wit, humour and sometimes even shock tactics, to puncture the category complacency and attract a very particular audience to their brand.
2. The Missionary
The Missionary is dedicated to a higher calling. They are here to put something right. They want to share their love for their brand and grow its influence, but also to use their understanding of the category and brand experience to do something big, brave and beautiful in the real world.
3. The Next Generation
The Next Generation Challenger is challenging the appropriateness of the Market Leader for the new times we live in. It can be an elegant way to deposition a number one brand, positioning the incumbent as certainly perfect for a time gone by, while now being clear that the world has moved on, and so should our choice of brand. That was then, Ladies and Gentlemen, but this is now. Audi has done this brilliantly in the US at various points in recent years.
4. The Democratiser
The Democratiser believes in taking not from the ‘rich’ and giving to the ‘poor’, but taking from the ‘few’ and giving to the ‘many’ – opening up the beauty of great design, or the latest catwalk clothing, or the ability to become a broadcaster or news editor, and making it available to everyone. Challenging elitism and privilege. Think the new generation of ‘value’ brands and retailers.
5. The Real and Human Challenger
One of the qualities that many Challengers share is the ability to give a sense of the people behind their brand. These brands appeal to us at a more personal level than the market leader because they are making a human-to-human connection, rather than a brand-to-consumer connection, and as a result these brands become not just products or services but compelling characters in our lives. Challenging the facelessness of the category. Think innocent in the UK, Hunan TV perhaps in China.
6. The Enlightened Zagger
The Enlightened Zagger is deliberately swimming against a prevailing cultural current. They are not simply zagging while the world zigs for the hell of it, but have informed personal beliefs about the way the world should be that are different to those that are accepted by the mainstream. Challenging ‘conventional wisdom’ (rather than the status quo): I know the world buys into this, they say, but I am calling it for the BS it really is. Someone has to make a stand here, and it’s going to be me. Miller High Life has migrated brilliantly to this stance in the US.
7. The Visionary
This character is a preacher, not a fixer. Rather than trying to solve the existing problems in a certain category, they create a vision for the future, and then set about turning that vision into a reality. Of course, a Visionary can only be labelled as such in retrospect, once the rest of the world has caught up and the vision has become a reality.
8. The Game Changer
The Challenger brand that sets out to become a game changer isn’t simply setting out to challenge category convention (like the Enlightened Zagger or Irreverent Maverick) but to go further. They present us with products or services that not only change how we think about that category, but go as far as to change the way we live our lives altogether. Think Kingfisher bringing the quality of international business class to domestic flying to overtake Jet Airways in India.
9. The Peoples Champion
The People’s Champion makes a very specific claim – that it is standing up for the consumer, who has been exploited by the players in the category so far. The characters that are revered and honoured as a People’s Champion don’t simply claim this status for themselves, they earn it. As with all Challenger strategy and positioning, it is action, not image that counts. The launch strategy for the hugely successful online bank Skandiabanken in Norway, it was for years the default position of any Virgin brand in the UK.
And, finally, of course:
10. The Scrappy David
A powerful tale, because a binary battle we all can recognize: Good vs. Evil, Big vs. Small, Us vs. Them. To choose this stance and call out the competition as Goliath, belief, chutzpah and resilience are everything, as are the absolute authenticity of your own position as David.