10 ways to tell a challenger brand narrative


For all that people talk more than they ever did about challenger brands, all too often it is the clichéd and superficial view of what a challenger narrative actually is that persists: either ‘little brand explicitly calling out big brand’ or ‘turn every category rule on its head’.

But if we look at a new generation of challengers from the last ten years, do they really all fall into one of those two different approaches? A new generation, from automotive to betting to beer to tech, with marketing spends ranging from millions of dollars to nothing at all – would they all really be about just one of these two narratives?

There seemed to us to be an opportunity to learn from this new challenger generation, and put on the table a more evolved model of what it means to be a challenger. What if we were to group all the different challengers from the last ten years into the ten most common challenger stories they tell?

1. People’s Champion

The People’s Champion makes a very specific claim: that it is a challenger standing up for the consumer, who has been undeservedly – and perhaps even cynically – exploited by the establishment players in the category so far.

The People’s Champion is fighting to succeed because, it says, in doing so the real winner is you, the consumer – and if we both join together we can overcome the cynical fat cats that have been lining their pockets at your expense until now.

Virgin, for example, has historically tended to seek to occupy this space as a matter of course when entering a category: it always chooses to pick a fight with the way the category or the market leader is currently serving its customers – and always, it claims, on the people’s behalf.

2. Missionary

The Missionary is a challenger with a transparent sense of purpose. It is a group of people who see themselves as agents of change, a force for good, and who wear that bigger purpose with pride and ambition, inviting others to identify with it and share in it.

The Missionary challenges what it wants to actively change in the world around it, particularly in the category itself, often because it believes it to be ethically or ideologically wrong.

Not every challenger, let alone every brand, needs to have a sense of purpose. But the Missionary does – and it is this larger ambition that we emotionally attach ourselves to, or choose deliberately to walk past, as human beings as much as consumers.

3. Democratiser

‘‘Once and forever, we have decided to side with the many’, wrote Ingvar Kamprad, in ‘The World is full of Opportunities’, an internal guide for IKEA employees. From early in its life its founder wanted IKEA, in effect, to democratise.

As a challenger, 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.

It is often characterised by remarkable pricing (surprisingly low or free) and/or the deliberate sharing of knowledge that was previously only known by a few.

It challenges elitism, in effect. One might see TED as just such a democratiser, for example, sharing the world’s greatest thinkers and concepts with anyone with a thirst for ideas and knowledge.

4. Irreverent Maverick

Paddy Power added a giant jockey to a ancient hill carving in Oxfordshireahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

Paddy Power added a giant jockey to a ancient hill carving in Oxfordshireahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

This challenger narrative is one of provocation, a poke in the ribs, deliberately setting out to create controversy. Irreverent Mavericks are, in effect, counter-culture in a box.

There is for most of them no higher purpose or mission than to entertain and engage: they use wit and humour to challenge complacency and the apparent comfort of the middle of the road and political correctness.

Their currencies are salience, talkability, the media spotlight. And perhaps an amused gasp of disbelief.

How close to the wind they choose to sail defines whether they genuinely polarise the world, at least at the outset, or whether they appeal to a little of the irreverent in everybody.

But they exude the kind of energy and character most of us would like more of: think of the sparkling irreverence of the South African casual dining brand Nando’s, for example, or the madcap energy of Scotland’s Irn Bru.

5. Enlightened Zagger

Newcastle Brown Ale campaign poking fun at beer advertising.

Newcastle Brown Ale campaign poking fun at beer advertising.

The Enlightened Zagger is deliberately swimming against a prevailing cultural current. They are not simply zagging while the world zigs just for the hell of it; the key difference between this and The Irreverent Maverick is the ‘truth’ that the Enlightened Zagger reveals to us as to why they are taking the stand they are.

Very often this truth is something along the lines of ‘the world has gone mad in this particular regard, and I am calling the world out on it’. It is not behaving as a missionary, in the sense that it does not have any sense of higher moral purpose or stature.

It is simply saying that ‘I know a lot of the world seems to think this is OK, but in reality it’s BS, and I am calling it out for what it is.’

We live immersed in a media culture where we are constantly being told how we ought and ought not to live our lives, what we ought to do more of and what we ought to do less of, what is in and what is out.

We have television celebrities and lifestyle gurus, the tyrannies of cool on the one hand and productivity on the other, the social imperative of being always this and never that – and an astonishing amount of the world around the Enlightened Zagger seems to fall for it all. But not them.

Unlike the Irreverent Maverick, this stance is not about sticking two fingers up to the establishment, nor trying to move the world on. It is more often in fact about resisting change and defending values now seemingly lost, a deliberate rejection of current trends, behaviours and beliefs.

6. Real and Human

Shoe retailer Zappos' number-one priority is company culture.

Shoe retailer Zappos' number-one priority is company culture.

