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Be a challenger brand starting now

challenger boxer making his way through a crowd towards a boxing ring

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Why read this? : We look at what it means to be a challenger brand. Learn how to set yourself apart from the market leader. We share examples of brands which do this well, and our thoughts on what you can learn from them. Read this to learn how to be a stronger challenger brand. 

It’s been another challenging year, right? But challenges make you stronger, like learning from your mistakes makes you smarter

In marketing, sometimes challenges are out of your control. They happen to you. You adapt, stay flexible and try to limit the damage. 

Competitors launch something new. Customer attitudes change. Retailers do a range review.

But a better approach to challenges is to be the one who sets rather than responds to them.

Person holding up an illustration of an angry face

You take the lead. Set challenges for others. Be the cause of change, not the victim of it. When you’re a challenger brand, competitors have to respond to you.

Clearly, it’s better to be a challenger than to be challenged. But you might be thinking the market leader’s the one with all the power to do the challenging, right? But let’s look at why that isn’t the case. 

The blessing and curse of market leadership

Every category has a market leader. The brand which sells the most. But market leadership can be both a blessing and a curse. 

It’s a blessing because you’ve already got customers. You don’t have to spend as much finding new ones. Plus, your size means you can negotiate better prices with suppliers and distributors. Sales are high, and profits are good. 

But, it can also be a curse. You want to defend that strong position. That means not taking risks. You usually go for a cost leadership competitive strategy. Keep prices and costs low to hold on to sales and profits.

This means market leaders are often predictable. And slow. Their decision-making is conservative. They play it safe. Market leaders do everything they can to keep the status quo.

(See our e-Commerce barriers and creative approvals articles for examples of the impact of this risk avoidance approach). 

In Clayton Christensen’s book, The Innovators Dilemma, he talks about a crisis point when market leaders are growing.

They become so focused on what’s driving their current success, that they become blind to the future needs of the market.

This short-term focus makes them vulnerable to brands who do look to the future.

That’s where challenger brands come in. 

What is a challenger brand?

Challenger brands are the #2 and below in the category. Anyone who’s not the market leader. 

Unlike the market leader, they’re not locked into cost leadership. They have more flexibility, can move faster and be more audacious. 

Their preferred competitive strategy is focused differentiation. They aim to be different and better. 

The term became popular through Adam Morgan’s Eating the Big Fish, which came out in 1999. 

This set out a way for challenger brands to think, act and grow.

To drive rapid growth by being thought leaders, rather than market leaders.

To act with speed, agility and focus to win new customers and build loyalty

This approach “challenges” the market leader and others. The brand tries to “overcome the (market leader) monster”. (See last week’s article on story types). It’s based on 8 challenger brand credos, which we’ll now look at. We’ll also share examples of brands we think do each credo particularly well. 

Break with the immediate past

There’s a concept in psychology known as the curse of knowledge

It’s a cognitive bias based on the idea that the more you learn about a subject, the harder it is to imagine what it’s like not having that knowledge.

You forget not everyone knows what you know. You lose sight of what and how non-experts think.

That can close you off to different ways of thinking. You’re committed to thinking a certain way because of the time spent gathering the knowledge.

A close up of an own with a quizzical look on its face

This means you’re not open to alternative views. You’re not interested in new approaches which change what you know. You become set in your ways. 

Market leaders have this curse. What they did to become market leader closes off their thinking. It makes them risk-averse. They’re locked into a view of the market and assume nothing will change. 

Challenger brands on the other hand don’t have this fixed mindset. They don’t start as category experts. They challenge assumptions with an open mind. Challengers look forward, rather than back, to find better ways to meet customer needs. 

Home movies

For example, look at how we watch movies at home. Blockbuster used to be market leader. You went to their store to rent physical copies of the movies.

Then, challenger brands like Netflix changed all that. The story goes that the idea for Netflix came about when one of the founders got annoyed by Blockbuster’s late fees. 

They challenged by finding new ways to deliver home movies. First with an online mailing service, and then with video streaming. 

Mobile phone on a table wth Netflix logo showing

It’s a great example of how product development as a source of growth can change markets (see our Ansoff matrix article for more on this). Blockbuster no longer exists. Streaming is the norm.

Netflix is a great example of a challenger brand rethinking how to meet customer needs. They challenged “the past” assumption, that you had to go to a store to rent a movie. They found a better way, which meant customers could rent movies without leaving the house. 

