Build a challenger lighthouse identity


Success as a challenger brand comes through developing a very clear sense of who you are and where you stand as a business. And then projecting that identity intensely and consistently, to the point where, like a lighthouse, consumers notice you even if they are not looking for you.


In human societies, goods have always been a form of communication - to the outside world and to oneself. Now we would go a stage further; we would suggest that brands have become a form not simply of communication but of navigation. Brands that flourish today are those that have a very clear sense of who they are - that is to say, not simply a distinctive identity but a strong and self-referential identity; they stand out from the competition by their intensity and confidence in themselves.

That consumers find the self-confidence of such brands appealing should be no surprise. In life, people are drawn to strength and to people of character who are true to themselves. In marketing life, in using goods as communication or even navigation, people are drawn to strong brands. This strength can come from the familiarity and ubiquity of a brand leader as number one; if you are a challenger brand, it comes from an intense projection of who you are.


A challenger brand is one that has a very clear sense of where it stands, and why it stands there. This sense of self is built on rock and projected in a point of view about the way the world is, or the way the world should be, in everything that it does. The result being that, like a lighthouse, you notice it even if you are not looking for it.

Let’s break down these key elements a little more clearly:

  1. POINT OF VIEW. They have a very particular take on how they see the world. The predominant purpose of a challenger brands’ every marketing action is to tell us where they stand. They offer an emotionally based point of view about the world. They don’t attempt to tell us something about ourselves—and they certainly don’t attempt to navigate themselves with reference to us.

  2. INTENSITY. They offer an intense projection of who they are in everything they do. Weak preference will not cut it for a late entrant: challengers need to be vivid.

  3. SALIENCE. They are highly intrusive; one cannot avoid noticing their activity even if not actively looking in their direction—that is, shopping their category.

  4. BUILT ON ROCK. Their identity is built on a product or brand truth that is inarguable. This inarguable truth gives them legitimacy and credibility in the stance they are taking, a way of owning it in a very competitive world, and a compelling conviction that the stance they are taking is one that is uniquely theirs.


At the heart of a challenger brand is a strong opinion. A very particular point of view about the way the world should be, what counts and does not count in it. They take a position based on a deep-seated belief.

In 2002, facing a US launch, Mini created a richly developed belief about a new driving culture, and what it believed a driving culture should be like, that was at direct odds with the natural trajectory of the prevailing category culture. The US driving culture that the Mini was launching into was one, as we have already seen, in which, on one very critical dimension, it could not win: This was a culture at whose heart the key principle was ‘‘bigger is better.’’ And it had always been like this - from the days of fin-tailed Cadillacs with ‘‘same-day steering’’ right up to a more modern love affair with light trucks and SUVs. And Mini was one brand that could not win in a ‘‘bigger is better’’ car culture.

Mini: "Let's Sip, Not Guzzle."

Mini: "Let's Sip, Not Guzzle."

So the Mini team looked at this current driving culture and asked themselves: Even if we could be part of the predominant American car culture, would we want to? Look at it—a culture of people flipping fingers at each other, of road rage, of selfish parking. A world of ‘‘eat lunch or be lunch.’’ So they looked to come up with and champion a new kind of car culture that they could believe in, and one in which they could thrive. A different kind of driving culture: one where people volunteered jumper cables, stopped intimidating each other, paid strangers’ tolls, and kept their hands off the horn. And then, to really make it own-able, the team pushed the thought further: They said to themselves that they needed a new piece of language to describe this new kind of automotive culture: something other than driving. So they took up motoring and the rallying cry ‘‘Let’s Motor.’’ And around this thought they built the idea of a whole alternative driving culture into which the wonderfully diminutive car could fit. And one in which it could, and did, succeed.


The purpose of a lighthouse identity is to invite and create a more intense relationship between challenger and user, however the latter is defined. A challenger brand does not break through in a mature category by being more convenient or trustworthy (though both these might be important basics for it to deliver on); it succeeds because it offers the consumer an emotional reward and/or relationship that the establishment brand cannot match. While key aspects of the product mix may satisfy certain rational needs, then, challengers do not tend to succeed through the satisfaction of those rational needs alone (there are rarely many rational needs left in any given mature category, anyway); instead, through a lighthouse identity they invite a realignment of the consumer’s emotions.

The challenger brand has to possess a stronger, emotionally based relationship with the consumer than the market leader. Being equally as strong is not enough. Indeed, we suggest there is a graduating scale of positive affiliation with a brand that looks something like this (let us leave aside negative equity for the moment):

  • Indifference. A decaying brand is treated with indifference. It becomes a commodity or dies.

  • Reassurance. A well-established brand leader that has failed to renew itself offers reassurance. This is valuable for a while in new categories the consumer is afraid of, like technology or art, but it is inadequate in categories wherein a consumer is more confident, like gourmet food.

  • Weak preference is vulnerable to competitive pricing or other aggressive retaliatory tactics. It may be sufficient in high-volume, low- interest categories like fast food but will probably be insufficient for a challenger that needs to build momentum or change buying behaviour in spite of distributional disadvantages.

  • Enthusiastic preference should be the benchmark to which a challenger aspires.

  • Identity is where the preference is such for the user to identify itself with what the brand offers. Apple has enjoyed the same emotional identification. The apparently innocent statement ‘‘I’m a Mac user’’ masks a host of other related beliefs in the user’s own creativity, perspective on the world, and originality of thought.

  • Enhanced self is where the brand finds itself not simply so in tune with what users want to be or to do that it builds identification, but where it actually confers something on consumers they didn’t realise they wanted but makes them feel, once they experience it, more than they were.

We can see, then, that as far as a brand is concerned, in all practical respects the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Indifference is certainly dangerous to a challenger, but so is weak preference. Enthusiastic preference is the least a challenger should be aiming for.

