Written on: Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

The past few years have seen the rise of a new generation of what we often call challenger brands in all the markets, sport saw the arrival of Under Armour, Alcohol has seen the likes of Brewdog and The Kraken, Energy wowed us with Ovo and these are all brands that are taking the disruptive attitude to the next level to often huge success. 

This is all very exciting to see the manifestation of true David v Goliath battles for market share and fandom but what does it really mean to be a challenger brand today and what behaviours will we see in the year ahead and why is the idea of the challenger relevant for all businesses?

It was quite some time ago that we saw the first generation of so-called challenger brands such as the easyjet’s, Paddy Power’s and Virgin Atlantic’s etc. Within traditional sectors they brought a new dynamic to the existing, and supposedly fixed, staid, formulaic business models and those old models and attitudes were no longer defendable against new ideas, new models and services and the ‘maverick’ attitudes of these new ‘upstarts’. I am fortunate enough to have worked with many of the challenger brands, perhaps purely it was a case of right time right place but it’s been a great education to see how these brands took on the “establishment”.

Paddy Power brought entertainment and pricing odds beyond horse racing to the staid, flat cap world of bookmaking.  Easyjet shone a bright orange beacon across the expensive world of air travel re-engineering the economics of airlines and reimagining what it involved.  Frills and services gave way to value priced commodity travel.  And before Stelios, we saw Richard Branson slay the BA monster as the superhero Robin Hood of long haul.

With easyjet turning twenty and ‘growing up’ in its own words, where does this leave the concept of challenger brands and is the underlying formulae of challenging the status quo a strategy to follow going into the New Year?

Now, I’m no guru nor am I a betting man but my money is definitely on the mavericks and the challengers this year (2016). Those upstarts with their attitude, the edge and the lack of fear using their ‘shock and awe’ and their ‘surprise and delight’ to attract and embrace the modern day consumer.

Under Armour is the fearless underdog and innovator disruptor relentlessly winning consumers from the giant swoosh Nike and striking a zeitgeist with campaigns like ‘I will what I want.’  Ovo Energy has introduced personality, simplicity and dare I say it a little humanity to the pin stripe cartel of the ‘big six’ energy suppliers.

Being disruptive isn’t easy, markets now move at the speed of technology. We live in exponential times and the pace of change is accelerating. Adaptation requires radical transformation in marketing. It requires innovations to both your products and your business model.

Success through innovation means continuous disruption. Disruptive brands tend to grow in leaps and bounds, changing the trajectory of consumers’ viewpoint of the brand and the marketplace. They are vibrant, daring and authentic, and often are challenger brands, operating unseen below the radar until it is too late for the competition to react to their ascendency.

They often shape the culture itself in innovative ways. Apple is the best example that comes to mind. It broke all the existing norms and conventions and created consumer advocates that evangelised for the brand.

 Disruption is the new normal.

Disruptive brands understand consumer trends before they become trends and capitalise on them better than their competitors. Many of these brands understand the shift to a sharing economy and have designed their business model accordingly. For example, understanding that people avoid interruptive messaging, for the overwhelming majority of these brands traditional advertising is not a major component of their business model.

Disruptive brands are different from ordinary brands because they get people engaged and immersed in the brand’s equity. They often mention these brands to others and hold them in high regard, even coveting them.

“Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.” Richard Branson

When you do the deep dive into all of this and get to the nuts and bolts you realise what’s at the epicenter of every challenger brands DNA – ATTITUDE. It’s their attitude that says “no, I will not conform, yes I will watch what you are doing, and I will do the opposite, I am going to rewrite the rules of the game, not tell you about it and make you look old, out of date and irrelevant”.


Now,  this much I do know, being a Maverick is not easy, mavericks are feared and mavericks are often kept at arms length by those with traditional or corporate mentality or those with, frankly a weak disposition. I’d like to share from my own experience and research on the subject, a few strategic gems in the challenger mindset that marketers, strategists and communicators should look closely at:

Own a new truth and new language

Shine a light on a consumer need, attitude or want that no one has noticed or even talked about and talk about it in words that are new and fresh to the category.

Be a thought leader not a market leader

Share your point of view, personality and expertise with the world. Question relentlessly why industries do what they do and bring it back to the consumer.

 Take on the villain

Incumbents or monopolies represent gigantic bad guys and you’re Luke Skywalker. Use them to project your point of difference and inject emotion or doubt into the category purchasing dynamic.

Be cultural, embrace fandom

Challengers don’t play safe. They take risks to be relevant and noticed. This is the lifeblood of any brand. As well as the strategy, you need to build industrial strength behind the brand, customer service and communications system to make it all work.  Use super-fans of your product to lead the conversation and don’t sell on product features, campaign on issues.

Traditional mid-market brands do not question what they do and how they do it enough. They control when they should empower and decline slowly as a result. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is a little challenger brand in all of us. Bring it out and bring it on.


Be The Irreverent Maverick

This stance could be described as ‘counterculture attitude in a box’; think Red Bull, Paddy Power, Nando’s, Hell Pizza or Brewdog. The Irreverent Maverick uses wit, humour and sometimes shock tactics to puncture the status quo and attract a very particular audience to their brand.

To the challengers and the mavericks, we salute you.