The Challenge of Being the Challenger Brand
Written by: Josh LaJoie
As humans, we love the pursuit of understanding. Specifically, we enjoy the lifelong adventure of understanding ourselves. We embrace our individuality. We marvel at our uniqueness. We bring these qualities to the world in the hope of being an influence.
In parallel, there shouldn’t be a surprise that brands enjoy embracing their individuality too.
In recent years, brand marketing has begun using brand archetypes to help spark conversation about the qualities of brands, the motivators, and the mindsets. Brands can then use these characteristics to frame their company culture and brand messaging.
The label that is potentially growing the fastest during this rise of brand development and individuality is that of the Challenger Brand.
The internet has a relatively loose definition of the Challenger Brand since this concept is still new and unconcluded. With such a loose understanding and obscure descriptions, this also raises the question of whether this categorization is real or just another development from marketing elites.
There is no consensus or source of truth; however, there are several attributes that can be agreed on for what a Challenger Brand is and does.
A Challenger Brand:
Is about attitude
Is bold and dramatic
Is a rule-breaker in its category, challenges convention
Has distinct and distinguished brand values
Embraces the cultural narrative of “now”
Communicates its vision and values across all audiences; not niche, not singular
Often, Challenger Brands are labeled as innovators or disruptors within their category space. Sometimes they are also labeled as a Disruptor Brand. This can be true but is not necessary. Disruptor Brands are in the process of “changing the game,” but Challenger Brands are about attitude and mindset, embracing unique values and narratives, and communicating them to the world.
So do Challenger Brands actually exist? Well, yes, but there is a catch. By claiming to be a challenger, a brand can get caught in thinking that the label does the work for them, or an even more delusional thought: that the label stays forever. Neither of these is true.
Renowned psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung summarized it best: “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” This is true for brands as well. It’s about what you do. It’s about what you practice, internally and externally. You are not a challenger just because you say you are. You must act as a challenger to be a challenger. And once a challenger does not mean always a challenger either.
A prime example of this role evolution can be found with Apple. Having started with the attitude of design-first, user-first, and “for-the-creative type,” Apple stormed into the limelight as a challenger, then a disruptor, a thought leader, and now having settled someplace between establishment and innovator.
A contemporary brand with the challenger mindset is Patagonia. While they are well known and prominent, they by no means set the standard for outdoor lifestyle and retail brands. Instead, Patagonia stays true to its bold approach to the category: quality, sustainability, and eco-friendliness.
What this also means is that any brand can become a challenger. Brands do not need to remain stagnant. They can reinvent. They can change their mindset, change attitudes, and challenge the conventions they may have even helped to establish.
If anything, the rise of the Challenger Brand label is an invitation for contemporary thinking, but elusively so, since “contemporary” is always now and the moment that comes after now, and not the moment that just happened.
It can also be argued that these are simply the principles of good business, a strong brand, and a category leader.
So embrace innovation. Establish your values. Find your narrative and express it boldly and broadly. But don’t stop there. To be a challenger means always reinventing and always challenging.
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