In September, eatbigfish played host to the Marketing Academy scholars for a day focusing on challenger brand strategy.

As the experts in challenger brands – founder Adam Morgan literally wrote the book – we were eager to learn how this kind of thinking can apply to brands of all shapes and sizes. We not only got to do that, but also had fun doing plenty of exercises putting the thinking into practice.

Intriguingly, we were given bells to ping whenever someone said something we agreed with, if we heard an idea that particularly resonated, or if something impressed us. From then on the air was ringing as ideas, examples and strategies were shared.

Strategy director Nick Geoghegan and strategist Emily Horswell explained that a challenger mentality is not a state of marketing, but a state of mind. If you’re a brand, it’s all about understanding the gap between your ambition and resources, then leaning into that disparity. Thinking in this way can help brands come up with creative solutions that allow them to stand out in their category, and help prevent getting caught in a mephisto waltz – a term from astronomy that sees two black holes getting locked in each other’s gravitational pull. In the case of brands, this happens all too frequently on the high street as when rivals focus intently on each other.

Key ideas and strategies that eatbigfish shared with us included intelligent naivety – asking ‘why aren’t we doing it that way’ looking for alternative ways of doing things that break away from what’s expected and what the majority of competitors are doing. This starts from looking in unusual places for insights and asking ‘upstream’ questions that challenge the status quo.

Other strategies include transferring the conventions of one industry or category onto another, in other words, stealing with pride. Inserting a new emotion into a category, such as a sense of drama. Challenging what’s seen as impossible in the category, like when IKEA came up with a totally new way to create a table for less than €5.

Examples of brilliant challenger brands, such as Newcastle Brown Ale, Brewdog, South African Airline Kalula and Volvo Trucks abounded. But one of the most exciting parts of the day was the chance to put some of these ideas into practice, thinking about how they could apply to INK, a challenger entrant in the London estate agent market. Founder Simon MacDonald explained the brand to us, its position in the market and current challenges. From there we applied various definitions of challenger brands to see what might fit the startup. Enlightened Zagger, Game Changer, People’s Champion, Irreverent Maverick and Game Changer were all considered.

Nick and Emily also ran through the key things that a business needs to act as a successful challenger.

  • Diverse teams: It’s vital to have people with a variety of traits – some who value ideas, others who care about doing a job well (implementation), and a third group of ‘denters’ with the determination to do what is right.
  • Horizontal Contracts: eatbigfish stressed that to implement change in an organisation you need to enshrine the behaviours in people across the business – one way to do this is to create a mutual contract, like on a pirate ship. This sense that everyone is on the same page and will get a share of the eventual success is vital.
  • Don’t take no for an answer: To a challenger, every question, challenge or refusal is an offer. Changing the language you use from ‘that’s impossible’ to ‘we can do that if…’ or switching from ‘yes but…’ to ‘yes and…’ can help with a big shift in mindset.
  • Engage head and heart: the best way to gain understanding and commitment is by thinking about how to engage people on both rational and emotional levels.

It was impressive how this kind of thinking and types of strategies can be applied to virtually any brand, not just those traditionally seen as challengers. The variety of ways of thinking that should push brands out of their comfort zone and lead to creative and engaging ideas that help them stand out.

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