10 challenger narratives from Brandweek 2019

Sean T. Smith for Adweek

Sean T. Smith for Adweek

Think challenger brands are just about small vs. big, or is just disruption by another name?  Think again! There’s more to challengers than just David vs. Goliath. Here are some of the brands we saw challenging with very different types of narrative at the Brandweek Challenger Brands summit.

One thing we were happy to see at Brandweek’s event in New York last week was the diverse range of challenger strategies being shared on the big stage.

We outlined ten different challenger narratives back in 2012 in our book Overthrow, and with an expanded, updated, even-more-challenger second edition coming in 2019, we’re seeing a new wave of these different types of challengers breaking through. Here are some of our favourites from the two day event.

1. The Missionary

Impossible Foods is on a mission to eliminate animals from the food system by replacing meat with plant based alternatives.  By recruiting meat lovers to its cause, with no tradeoff, Impossible promise we can eat ‘meat’ AND save the earth. Time to join the movement you hardcore carnivores…

2. The Dramatic Disrupter

Just like Casper before them, Away saw an opportunity to disrupt a dull category by offering an aspirational product at an affordable price, making the ‘must have’ bag for the modern traveler. Away keep things interesting with bright colours, sell-out limited editions and messaging that elevates the experience beyond product to create instagram-worthy lifestyle content. Everyone in the office now really wants one…


3. The Irreverent Maverick

The irreverent maverick brings an element of fun, provokes a gasp, and has a sense of humour in an otherwise personality-free commodity category. Organic Valley could tell its farmer owned co-op story with a straight face, but instead it “Saves the Bros”, takes down pretentious coffee culture with a half-and-half popup cafe, and hijacks YouTuber chefs with “GHEEEEE!”. It seems a lot more fun that way.

4. The Next Generation

Still working out at the gym or running round the park? Get with the times, grandpa!

Mirror is telling a next gen story with its home exercise smart mirror - it’s selling the “future of home fitness’ by offering “experience no one has ever seen before”. The next generation depositions the brands of the past by suggesting the world’s moved on, and as a narrative it works particularly well for luxury and tech brands (of which mirror is both).


5. The Enlightened Zagger

A sneaker with no logo? One that prizes comfort over “performance”? A few years ago that strategy might have seemed absurd but, with its less is more approach and design principles that marry simplicity with sustainability (“creating better things in a better way”), our 2017 challenger to watch, Allbirds, has established itself as the thought-leaders in an entirely new category of footwear.

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6. The Feisty Underdog

At Hulu it’s not Hulu vs. the world, it’s Hulu vs. Netflix. Hulu is reducing the on-demand streaming competition to to a two-horse race, planning to out-manoeuvre Netflix by being more nimble and culturally relevant (compared to battling Netflix’s larger catalogue). By dropping its Fyre Fest documentary five days before Netflix’s, that head-to-head battle became part of the wider conversation - and the answer to multitude of articles asking ‘which one should i watch?’ was pretty clear - “watch both”.

Sometimes going head-to-head can be win-win.

7. The Democratiser

The democratiser is a brand that is ‘for the many not the few’. In previous years we’ve seen classic democratisers like Ikea or Target opening up access to the many through low prices - and it’s a narrative that many D2C challengers like Harry’s tell through its ‘cutting out of the middle man’ pricing strategies. Another way to democratise, however, is through sharing and simplifying knowledge, to make the complicated or confusing more accessible. Papa & Barkley are one such challenger. It’s on a mission to open up access to the burgeoning but intimidating cannabis category to an older generation by acting as an approachable authority on the subject.


8. The Visionary

The visionary has a long-term view on how the world should be, and is clear about its place in making that future a reality. And if there’s a brand who can talk about long-term, it’s Seventh Generation, it’s built into the company name and the company’s stated promise is that “every decision, every product, will be made with careful consideration of our impact on the wellbeing of the next seven generations”.


For Seventh Generation, the vision is baked into the action the business - from the development of product ingredients and packaging, to its lobbying actions to fight for important long-term issues like climate justice. But that doesn’t stop Seventh Generation making brilliantly funny ads with Maya Rudolph - reminding us that a company’s vision doesn’t always have to be the primary marketing message.

9. The People’s Champion

The people’s champion fights for the rights of its customers in some way - taking on the big guys who have been taking advantage of customers or who are maintaining a status quo that is not in the interest of the people.

Bark could more correctly described as the ‘puppie’s champion’ - pledging to “loyally serve as the voice for dogs in a human-led world”. The business started out with its Barkbox treats subscription, but have now branched out to create its very first BarkPark in Nashville - a dream destination for dogs and their owners. At Bark, the customers are the dogs, not the owners, and their role in the world is to convince us that our dogs deserve the best.

“The big incumbents in the pet industry have convinced millions of dog people that “good” products are boring, and that “good” products don’t change for 30 years.” Allison Stadd, Bark’s VP of Brand Reach & Affinity told Adweek. “We have to convince a lot of people, especially folks in the pet aisle, that they can hold pet products to the same high standards that they expect from human products.”

Illustration of the BarkBox space by artist Dave Coverly.

Illustration of the BarkBox space by artist Dave Coverly.

10. The Real and Human

Perhaps now seen as a conventional branding approach in some categories, the real and human challenger is all about the people behind the brand - and injecting the personality of a strong internal culture into the brand’s tone of voice and communications. This narrative is most effective when it brings a sense of humanity to a serious or anonymous category, as we’re seeing in fin-tech and pharma.

Now you may not see the underwear category as a serious one, but it is one lacking in personality - is anyone really engaging with their brand of underpants? MeUndies is the exception to that rule. Through adorning its ‘world’s most comfortable underwear’ with a riot of colour and prints it certainly stands out amongst the monochrome alternatives, and the product is so loved that fans are more than happy to share their own #MeUndies on social.

As one of the D2C success stories of the last few years, MeUndies is using both its “Real and Human” personality and its business model to further break down barriers between the brand and the customer. By inviting its community to engage even further with the company by evolving its original subscription model to a membership, MeUndies is creating an even deeper relationship with its community.