Make way for the challenger!

In today’s world, all brands are fighting to capture eyeballs or get those two minutes of attention from their target audience. The fight to grab the mindshare is intense, no matter which industry or region of the world you may be.

The concept of brands fighting to get noticed is not new. While in the pre-internet era, it was easy for brands to maintain leadership position and continue with their loyal customer base, the scenario is much different today. The digital era has reduced attention span, caused information overload and made it extremely difficult for the brands to continuously make an impact and keep their customers interested. Also, the customers have little time at hand and are generally juggling between multiple windows/ social platforms. These customers have low attention span. Hence, brands have been forced to rehash their strategy to create a loyal and engaged customer base.

The rise of internet and smartphone adoption has also led to the emergence of challenger brands.

What are challenger brands?

Challenger brands are known for doing the extraordinary and going beyond the usual. They have a vision for the future and challenge the status quo. These brands may not be market leaders or a niche brand, but they are different because of their mission-driven desire to make an impact.

These unconventional brands are committed to fight against a specific concept, which may or may not be linked to a social cause. They are lean, agile and smart and have a high risk appetite. Their marketing and brand strategy is also beyond the conventional and designed so that one would look up and take notice.  

Challenger brand strategy – a notch above the usual

Challenger brands are committed to bringing about a change. Their biggest USP is a convincing storyline. They challenge the existing perceptions- take the example of a brand like Dove, or are committed to add a social impact to their story, like ‘Body Shop’ is against cruelty to animals. These brands were driven by an unconventional storyline that appealed to their target audience.

The challenger brands start small but continue to weave their disruptive messaging in all their communication. However, their vision is razor sharp, giving them the focus in their messaging and communication. 

Challenger brands transform businesses. ‘Uber’ is one the biggest case studies of challenger brands that totally transformed the way one commutes. It offered a personalised, convenient, fast and clean experience of cab booking to its customers. It also created a new customer set- the cab drivers. Take the example of ‘Zomato’, another new age brands that changed the way food is ordered. Another example worth mentioning is that of ‘Virgin Atlantic’, one of the most popular business brands that calls itself the ‘underdog’ and not a ‘big business’, on its website. Virgin Atlantic’s case is of one of the most successful and loved airline brand that takes pride in its disruptive approach and continues to retain the entrepreneurial spirit.

Building a successful challenger brand

A challenger brand has a distinct PR advantage. This is because it always has interesting news and developments to share. Whether it is a unique point of view, innovation or a better story, the challenger brand has more than one reasons to be the ‘poster boy’ for the media fraternity. This approach also helps the brand to connect better with the youth, who like to be associated with brands that are all about redefining the rules.

There are numerous examples of challenger or underdogs who have done well in the market, like TikTok, Dollar Shave Club, Airbnb, Virgin Atlantic, amongst others. Another great example is that of Google and what it did to the state of search on the internet, and Skype that transformed the way we communicate with people online, even if they are on the other end of the world. These challenger brands offered a service that was above and beyond anything else in the space, which allowed them to earn the respect and attention of their audiences.

A successful challenger brand can be built by following these golden rules:

  • Be Bold: A challenger brand is bold in its communication and is not afraid to be vocal about its views, in case of a scenario that resonates well with its vision. Challenger brand is bold and fearless in its positioning. It picks gaps in the community and connects it with its own offering. To build a challenger brand, one should create content that has the potential of going viral and post this on social media channels. The downside here is that there might be instances of negative social media conversations. However, the brand needs to take this in its stride. 
  • Have a compelling storyline: One of the biggest differentiators for the challenger brand is the ability to craft a compelling narrative. Challenger brands know well how to tell the story. Storytelling helps a brand to build trust that in turn enables it to connect with and pull the customers on its side. The narratives are focussed on value and what the brand can offer to the customers. 
  • Share proofs: It is imperative for the challenger brand to share proofs of all its claims. When a challenger brand is making big claims in front of the media, it is advisable that it shares relevant support documents to validate their claim. This inspires confidence and helps to enhance brand credibility.
  • Leverage the social media: This is a must-do for all new gen challenger brands. In today’s times of digital, social media can act as a powerful tool for building brand awareness and recall. Some savvy challengers use social media to not only capture audience attention in innovative ways, but also interact and stay connected with the media. Challenger brand leverages the power of social media to create a distinct voice and brand personality compared to category incumbent. Brands have successfully leveraged platforms like Instagram to build engaged audience. A case study for this is Taco Bell that has been able to carve a niche positioning for itself as well as create brand recall, in a hyper-competitive market like India. Also, a challenger brand can work well on social media as it can inspire conversations and have an engaged audience.
  • Craft the strategy: It is important for a challenger brand to craft its strategy and abide by it. This is because a challenger brand ends up entering into a battle with the leader companies, to capture the attention of the specific target audience. While a market leader might have a larger team with higher budgets to give the required push, a challenger brand will have to carve its path with a much smaller team. A well-thought through brand strategy comes in handy to position a specific brand as a challenger.
  • Ensure transparency; it is important: A challenger brand needs to be transparent about its key developments, and more so in the times of social media when news can be leaked at the drop of a hat. This helps to build brand credibility. Fenty, the high-end beauty brand has built a brand narrative that promotes real and natural beauty.

Challenger brands can make a huge impact and dent the market share of the leader in the business. We have seen in the past that a number of top brands have followed the approach of ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, buy ‘em’. A couple of recent examples that comes to my mind are that of goibibo and Uber Eats, and how they emerged as top challenger brands in the startup world. The market leaders took notice and ended up acquiring them.

To conclude, the key to success with challenger brands is to continue pursuing your strategy. At no given point in time should the brand be rolled back into the “business as usual” syndrome. One should keep in mind that challenger brand marketing and communications are a long-term commitment, and continue following the golden rules for building a challenger brand.


The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Akanksha Jain
Akanksha is a seasoned brand communications professional with over 15 years of experience in working across global/digital public relations, corporate and brand communications, crisis communications, brand and market communications domains.

In the past, Akanksha has successfully planned and executed public relations/brands campaigns across India and over 30 other countries. She is a start-up specialist and has extensive experience of working with emerging brands. She has been associated with brands like Pine Labs, MobiKwik, VLCC and Power2SME and spearheaded their PR/brand/communication campaigns.

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