One of the qualities that many challengers share is the ability of the consumer to get a sense of the people behind the brand.

They appeal to us at a more personal level than the market leader partly because they are making a human-to-human connection, rather than a brand-to- consumer connection. And the tone of voice they adopt reflects that.

But with this particular challenger narrative the real, human presence of the people behind our challenger is made much more explicit, in its nature and implications; it becomes central, in fact, to what makes the challenger relevant and compelling in this market.

As a group of people they are challenging impersonality, challenging the emotional distance a large company keeps between itself and its customers.

And by being very explicit about the people behind their brand, about their often deeply emotional relationship with the creation of their product, and their commitment to product and service, this challenger looks to create a much more personal emotional connection.

With its greater emphasis on an individual commitment to quality and service, one is given a sense that here is a small and idealistic group of people fighting to bring you something new and good and special, rather than a faceless production factory with a glossy brand front doing what it does to maximise shareholder profits.

As a result these brands become more than just products or services, but compelling characters in our lives. We trust them more, and thus allow them to reach us in ways that we reject from the distant corporate brand.

7. Visionary

What is the difference between the visionary and the missionary?

The missionary is looking to put a newer, better ‘religion’ within the category. The visionary, on the other hand, is not setting its sights on tackling something that is wrong within the category – it is actually seeing what the real benefit of its product and service is, far above the functional, and setting a benefit and a future that transcends all the more ‘mundane’ ways in which the category currently thinks and talks about itself.

So when Starbucks in the 90s talked about ‘The Third Place’ as being that place in your life (between home and work) where you spiritually recharged and reinspired yourself, this was no longer about a mission to put a better cup of coffee on America’s table. This was a transcendent vision about the benefits of that experience and what it really represented in people’s lives.

8. Next Generation

The Next Generation Challenger challenges the appropriateness of the establishment brand for the times we live in today. It challenges the relevance of the past to a new world.

It may be thought that positioning oneself as ‘the Next Generation’ is simply an executional tactic, not really meriting a place in any kind of overview of challenger strategic narratives at all. But there are specific circumstances which can make this a very strong strategic option for an aspirant challenger.

So we might see challengers looking to use this kind of positioning to profit from, and perhaps accelerate, underlying improvements in its performance as well as shifts in the market context.

By elegantly positioning the incumbent as perfect for a time gone by, but being clear that time has now gone, the challenger can position itself as a brand for those wanting to be part of a new generation.

That was then, this challenger says, but this is now; new times and a new cohort call for new brands that truly reflect them – and we are one of those.

9. Game Changer

When a challenger brand sets out to be a Game Changer it isnʼt simply setting out to challenge category convention (like its Irreverent Maverick or Next Generation siblings) but to go further. Its explicit ambition is to change the way we think about and experience the category, through our relationship with its product and service.

The brands that have this capability– often rooted in experiential, functional technology challengers – typically present us with products and services that not only change the way we think about a particular category, but go as far as to change the way we live our lives altogether, in big or in small ways.

Becoming a Game Changer is not something you can simply intend to do or something you must convincingly announce. It is something you have to do.

This stance, perhaps more than some of the others, is not about taking a point of finding a new way to communicate your story or your ambition. It is less about identity and engagement and more about dramatising the experience.

It is an entirely new product, service or experience, wrapped in an entirely new category narrative.

And once you start changing the category, you need to keep changing it – or someone else will change it again for you. The only way to stay ahead is to think like the hungry challenger you once were.

10. Feisty Underdog

The Feisty Underdog is what many regard as the classic challenger stance, in part because Avis and The Pepsi Challenge, those two iconic challengers, both fit so famously this ‘David vs. Goliath’ model.

It is a perfectly valid narrative – we just need to remember it is only one of a number of challenger narratives at our strategic disposal.

The challenger that does adopt this narrative, though, aims to reduce the world to a binary choice – creating the emotional illusion that there are just two brands for the consumer in a category to choose between.

It offers at least an emotional reason to support the underdog (they root for the combination of our inferior stature on the one hand and our chutzpah on the other), and perhaps a rational product or service one as well.

In doing so, in comparing itself explicitly to one other larger player, it attempts to radically simplify consumer decision-making in the category.

Challengers don’t succeed by increasing choice in a category, they succeed by reducing it – reducing choice (implicitly or explicitly) to a decision for the consumer between the old or the new, the quiet or the loud, the sensible or the exciting.

And in the case of the Feisty Underdog, the bias is for explicit comparison, certainly inside the company and usually outside as well, and a comparison can help highlight their own virtues.

And the strategy can obviously extend to drawing the Market Leader – and the Market Leader’s communication budget – into that public conversation as well, and using the bigger player’s media dollars to give salience to the challenger’s own ambitions, and the conversation they want the category to have.