3 types of challenger brand strategy

You're in a growing category and want to challenge for a piece of it. Where do you start?

The first step is to understand that there is likely to be a dominant narrative in your category. By and large, competitors will all tell a similar story about their role in the world because that category has historically leant into a certain positioning, and over time this has become the accepted strategy.

For example, automotive brands will tend to adopt a 'Next Generation' strategy because cars are largely about technology and cutting-edge engineering. Beer brands tend to be playful 'Irreverent Mavericks' because beer drinking is sociable, and the leading brands have found success with this in the past.

The consequence of this of course, is that if a challenger really wants to cut through the noise in an already bustling market, the last strategy you want to take up is the one that the leader and those fast followers are already using.

So what this short guide offers is an introduction to three common but powerful challenger brand strategies, and a practical way to explore which strategy could hold the most potential for you.



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 because it believes it to be ethically or ideologically wrong.

REI's #OptOutside Campaign.

REI's #OptOutside Campaign.

Outdoor clothing company REI 'believe that a life outdoors is a life well lived.' A belief brilliantly brought to life by its award wining #OptOutside campaign which included closing all 145 stores on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, so that its 12,000 employees could spend the day outdoors.

Core strategic thought:

A challenger fired up with a view about the world it has to share, wearing a strong sense of purpose on its sleeve.

What is it challenging?

The belief system or foundations underpinning the category.

Why does its consumer respond?

Identification with the challenger’s beliefs about the category.



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

This type of challenger appeals to us at a more personal level than the market leader partly because it is making a human-to-human connection, rather than a brand-to-consumer connection. The tone of voice the brand adopts should reflect that.

Harry's are one example of a real and human brand. Its positioning challenges the emotional distance the large company, in this instance Gillette, often keeps between itself and its customers,

here is a small and idealistic group of people fighting to bring us something genuinely better

By bringing founders Andy and Jeff into communications, and having them share their deeply emotional relationship with the creation of their product, Harry's look to create a much more personal emotional connection than we've previously seen in the shaving category.

As consumers, we are given a sense that here is a small and idealistic group of people fighting to bring us something genuinely better, rather than a faceless brand with a glossy TV commercial doing what it does to maximise shareholder profits.

As a result Harry's has become more than just its shaving products, but through Andy and Jeff, the brand has become a compelling character in our lives. We trust Harry's more, and allow it to reach us in ways we might reject from a more distant, corporate competitor.

Core strategic thought:

A 'real' people brand in a faceless category. Often accompanied by the perception of 'small', in stature.

What is it challenging?

The impersonality and facelessness of the market leader.

Why does its consumer respond?

'At last some real people who understand what I am about'.



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.

PayPal for instance, effectively taking on physical currency itself, frames the choice as ‘new money’ versus 'old money', elegantly positioning paper money as dirty, inflexible and for a time gone by.

Core strategic thought:

That was then, but this is now. New times call for new brands and services.

What is it challenging?

The relevance of the market leader (and perhaps every other existing player in the market) to the modern world.

Why does its consumer respond to it?

‘New times call for new brands, and I am part of the new times’.



Spend some time exploring both the most comfortable for your brand and the, seemingly, crazy option. If you were to adopt one of these routes how would it change your offer? Would you be appealing to a different customer? Could you make it align with your values? Would it make you stand out? Push yourself to explore how these strategies could put clear water between yourself and the rest of the pack.