What is a challenger brand?

We want you to love us or hate us,
we just don’t want you to be indifferent.
— Shane Smith, Vice Media CEO

A challenger brand is defined, primarily, by a mindset – it has business ambitions bigger than its conventional resources, and is prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.

While the most common narrative associated with the challenger brand is that of the underdog, this is no longer the most frequent form of challenger; challenger brands today are more often focused on what they are challenging (about the category drivers, or the customer experience, for instance), than who they are challenging.

Think of Warby Parker challenging overpriced designer eyewear, for example, or Ella’s Kitchen in the UK challenging childhood obesity. Being a challenger brand today is less about business enmity, and more about an often mission-driven desire to progress the category in some way in the customer’s favour.

There are considerable strategic and cultural advantages in being a challenger brand. You don't have to be all things to all people; you can choose a place to stand and something to believe in; you can focus on brilliantly delivering that and that alone - even if, while some people love you, others sail right on by.

And that clarity around what you are challenging releases an organizational focus and energy that the market leader cannot match.

You are not necessarily seeking to be number one; there is a perfectly healthy living to be made as number two or number three in your market.

But to be one of those brands, you will have to put some air between yourself and the competition. You cannot be just another middle-market player; you have to be a strong number two.

And you can't get there by behaving like a smaller version of the Big Fish.


There are three criteria for a challenger brand, outlined in 'Eating the Big Fish II':


Challengers are by definition not the number one brands, nor are they niche.


This is what really characterizes challenger brands - being number two (or number six or eighteen) is at some level simply an accident of birth. Challenger brands have a mind-set that encompass two key differentiators:

  • Business ambitions that exceed their conventional resources.

  • A preparedness to accept the implications of that gap between ambition and resource – a consequent need to introduce a new way for the consumer to engage with or benefit from the category, and a bold and imaginative way to communicate that.

From this point of view being a challenger is as much about the culture you create and sustain as the strategy you pursue.


Challenger brands enjoy significant and sustained growth through their marketing actions. This is not to say that they are still and always growing, but that there is a period of their life from which to learn from.

Conversely there are some leaders who still profess to deliberately adopt a ‘challenger mindset’, even after becoming market leaders.

Although in some sense number one in their category, they feel that their category – and the competition – is potentially changing so quickly that the only way to maintain growth and a strong customer relationship is to be the first to continue to challenge the status quo, even if it means disrupting some of their own best practices, products or services in doing so.