Know Your Enemy: Insight and Insolence Hold the Key for Challengers

By John Crowther, CSO, ACNE

“Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated.”

Wise words from Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu, often adopted by successful business leaders; never truer than in the domain of the challenger brand.

Because  – spoiler alert – challenger brand is the most used and abused aspirational label in marketing, so often a shortcut for lazy thinking and unreal dreams. Badge a struggling second tier wannabe or a late to market catch up as a challenger, and suddenly grey is sparkling, the pulse is racing and the pitch list is filling up.

But the reality? Being a genuine challenger brand – let alone a successful challenger one is incredibly hard. And where the majority of aspirants fail is by not realising that to be a challenger you need something to challenge – a convention, a behaviour, another brand. It means identifying an enemy, watching it like a hawk, embracing sacrifices, taking risks and being single mindedly ruthless in targeting your opponent’s vulnerabilities. It also critically means ensuring that you are not just one of a challenging crowd, but that as much as possible it’s a binary competition: there’s you and convention. It’s a straight choice. You’re not a challenger brand, you’re the challenger brand.

Would Jerry have hoodwinked Tom if he wasn’t focused on his feline frailties? How would Goliath have been felled if David didn’t espy his weak spot? Without stealing a march on BlackBerry and Nokia by giving consumers what they craved in a cellphone, would Apple have dominated the mobile telecoms market? Come to that would Apple have survived to launch the iPhone if Steve Jobs hadn’t first engineered a binary world view in which all the many manufacturers of PCs faced only a single competitor in the Mac?

Challenger brands can be any size, any shape and any sector. What they must all possess to succeed in their chosen role, disrupting the market and happily growing, is the insight that creates their positioning and leads them to steal share from their hefty opponent.

Learn from the biggest to beat the best

Data is the fuel of that insight. Investigating your category, you can identify your enemy – then train your sights, laser like, on their attributes and weaknesses to gain competitive advantage.

Some aspects to consider:

Culture – “We’re not them” is a great strategy to disrupt your rival and your sector. But first you need to figure out the essence of your opponent. What makes them tick, and what can you do differently? This will help cement your brand values, positioning and challenger status. Often, it means being cheeky, edgy, provocative; having something to prove. Virgin Atlantic took off mainly because it managed to paint itself as the ‘anti-BA’ carrier. With audience insight, it knew exactly who to appeal to. Brewdog and Oatly are more recent examples of brands continuing to do this well.

Audience – Learning from your enemy’s customer base is vital. If they’re so dominant they’re effectively targeting everyone, which segments aren’t they paying close enough attention to? It’s a rare thing for brands to manage being all things to all consumers, and diversity is your friend. There will always be groups you can pick off with your own engagement strategy. Equally, your opponent might go after a very distinct set of people. If that’s the case, then choosing another cohort is an obvious option for building your brand. Should your enemy enjoy 20% market share, picking off 1% of that brings big rewards.

Agility – Big challengeable brands tend to be lumbering beasts. With legacy systems to boot, they can’t deploy emerging tech as rapidly as your agile operation might. An understanding of your enemy’s marketing and operations arsenal can be turned into a key advantage. Monzo and Revolut burst onto the scene as digital-first brands in a banking sector dominated by the cumbersome constructs of the high-street players that were slow to react. Challenger status was well and truly achieved.

Value – successful challenger brands don’t just do stuff differently, they also don’t do stuff differently. You will need to make sacrifices in some areas so that you can excel in others. Using data to gain insight into what customers value and don’t value in a brand experience is critical in allowing you to focus your efforts on real points where you can build an advantage rather than replicating legacy features which your potential buyers don’t value. Most neobanks have sacrificed the idea of a branch network and traditional face to face service to allow them to invest in delivering brilliantly better digital experiences instead.

So, data can help you know who you’re fighting, figure out the rules of engagement and find the turf where the battle will take place. But that’s still only part of the mission.

Add daring to data to mount your challenge

Knowing your enemy is one thing, having the courage to fight them is very definitely another. Courage manifests in different ways.

It shows in messaging: resolutely hammering a price point, like Aldi and Lidl’s relentless comparisons to the bigger grocers.

It shows in creative strategy: big brands benefit from confirmation bias and social proofing. To break that inertia you need a creative idea which is more than averagely disruptive and also  depositioning. It’s a convention of UK advertising (unlike advertising in the US) not to go aggressively after a competitor: yet many of the brands that have been most successful as challengers have also been the boldest if going after an enemy – even if that’s often a category convention rather than a named competitor. It’s also about taking a leaf from the Byron Sharp tome and delivering that via a creative vehicle which encapsulates your distinctiveness, but not at the cost of taking you out of the category.

Courage is also about the conversation which challenger brand marketeers have with their financial backers. While big businesses feel the pain of relentlessly satisfying shareholders, VC-backed challengers can be more flexible to make brave decisions, fast, in pursuit of ambitious targets. But this also means persuading them that success means accepting the risk of over investment in bold, disruptive creative and channels strategies rather than listening to the siren song of following the market norm.

And it lives in the space you set out to occupy. Always fight the forces that pull you towards the category consensus you railed against in the first place, planting a flag to your courage in the defined territory you need to occupy.

Insight and courage are powerful drivers to mounting a successful challenge in your sector. Mix these ingredients well and you’ll bake in distinct brand identity; precision audience targeting; leading-edge tech strategy; and margin-stretching efficiency.

Most importantly your brand will keep building momentum as you continuously challenge yourself to get better. To quote Morgan Freeman [imagine that voice] “Challenge yourself, it’s the only path that leads to growth”.