The book calls this approach intelligent naivety

Intelligent naivety

Challenger brands are open-minded. They question how things currently work in the category. And they have the imagination to find better solutions for customers. Why does the category have to be like this?, they ask. What could it be like if we did it differently? 

It’s easy to find examples. Budget airlines eliminating in-flight extras to keep flight prices low. Meal delivery services like Uber Eats where you order restaurant food online. Electric cars you “fill up” at home rather than at a petrol station. 

You need a culture which encourages breakthrough ideas for this. Challenger brands think about how to organise teams, resources, environments and processes to work this way. A strong challenger brand encourages creative thinking and pushes itself to be more creative

Be a lighthouse identity

Once you start to challenge assumptions, your view of what the category needs diverges from how the market leader sees it.

You think more about the future of the category than how it is now. 

But you still have to convert that thinking into a strategy and plan.

You have to create your brand identity, and as the Big Fish book calls it, make it a “lighthouse identity”.

The word HOW written out images of a lighthouse for each letter

This is an identity which clearly shows who and what your brand is, and creates an identity you project “intensely, consistently and saliently”. 

The lighthouse part comes from the idea that once you set your identity, you keep it relatively fixed and constant. It shines out into the world and customers use it to navigate. (Rather than you navigating to them). The identity shines out in your communications and in your customer experience.

Look at Red Bull’s “gives you wings”, for example. Their daredevil identity comes through in their Formula 1 sponsorship and PR events like the Stratos project where a stuntman parachuted from the edge of space.

Look at the famous Avis we’re number two so we try harder campaign from the 1960s. Those ads showed their identity with specific examples of their customer service standards. 

The lighthouse brand identity sets a clear and consistent point of view on what the brand stands for and how it acts. Customers should see the value in that view, and see it as uniquely part of your brand.  Customers who relate to the identity feel “this is a brand for people like me”.

Become the thought leader

“Thought leader” has become a bit of a cliche these days. But back when Eating the Big Fish first came out, it was quite a radical thought. 

The traditional view of a business that “leads” the market is the one that sells the most.

But, challenger brands can “lead” the market, by being the fastest with innovation and new ways of thinking and doing.

It’s about speed, not size. 

Skull - Marketing Creative Selling

It challenges the assumption that size drives success. Instead, it suggests how you do things is more important in the long run. Challenger brands lead the market by challenging the way the category works.

For example, air travel used to be expensive. But challenger brands like Southwest in the US, EasyJet in Europe and Jetstar in Australia changed the way customers think about air travel with cheaper, no-frills options. 

When Apple launched iTunes back in the early 2000s, they challenged the way customers thought about buying music. You no longer had to buy a whole album, buying individual tracks for 99c instead. 

Thought leaders see problems differently and find better solutions for customers. 

For example, when Google started, it had plenty of competitors in the search engine market.

Those competitors saw search as a way to sell advertising space though. They bolted on extra content resulting in clunky cluttered search pages.

But Google realised this customers didn’t want this. Their clean stripped-down search page changed the way people thought about search.

Google hmne page on a Samsung phone lores

Create a symbol of re-evaluation

The next way to drive a challenger brand approach according to the Big Fish book is to create a symbol of re-evaluation. 

This symbol becomes a brand asset, either tangible or intangible, which acts as a shortcut for customers to understand the brand identity. 

These assets could be something simple such as a brand logo or icon.  The book references the Nike Air Jordan jumping man symbol, for example. Or it could be something much more experiential, with lots of public relations impact. 

Brand identity asset classification examples

For example, Red Bull’s Flugtag challenges people to come up with novel ideas for human-centred flight. This is a great symbol of the Red Bull “gives you wings” brand identity by asking people to build their own wings.

You can also build the symbol into how you deliver the product or service. 

Take Starbucks, for example. We take baristas for granted now. But when Starbucks first came out, the idea of having staff rigorously trained to make the best coffee was novel. Their barista training was a symbol of their identity as passionate about great coffee.

Or think about how Tesla has challenged how people think about electric cars. Electric cars used to be deeply unfashionable, looking like science experiments, or with slow performance like the Toyota Prius.

However, Tesla has shown electric cars can also be stylish and have high performance. They use the design and technology of their cars as a symbol to make customers think differently about the category.


There’s a well-known quote from Michael Porter that the essence of strategy is choice. Not just what you choose to do, but what you choose not to do. 

Challenger brands have fewer resources. They have to choose not to do some things to focus resources on the things which matter most. Their competitive strategy is focus differentiation, and that means they get rid of anything which doesn’t fit that focus.

