In the Disrupter Economy, Everyone Wants to Be a Challenger

When legendary art director Helmut Krone was tasked with reinventing car rental company Avis’ advertising he went in a direction that took everyone by surprise.

His now famous tagline, “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder,” not only mentions the fact that the brand wasn’t a leader in its industry– it made it a selling point!

Krone understood an eternal truth: people love to root for the underdog.

Challenger brands, brands that are neither the market leader nor a niche entrant are just that: Davids taking on Goliath. They lack the resources of their rivals, but not their ambition.

They leverage their drive, their cunning, their superior agility, and their desire to bring about change to take the fight to the establishment brands.

It’s the kind of thing that could keep a Nike executive up at night, thinking about Under Armour and Adidas nipping at their heels.

Predictably Disruptive

Challenger brands feed on disruption. Under the status quo they will always be playing second fiddle so they pursue products and campaigns that will upend the normal state of affairs.

The current technological climate is feeding into that model. Because the rate of change is so insanely fast today, disruptions seems to pop up by the dozen.

Giant industries like the taxi and hotel business have be all but totally reshaped by the likes of Uber and AirbnbTesla is now worth more than Chrysler.

Not only does disruptor status make brands more desirable to consumers, it also helps to attract hot, young talent that wants to work at thoroughly modern and cutting-edge companies.

Owning Your Place in the Brand Lifecycle

Like anything that changes and grows over time, brands need to understand where they have come from and where they are going.

One brand lifecycle model predicts that establishment brands eventually get old and become what’s called a ‘dowager’ brand (brands that still carry weight and have an illustrious history, but are losing their place at the top of the food chain).

Think of Microsoft, once the undisputed king of tech, but now somewhat overpowered by newcomers like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. But dowagers can beget ‘prodigies,’ newfangled offspring like Microsoft’s Xbox and Surface brands.

Given enough time and success, a prodigy can become a ‘challenger,’ which is no mere neophyte, but a real aspirant to the throne. And should they succeed in their quest and become the ‘establishment’ brand, the whole cycle repeats.

Thinking Like a Challenger

When it comes to challenger status, Size and age are less of a factor than having a powerful mission and the will to see it through.

Apple celebrated its 40th anniversary last year, which isn’t young for any company, and is practically ancient for one that works in technology.

It’s also the 8th largest company in the world and the biggest in tech, beating challenger brand Samsung in revenue, profit, and market cap year after year.

Apple may have been the challenger when it faced IBM and later Microsoft, but it ultimately won both those contests.

Cupertino is a goliath if ever there was one. And yet somehow it has held onto its outsider ethos and still attracts passionate, talented, people who share its vision.

Playing Pirate

Challenger status is a mindset. Steve Jobs was a notable believer in having this attitude, having once said:

“It’s better to be a pirate than join the Navy.”

That ethos still imbues the company today. Apple has built a brand that is at once establishment and challenger.

They did it by advocating for something meaningful and then differentiating its products and company practices to align with that mission.

Not every business can (or should) develop its status as a challenger. For some it’s just a phase in a brand’s lifecycle, a rambunctious, spirited youth, that gave way to a mature, level headed adulthood.

But if your brand has the characteristic of a challenger, by all means, use it!