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Mike Abel asks are you a Challenger Brand or simply the Underdog?

Date posted: August 8, 2011

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M&C Saatchi Abel MD Mike Abel takes a closer look at the art of creating true challenger brands.

It seems to me that we have entered the time of the true Challenger Brand. Today’s zeitgeist is perfect for this as people are now looking for those who offer more, rather than those wallowing in the malaise of past successes and using it as the barometer for future trading.

mike abelA Challenger Brand as I apply the term, and having studiously avoided looking for formal definitions, is simply a brand or business that wishes to aggressively occupy the territory or market currently held by established others, usually through a differentiated offering and/or approach.

This definition usually applies to inanimate objects like product brands or companies, but can also apply to people or a mindset.

Robyn Putter and I used to talk endlessly about how brands can maintain a challenger mindset when they grow and become successful. Any new company needs to offer something special in order to succeed. Certainly one or more of the following: better product (functional or design), better price or value perception, better or easier distribution and better promotion (we’ll include advertising here).

Because initially this company has little to lose, it is aggressive in how it scrutinizes its emotional and functional offerings. Once this company succeeds however, it has something to lose, so instead of fearlessly innovating, investing and anticipating market shifts, it focuses its efforts on sustaining the status quo – market share, pricing, volume and margin.

It becomes far less about attracting the customer through understanding their needs and developing product around them, but rather about flogging the existing products and patents irrespective of consumer needs – and so the shift happens from a pull strategy to a push one.

Take Virgin, the darling of the 80’s and challenger for the skies, music, colas, banking and telecommunication. It is very easy to spot where the brand had real consumer traction, where it innovated and where it could or couldn’t deliver.

The airline and gyms were a winner at launch with strong and highly differentiated tangible and emotional products, so Bars and massages at 35 000ft, and in gyms, a great vibe and range of equipment for would-be fitness fanatics – even if you had the card and never went you felt healthier!

Richard Branson was also the perfect playboy personification of the brands’ ethos at the time – but he is 30 years older now and the brand is arguably identically positioned around him – I would imagine that would have some of the marketing folk scratching their heads.

It’s pretty obvious though, Branson is a “value system” wrapped up in a celebrity, it would not be overly hard to sustain the “brand values” but subtly evolve away from the individual…not that Sir Richard would want that I’m sure. Maybe his son or daughter could be the next Virgin flag-bearer?

But look at where Virgin has not found sustainable favour – cola, telco or financial services….the challenger brand cannot differentiate on emotion alone, it ultimately needs the product to back it up.

Similarly IBM was the bedrock of computer hardware. Indeed… Enter Michael Dell, Samsung, HP (they evolved quite nicely), Apple, Acer, Lenovo etc. Sony owned portable music (the Walkman) but the iPod (and more particularly iTunes) was the game changer.

Even the establishment can be swiftly brushed aside. Remember Nokia – they made cell phones. Smartphones are now the order of the day and the Scandinavian brand has completely missed out. Why? Too safe, too complacent or possibly so arrogant as to believe the brand overshadowed the competitor products?  It was obvious at the time that easy-roaming email was a killer app.

Challenging banking norms: I remember Investec phoning me about 16 years ago to join them. I was 27. They offered me a SAA Gold Card with my Investec card. They understood that as a young executive, I travelled and that I would want to use the lounge, collect extra points and then, even pay less on a financed car or bond than I was used to having to pay.  I moved banks at the time purely because of the SAA Gold Card. When the gold card was dropped a few years later as an offer, they had evolved their online banking to a point where the convenience of banking with them overtook the irritation of not having the airline loyalty programme benefits and status.

Challenging Medical Aids: Another example is Adrian Gore’s little stroke of genius in launching Discovery Health (not Discovery Medical Aid) with gym membership, movies etc. It was a lifestyle brand centred on health (and recreation) rather than the customers perception of being continually ripped-off by their medical aid – which was positioned all around sickness. It will be interesting to watch how their short-term insurance products or their investment products stack up. I don’t see the innovation that launched the brand. Look at what Outsurance did in the short-term insurance space. That gem of a notion “you’ll always get something out” was simple brilliance as it was focussed on a real consumer need and insight.

Seems obvious but the above examples above are all game-changing tactics – where little David can actually place that accurate shot twixt the eyes of Goliath. Many of my agencies’ current clients have come to us with precisely this objective. It takes more than lip service to become a challenger brand – it requires real change in behaviour.

What is your business or brand doing that’s better (for the consumer), easier (for the consumer), more inspiring or intriguing (for the consumer). What value are you offering on multiple levels – as pricing is far from the only measure of value and is often, the most easily replicated.

And if you own a territory in customers minds, don’t necessarily vacate it if you are challenged, rather look at how best to amplify or innovate around it e.g. Volvo should have owned safety in perpetuity and just launched hot product. The consumer would have said “Shit, have you seen those hot Volvo’s”. The safety property would certainly not have been a deterrent. Toyota should have continued to own reliability (no, I haven’t forgotten the small “brakes” episode) whilst evolving to sexier product. It is often best to retain the What and to evolve the How when the What has exceptional long-term resonance, as it is based on a fundamental human need.

So, moving swiftly off intangibles, let’s ask how is your personal brand? How original and relevant are you? Lady Gaga for instance is so frighteningly reminiscent of the Madonna of my early adulthood – the pointed bras, outrageous behaviour, ongoing reinvention and sexual innuendo. And even with some of the raw talent. One can easily see how she is a modern day challenge to the very market mindset that a “Madge” would own, were she as active as before – Gaga simply identified that today’s audience are looking for that type of persona all over again, and has mined that territory.

Similarly a Michael Buble’ CD would give Ol’ Blue Eyes a real fight on the CD retailers “shelves”. He and Frankie have the same offering just two generations apart – tapping into that need has found new relevance with today’s audiences. A Challenger Brand can easily identify a previously highly successful space that has subsequently been vacated and is now open for the re-taking.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across this great Oscar Wilde quote: “you might as well be yourself as everyone else is already taken”. This pertains to humans, brands and businesses.

Some people that set the personal brand rules include Jack Nicholson – pure class. Nobody quite like him. Love them or hate them, David Beckham, Elton John, John Lennon, Donald Trump, Desmond Tutu…..much like that great old Jaguar campaign line “a copy of absolutely nothing”.

Pity Jag didn’t remember that little pearl of wisdom.

My grandfather, who was an incredibly wise man, often used to say that “there is nothing worse than being a square peg in a round hole” – I guess that thought defined his time. I used to agree with him, but today I feel there’s actually nothing better. Square pegs are uncomfortable and they get noticed. Like pebbles in our shoes. They are different. They chart their own course and fight for a new or better way.

So how are you thinking differently about your brand and business? It’s not about simply wearing a waistcoat or a funny hat. You have to be authentic but you also need to tap into your bit of crazy.

It’s about taking calculated chances based on consumer insight.

Here’s the check list: Being a true Challenger is ultimately about making everyday lives simpler, easier and brighter – and therefore better; for our customers, our people and ultimately, ourselves.

There is absolutely no glory or sustainable future to be found in sameness.

Reprinted from the blog of Mike Abel.