The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!]


Challenger Brands That Challenge …

I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work with challenger brands.

Some were overtly challenger … some were more in terms of their internal attitude and approach … but in all cases, they were up for a fight and were happy to take it straight to the competitor they wanted to play against.

Now forcing people to pick a side is not a new strategy … it’s been around for ages.

From religions to rock bands to sport to almost everything in-between.

And while some of the challenger brands I’ve worked with over the years became the beast they were created to slay, what united them all wasn’t just their ambition, but their dedication to doing something that fundamentally challenged the convention.

I’m not talking about an ad that said they were different.

Or a single product ingredient that claimed they were different but were still exactly the same.

I’m talking about a fundamental, distinctive alternative to what has been there before.

From features, to behaviours, to values to standards to design.

All in commitment.

Shit or bust.

Now we have a lot of brands today that claim to do that and be that.

Brands that go direct to the customer.

Brands that offer their services on the internet.

In the majority of cases, they’re not real challengers.

They might like to think they are.

The people who led the change probably are.

But having an internet bank that claims to be different but offers exactly the same products and services – albeit with a ‘cool name and choice of ATM card design’ – is not challenging much.

Nor is the 15th razor/toothbrush/haircare company who go direct to their customers.

They’re definitely an alternative, but they’re not a challenger.

In fact, given in many cases, they offer no distinctive element to their product or service to build something bigger than simply supplying razor blades/toothbrushes/haircare products to people at the lowest rate possible, all they’re doing is commoditising themselves to oblivion.

No, challenger brands don’t enter the market with an attitude of ‘minimal viable product’ – which basically translates to “we’re interested to see if it works, but if it doesn’t – no biggie”, they enter it with fully focused, fully engaged commitment.

You can read a lot about these in Adam Morgan’s brilliant book Eating The Big Fish … though, because of when it came out, it only refers to a challenger brands from a certain period of time rather than the ones of the modern era … whether that’s Tony’s Chocolonely, Fenty, Fortnite or even Greta.

But the reason I’m talking about this is because of that picture at the top of the post.

The iconic ‘we try harder’ announcement by Avis.

Maybe the first example where marketing embraced being a challenger.

We forget how impactful this campaign was when it came out in the 60’s.

Back then, the industry was all about superlatives … the biggest, the most successful, the most loved etc etc.

For a brand to come out and say, “we’re not the first choice”, was a big thing.

But this was not a mere marketing trick, Avis did indeed have big ambitions and knew that the only way they stood any chance of making it was if they indeed, ‘try harder’.

From making sure every car was washed before it went out.

Checking that the glove boxes and – because this was the 60’s – ashtrays were emptied.

Customer service people trained to help, not just take your money.

Not having to wait for ages to get given your rental.

All sounds the standard now, but back then? No way.

And on top of that, they then ran ads telling people to complain if they found the experience didn’t match the promise … because they never wanted to be seen as having the passive attitude of a number 1 brand – where their goal is to protect their revenue rather than reward their customers.

Which leads to the point of this post.

This.

Yep, it’s a continuation of the We Try Harder campaign.

Though, calling it a ‘campaign’ cheapens it, because it was their purpose. I don’t mean that in the wank way it is being used today. At no point were Avis saying. ‘We Try Harder To Make The World Better’. No, this was all about them trying harder for them. Which is not only more believable, it had a genuine benefit to the people who used them.

Which leads back to the ad.

Specially, the ad that features the President of Avis’ phone number.

So you can complain.

Directly to them.

Imagine that today?

You can’t can you, because not only do companies – including Avis – give customers who wish to complain the absolute runaround with endless email forms, faceless processes and protocols – all while claiming this is a more ‘helpful and efficient’ process for their customers – but because you don’t feel many companies are really trying harder at all.

Now it’s all about efficiency.

Removal of friction.

Basically making you do it all yourself but charging you as if you weren’t.

Now I have to admit, I don’t know if this ended up being the real President of Avis’ phone number … even though I really hope it was … but I know this ethos drove that brand to continued growth for decades.

Sadly, at some point, it went from purpose to a tagline and then Avis as a cultural force was done.

Which is the big lesson for us all.

Because while few would ever start a company to be like everyone else, the reality is many end up doing just that.

And while we hear people all talking about being the next Apple or Nike, they have to understand you don’t get there with a playbook, you get there with a singular focus on what you believe, what you value and what you are going to destroy to create.


8 Comments

This post has been a welcome relief from a day of thanks and food.

The problem with many challenger brands these days is they are not challenging anything. Being a challenger is not about marketing, it is about challenging something fundamental about the category. If it can be summed up in one or two expressions of difference, it’s unlikely to be anything more than a marketing tactic.

Comment by George

This inspired me to write this: http://gavinheron.com/?id=dont-hide

Comment by Gavin

Bloody hell, you’re prolific. It takes me hours to write my rubbish and yet you can bang out thoughtful, sharp pieces in minutes. Damn you.

Comment by Rob

From you, that’s called “humble bragging”!

Comment by Gavin Heron

Labelling yourself a challenger brand, or the more modern equivalent a “disruptor”, is similar to WeWork describing themselves as a technology company. They rarely are but it sounds good for the story and the investors until the truth comes out.

Comment by Lee Hill

It’s not helped by the narrative of many agencies either, who push a ‘challenger brand’ story when there isn’t one. Worse, many are pushed by agencies who are the antithesis of challenging anything.

Comment by Rob

So many good points in here Rob.

“Challenger brands don’t enter the market with an attitude of ‘minimal viable product’ – which basically translates to “we’re interested to see if it works.”

“Having an internet bank that claims to be different but offers exactly the same products and services – albeit with a ‘cool name and choice of ATM card design’ – is not challenging much.”

And two observations I’ve paraphrased.

“Being an alternative is not the same as being a challenger.”

“Challenger brands often become the beast they were created to slay when they chase financial scale”.

It should all be obvious but it isn’t because companies, agencies and brands have co-opted it to suit their short term agendas of looking the part without being it.

Good way to end the week.

Comment by Pete

Why did you stop comments on mondays post?
It is nice to hear someone has had a positive 2020. You don’t have to feel bad about it Robert.

Comment by Geeorge




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