In order to achieve this degree of preference, we have to have and project a very clear sense of who we are and what makes us different.


A lighthouse identity intrudes on one’s consciousness: One notices it even if one is not actively looking for it. So, while you may not be a leggings wearer, you could tell me what American Apparel stands for. This salient understanding has partly to do with the identity itself and partly with the way the challenger expresses that identity through its marketing communications and behaviour.


Lighthouses are built on rock. We want firm foundations for our point of view that we can credibly own, rather than having it be a piece of puffery. And we need that rock partly also to found a fierce belief in it ourselves, to ourselves, to our customers and business partners, and to our consumers. One fuels the other: If a clear identity gives differentiation externally, it also gives self-belief internally - as long as it is founded on rock.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of rock available to us: a brand (or company) truth and/or a product truth.

In the case of the brand or company truth, this often lies either in the circumstances and reasons for the original creation of the brand or in building from one of the brand’s unique (though sometimes forgotten) equities. If we look at MAC cosmetics, for example, its identity—which is about a very public embracing of diversity in people—is founded on its origins, born as it was from the Toronto drag scene.

The other key kind of rock on which to build is obviously a product truth - some dimension of product performance. Knowing that our brand is different - better than the establishment brand we are taking on in some key dimension - affects not simply our own performance and attitude, but the relationship with our customers. Brand leaders operate a ‘‘just enough’’ strategy. Just enough mushrooms in the sauce, just enough thoughtfulness in the ergonomics of the bottle, just enough quality control in the product sourcing, just enough courtesy at the check-in desk - and only one packet of peanuts per passenger per flight.

Yet while ‘‘just enough’’ is at some level simply good commercial sense for a brand leader, it creates an opportunity for the challenger to create product enthusiasm, not just product satisfaction.

Over-performance, then, has many benefits for a challenger. It is not simply an extreme point of difference that justifies the emotional position the challenger adopts. It is not simply to create fanatics and apostles in the user base, although all these are important. Its other value is to create supreme self-belief and conviction within the company, and this is something that can be detected by those outside the company. Over-performance shows the company really cares about the product, which in turn means it is committed to delivering on the brand promise.


In his first weeks back at Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs made a speech to the resellers in which he talked about what Apple stood for. It was not about making boxes that helped people do their jobs, he said, though it did that well. The company, was fundamentally about a belief - a belief that people with passion could change the world for the better. And, he said, Apple had always been about that - the launch of the Mac and the 1984 execution being shining examples of this. And, he went on, while he recognised that the world had changed enormously (the competition, the pricing, the technology, the retailing landscape), beliefs and values should not change; instead they should be reinterpreted for a new world.

If we work on a long-established brand, part of our task is to properly understand our past: why we began, what we believed when we began or when we were at our strongest, what our equities were then, and amongst whom their strength lay, and why.

Dove's campaign for Real Beauty.

Dove's campaign for Real Beauty.

In 2004, Dove launched its campaign for Real Beauty. While we as marketing observers felt this was a dramatic new point of view and voice for the brand, those responsible for creating it were very clear that in reality it was significantly rooted in a perspective that the brand had long held. The primary communication for the brand for years had been very simple endorsement advertising featuring a real woman, talking honestly to camera. And this understanding helped give foundations and confidence to the legitimacy of ‘‘Real Beauty’’ as a unique and own-able place to stand for Dove moving forward.

So, we need to surface a deep understanding of the brand’s past, its beginnings even. Past equities, why it was started, its initial intent and reason for being. Why it was successful when it was successful, and what that would mean today. Look for inherent truths that, while we may not be able to simply re-express for a new world, may yet provide a fertile source for a long-term, own-able place to stand.


The impact of a lighthouse identity extends far beyond communications. Let’s not think that we are going to simply look for that expression to come in the form of punchy ads or supercharged viral marketing. We may not have the money for either, and certainly we will not want to rely on either. We are instead going to look at everything we have as a potential medium.

Aesop's packaging.

Aesop's packaging.

A number of iconic challengers have shown us that that we all have far more media that we think we do: We just may not be seeing them as media at the moment. Our understanding of packaging, for instance, and how we use it, has undergone a sea change over the past decade. We see Aesop observing that in a high-visibility location like your bathroom or by your kitchen sink, the packaging is in effect a part of the product, and so the structural aesthetic of the packaging can be a key part of projecting what you stand for, even in a hand wash. We see Oatly using continually changing body copy on its packaging to build a one-to-one relationship with each user, one carton at a time.

Our ability and willingness to lean into using media in this way would be enhanced if we all used the frame that innocent does. Innocent is famous for its informal chattiness, from the embossing on the bottom of the bottles, to the constantly changing package copy, to the delivery vans in the guise of cows or fields, to the customised displays on its fridges. These are called ‘‘House Media’’ by innocent—not packaging or vans or fridges, but House Media—materials and objects which you have to produce anyway and which therefore ambitious challengers could and should be using as media to project what they stand for.


At the centre of the lighthouse identity is a belief-driven point of view about the world. And a point of view that we see evidenced in what brands do as well as say.

The past decade, by contrast, has seen a lot of paper tigers - brands aspiring to be challengers (‘‘Here’s what we believe! Go to our website and read our manifesto!’’) without any real manifestation in differentiating behaviour. But a belief system, if genuinely evidenced in such a way, does indeed create a trust in challenger brands among consumers, a kind of shorthand for them in a world of confusing choices and fragmented meaning.

Because challengers are based in this point of view, or belief system, lighthouse identities do not, at their core, change a great deal over time. They may be faced with new kinds of market dynamics to respond to and new opportunities to meet - they may even be at the centre of huge relaunches of the business - but at their heart they remain the same.