by Carl Cardinelli (@CarlCardinelli) We all love a good underdog story, don’t we? Watching eagerly as the improbable dethrone the mighty. Against all odds, David topples Goliath with nothing but pure spirit, unbridled mettle and a precise aim. The crowds cheer. An impossible triumph realised, slinging self-belief into the hearts of those who watch in awe.

But time makes David complacent. He’s bigger than ever, arrogant, and no-one dares stand in his wake, yielding anything but offers of gold and bows of praise. David, the man we once lifted upon our shoulders with newfound faith, has become the man he stood against all those years. From the second stone met temple, David was, and forever will be, Goliath.

Challenging challengers’ challengerness

Where our favourite underdog stories were once those of inspiration, determination and perspiration, they are fast becoming the default marketing narrative. The go-to, for both those deserving and underserving of the title. Rule rather than exception. It used to be shit to be the underdog. Now it’s cool. But like when your dad says cool. I shudder to think that these miraculous spectacles will one day be trivialised to be the norm.

Why? The word ‘challenger’ is thrown around too often of late. Challenger brands, challenger agencies, even challenger banks. Yet the word “challenger” has an infinitely broader meaning than it once had. The title was once strictly governed, and reserved for those special few crazy enough to square up against giants. Zaggers; who bravely (see stupidly) inspired others to follow them into uncertainty. Apple and Virgin made the term famous, and opened up fertile lands to plough — lands now bristling with weeds.

The definition of a challenger brand is as follows, according to

A challenger brand is a company, product or brand in an industry that is not the category leader. The term denotes the fact that such companies have to play from a position behind the dominant player or leader in an industry. This makes the process of marketing significant to attracting customers.

Thanks, “the ’80s”. We love you, but nostalgia has no place in business.

Nowadays, challenger brands may be any entity that adopts one of the following philosophies:

  • Taking on giants
  • A positioning built into the ethos from the start
  • A hugely differentiated product offering to the top players
  • Where the category cries for a fresh approach
  • Where the category lacks a consumer-centric hero
  • Disrupting the category
  • The battle for top position among leaders

That last point is where confusion spawns. The argument that everyone in a category who doesn’t occupy the top spot can be described as a challenger brand. Meh. In that case, 99.999% of us are entitled to the title. Everyone’s special — therefore no one is. Crapcakes. Fortunately, it’s this kind of thinking that is exposing the imposters. It’s a misconception that will reveal the true challenger brands among us.

Challenger status is NOT awarded on position. It’s given on a positioning of pure spirit, unbridled mettle and a precise aim.

In my opinion, being a “challenger brand” is a state of mind. It’s a vision too often lost with the benefits of growth, financial stability and bureaucratic processes required for large-organisation runnings. If I had to sum up the characteristics of true zaggers, they’d go something like this:

Pure spirit:

Sacrifice, a notion which true challengers are all too familiar with. They have less of everything. Resources, cash flow, sleeping hours. However, due to the challenger gene being prominent in millennials, the brightest are no longer subscribing to the old-world view of working for the top dog — but rather the rough yet rewarding seas of smaller companies punching above their weight. Staying small keeps them nimble, agile and hungry, creating environments conducive to play. And, in a lot of ways, it makes them more scrappy. And speed is the name of the game — and the key players seize culturally compatible opportunities for rapid growth. The visionary behind the brand is always at the forefront, ensuring involvement in every single aspect of the business. There are no ‘bosses’ here. They keep pushing themselves because the task is not only to produce better work on smaller budgets than the big boys, but they’re also tasked with making ends meet. Importantly. they never lose sight of where they’re going. Idealism reigns supreme.

Unbridled mettle:

Challenger brands over-commit, under-promise and over-deliver, every time. Bravery — the common denominator. Unless you’re lying awake at night shitting the bed with regards to your latest piece of work — you’re not a challenger. Zaggers, naturally, need to challenge everything they do. The leader. Status quo. The brief. The client. Large agencies have the fortune(s) and misfortune of large clients — and they will rarely (read hardly) take a leap of faith that could leave a (time-dependent) scar on their life’s work. Would you? I would. Complacency is a synonym for dying.

Precise aim:

Challenger brands have the advantage of being extremely focused. They operate with care in everything they do — basing their quick decisions upon informed naivety. Every single thing they do is a step in the ladder to the top. Screw something up, and it becomes a lot harder to bridge the gap. Their marketing and communications are always on point. They are driven by purpose, as they are not big enough to have forgotten what it is they stand for or why they started in the first place. They have the ability to be immensely reactive and targeted. Finally, everything they do is aimed at and measured upon impact. No bureaucracy and red tape holding them back.

Size doesn’t have everything to do with it

Sure, it helps being smaller than the Goliaths (therefore more nimble and agile) but, more than that, it’s about having the odds stacked against you, but still (somewhat naively) believing that you will conquer. It’s about creating and adopting behaviours, attitudes, values and a culture that both drive and enforce your value proposition. The truth is, if you’re a large agency, you’re probably not a challenger brand. If you’re a large client (within the top three in the category), you’re probably not a challenger brand. You need to accept this and refrain from making this big/small statement. “Challenger” is not a buzzword. Please, stop trying to make it one. Stop waiting for the latest concepts deemed credible by smart people to adopt as your newfound philosophy. You can’t have everything. Stop trying to take the one thing that the little person has. That’s just poor form. Yes, Cell C is a challenger to Vodacom — but it’s not a challenger brand (unless it is committed to dethroning Vodacom, and everyone else, in the category).

That’s the catch 22 — when you dethrone, you’re in the big seat

Sad truth — your challenger days may very well be in the past. “The good ‘ol days”, as I hear whispered by many a seasoned executive. Sure, you can challenge convention, status quo, the top dog — but being a zagger is about much more than that. It’s not what you do, but why you do it. And if you do what you do well, you will inevitably be faced with a crossroad. A defining moment that will either maintain, or completely change course for your dream, your purpose and your values. A large piece of business or investment knocks on your door. Do you answer?

The moment David becomes Goliath, a new champion is born. Call it reincarnation — the spirit leaves the new king to find a peasant worth the fruit it bears.

2016 is indeed the year of the challenger (until it is deemed the year of something else, naturally)

All you need do is wade through the self-proclaimed and find the true Davids. And there will be many — of both. For example, in beverage it’ll be anyone with the word ‘craft’ preceding its title. Following the success of craft beer, we’re already experiencing an influx of craft spirits, such as craft gin, craft vodka and craft hipsters. They’re hipsters, but look like normal people. Hipception. The next five years will be littered with tales of rise and fall. Giants will be toppled, and consumer-focused challengers will truly reign supreme. Complacent agencies, banks, network providers, ‘untouchable’ soft-drink brands: prepare yourselves. You can (but please don’t) dub yourself a challenger brand, but saying you’re one and thinking like one are two different things and, fortunately, the latter is not something that everyone can do.


Carl CardinelliCarl Cardinelli (@CarlCardinelli) began his career in branding and communications in 2003, spending the better part of six years establishing himself in London. Upon his return to South Africa in 2012, he was selected to lead Utopia, the “screw-the-line” agency based in Cape Town. When not heading up a team of unruly young admen, he can be found brewing his own beer, picking out a new pair of sneakers or travelling the globe in search of live music. Carl contributes the monthly “The Adtagonist” column, in which he challenges perceptions of the advertising industry and its practices for the next generation of marketers, to

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