Thursday 14 December 2017

John McGee: Irish brands can rise up to the challenger status

There's a lot to be said for challenger brands that nibble away at their established counterparts while at the same time disrupting the market

"Apple, for example, still behaves like a challenger in many respects - as it continuously challenges itself and the industry." (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

John McGee

Ever since David got one over on Goliath, we have always liked the underdog. When we can, we like to champion the small guy who, in the face of adversity and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, stands a fair chance of doing well. And maybe even winning.

Behavioural science teaches us that we have an instinctive reaction to unfairness and, for lots of different reasons, we identify more with the underdog than we do with the top dog. And if the underdog does and says things that endear us towards them, all the better.

In the world of marketing, the underdogs are often referred to as challenger brands.

While we may not be aware of them, they are everywhere.

From the local craft beer or whiskey you see on the shelves of your off-licence, the artisan soups, sauces and jams in the supermarket right through to the parvenu start-ups that are upending and disrupting entire industries like transportation, financial services, media and IT, they are there.

According to a new guide to challenger brands, which was published by the Dublin-based creative agency Bloom, these upstarts have the opportunity to stand out from the old industrial hegemony by acting and behaving differently from their more established competitors.

"We have worked with some great challenger brands over the past 15 year such as Brady Family Ham, The City Bin Co, Just Eat and CityJet. Regardless of their market sector, they all have several things in common and they all want to be the best at what they do," said David Quinn, co-founder and director of Bloom.

"They are all committed to excellence and to exceeding their customer's expectations. They believe there is a better way to do it. Above all, they are ambitious to succeed and they want to take on the established brands and win. While they may not have the biggest budgets or resources they make up for this short fall with courage and commitment. They are not afraid to take chances," he added.

So how can challenger brands disrupt the marketplace and the status quo? Is it a question of price, functionality, quality or perception?

"It can be any of these or indeed a combination of them," said Quinn. But there are behaviours that are common to most challenger brands, he said.

"First, be yourself. You brand is unique, so tell the world. Set out clearly who you are and what you do. Do not play by your competitors' rules, otherwise you will get lost in all the noise of the market place and end up promoting them," he says.

Strong challenger brands also tend to disrupt the market in which they operate by creating points of difference. "Do and say the things that will change the way people think about the market. Create points of difference. These are the things your new customers will notice and cause them to question the established brands," said Quinn.

To cut through the noise, a relentless focus on some of the basics of marketing is also paramount.

"You can't be all things to all men. You will not be noticed and you can't afford it. Focus your message and be single-minded. Focus your media and only use the most optimum media for your target audience and cut out everything else.

"Concentrate your media into shorter bursts and this will increase the frequency and get you noticed. Most of all, focus your message on your target market and cut out everybody else."

Challenger brands also need to stand out from their competitors and while this may seem like stating the obvious, a lot of brands can forget this.

"Fortunately for challenger brands the advertising for most categories tends to speak with one voice. This gives you a big opportunity to stand out. Don't be shy. Create advertising that will get noticed and that will leverage your unique position. Do not create advertising that speaks with the same voice as the establishment. Otherwise you end up promoting the brand leader and they won't send you a thank you card," says Quinn.

At one stage in their lifespans, brands like Apple, Google and Zappos were all challenger brands and it begs the question when do challengers shrug off their upstart mantle?

"Technically, when they become the market leader they lose their challenger brand status," says Quinn. "But a market leader can continue to behave like a challenger in the way it might continue to challenge the norms of the category.

"Apple, for example, still behaves like a challenger in many respects - as it continuously challenges itself and the industry."

For a country that has created its own challenger brands, such as CityJet, Ryanair and Stripe, Quinn says we love the underdog. "Who doesn't like a brand that comes along and improves the way the category operates and behaves? The main reason consumers opt for them is because the challenger brand makes them reconsider the category and their buying behaviour," he said.

Contact John McGee at

Sunday Indo Business

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