For example, in the toddler formula milk market, many brands use price discounting as a way to attract mums and stop them from switching to cow’s milk. 

But brands like Aptamil who focus on quality don’t price discount. That’d go against their lighthouse identity. They sacrifice short-term gains for the longer-term gain of having a high-quality image. 

Apple is one of the best-known challenger brands for sacrifice. They limit their range. They remove features to make their products simpler and more stylish (part of their lighthouse identity), rather than add features customers don’t need. 

Deliberately divisive positioning

Sacrifice also appears when you deliberately position a brand to NOT attract certain segments of the market. Some challenger brands use a divisive positioning to put off customers they don’t want, which creates stronger bonds with customers they do want. 

For example, brands like Marmite and Laphroaig whisky have run campaigns which polarise opinion by saying this product’s not for everyone. Love it or hate it. It’s better to have a mix of people who love and hate your product, than a bunch of customers who find your product average. 

Challenger brands sacrifice the middle ground to own a specific territory in customers’ minds.


When challenger brands go after a specific positioning, they go after it hard.

They dedicate all their resources – people, time and budget – to owning that position and go beyond a “normal” level of commitment. 

For example, in Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, they talk about the US department store chain Nordstrom and how their position is around exceptional customer service.

Their challenger brand identity is they go far beyond what other businesses do to keep customers happy. 

For example, there’s a story about a Nordstrom customer who got a refund on a set of tire chains. Even though Nordstrom has never sold tire chains.

Another story talks about a customer who’d bought a product at Macy’s but came into Nordstrom’s to get it gift-wrapped. 

This level of commitment through a whole business demands a challenger brand culture. This defines how the business does things, and leadership teams have to show the way and back up their teams. 

It often means breaking assumptions about how businesses should work. Challenger brands think differently about finances, operations planning and measurement. They overcommit to deliver their identity. Everything else comes second.

Enter popular culture

The way challenger brands act, with breakthrough ideas and commitments to new approaches can often capture the public’s imagination. 

They can become “hit” brands, which become part of popular culture.

They’re seen as the most popular, used by the most influential people, and the most talked about. 

Eating the Big Fish came out before social media really took off.

Inside a concept hall, lots of confetti flying in air, with audience reaching out their hands towards it

But you can see in the likes of Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, that challenger brands do well in those channels. Brands and culture are more closely linked together now than in the past. 

Challenger brands become more popular when they associate with popular influencers. And those influencers get more popular, as they associate with popular brands. 

Challenger brands can’t match the advertising spend of the market leader. So smart public relations, especially connecting with influencers, can be a cost-effective way to increase their appeal.

Out of all the approaches Eating the Big Fish talks about, this one is the most debatable. Certainly, some brands can and should do this. But you can still be a challenger brand, even if your category or context will never be a good fit with popular culture. 

Become ideas-centred

The final area of the challenger brand approach is to be ideas-centred. To have a pipeline of ideas you use to create momentum.

One idea isn’t enough. You need a stream of new ideas coming through.

Challenger brands don’t sit still.

They come up with new ideas to push the boundaries of their lighthouse identity and their overcommitment to being a challenger.

Close up of a man's hands holding a light bulb that's illuminated

New ideas stimulate the imagination and stop customers from getting bored. They strengthen the challenger brand’s competitive position and keep the customer relationship fresh. 

Challenger brands that get it right create a culture that champions breakthrough ideas. They thrive on creativity and create a customer experience that’s authentic, relevant and long-lasting. 

Conclusion - Challenger brands

Challenger brands aren’t the biggest in the category, but they’re often the smartest.

They can’t outspend the market leader, but they can outthink and outplay them.

Challenger brands don’t accept the status quo. They shake it up. 

Challenger brands take more risks, move faster and focus more. They challenge the market leader because they do what the market leader can’t. 

challenger boxer making his way through a crowd towards a boxing ring

Being a challenger brand means being comfortable with challenge. Challenger brands don’t have it easy. You take on a competitor who’s bigger, has more money, and who your target audience already knows.

But fortune favours the brave. It also favours the smart. Challenger brands need to outthink and outplay the market leader. We challenge you to think and act like a challenger brand this year.

Check out our how to be a more creative company and how culture drives breakthrough innovation articles for more on this. Or challenge us to help you be more of a challenger brand.

Photo credits

Entering the ring : Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

Angry face : Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Owl : Photo by Joe Green on Unsplash

Netflix : Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash

Skull : Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Google Tablet : Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

Confetti : Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Light bulb : Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash

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