February 26, 2021

Five characteristics of a challenger brand

Susanna Max, Peyton Sutton, Lauren Rader & Tom McCoy

This time last year, several Curiositeers flew to New York to join the Adweek Challenger Brands conference. This year, we only had to move to our kitchen table to learn from some of the best. As we listened to celebrity speakers, CMO’s and intelligent industry leaders, several key themes emerged. Nearly every challenger brand we heard from this week owned a few primary characteristics. Core beliefs that are continuing to drive their success. They are the small startups taking on the retail giants, but they are also some of the most talked-about companies succeeding despite the challenges brought on by the global pandemic. And here’s what they all have in common. 


(1) A challenger brand is authentic.

The word “authenticity” is often thrown around to describe how brands should engage with the consumer. It’s a $.50 word if you will. But true authenticity is noticeable - it requires a brand to open up to the consumer and expect all kinds of responses. It takes courage for a brand to be truly authentic. It must be woven into the mission and vision from the beginning of the brand story. It’s raw and real and responsive. Take the brand Tushy, a DTC “tush washing tool” that has taken off during the pandemic. The company opened itself up to conversation and change by partnering with Reddit to create direct communication with the consumers. The questions (so many bathroom jokes!) flew. And Tushy answered in real-time. That is about as authentic as it comes for a brand talking about bathroom behaviors. 


(2) A challenger brand is transparent.

It goes without saying, being authentic also means being transparent. Everything is on the table, from your core company beliefs to your non-negotiables to the moments you mess up and have to fess up.  That means to truly challenge your competitive category, every employee must own your mission and vision and be open to talking about it. Every customer service touchpoint must be met with an open door, and accessibility and accountability are key. When Peloton exploded during the pandemic thanks to a new demand for at-home fitness, bike deliveries were on backorder and customers were talking. So the CEO of Peloton sent a transparent message to every subscriber about how the company was working to fix it. And what did that level of transparency do for the company? It only fueled more consumer desire to be part of the Peloton movement. 


(3) A challenger brand is bold.

As with every David vs. Goliath story, a challenger brand must be bold, brave and courageous to take on the big dogs. For consumers to take notice, a challenger brand has to make a decisive statement that creates unexpected buzz. Cue Burger King’s Whopper Detour campaign. It encouraged hungry consumers to actually visit their behemoth competitor, McDonald’s, and download the Burger King app while in the drive-through line or within the vicinity of the restaurant. Doing so would earn them a whopper for a penny. The campaign garnered massive buzz and resulted in more than 1.5 million app downloads and billions of impressions. Controversial? Maybe. Bold? Definitely. 


(4) A challenger brand is nimble.

If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that brands must be nimble and willing to adapt on a dime. When the pandemic first started, none of us imagined we would still be working and shopping from home a year later. The content we started sharing and consuming in 2020 was old news by November, and even older news now. That’s why Bombas, a mission-driven brand that started with socks, pivoted their media buying strategy halfway through the year and began to leverage streaming tv to share their mission story.  The beginning of the pandemic saw viewers reaching for traditional content and reruns of old favorites. By the end of the year? We all wanted something different. So Bombas adapted quickly to share their story, aligning with streaming channels that offered the newest content. And now the company is expanding into underwear.


(5) A challenger brand is purposeful.

Nearly every challenger brand we learned from at this week’s conference aligned to a higher purpose. And it wasn’t bolted on as the company built success. It was built into their missions and visions from the very beginning, from climate change to education to systemic racism to sustainability. Challenger Brands recognize that consumers today expect more out of their purchase, and aligning with a cause builds trust and respect out of the gate. Take Once Upon A Farm, an all-natural baby food brand led by Jennifer Garner. When she joined forces with investor John Foraker to launch the company, she was on a mission to support food insecurity and open accessibility to organic products for all.  Together, they overcame obstacles associated with placing baby food in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, to introduce parents across the country to better-for-you ingredients. No compromises. Now the brand is WIC-approved and continues to support programs like A Fresh Start, helping families in rural communities gain access to organic foods. 



This week’s conference proved we can all learn a little something from challenger brands.

How to be brave, bold, and willing to take on the big guys while standing in your purpose. How to leverage creative ideas to create conversation. And how to be willing to change when the world changes around you. Stay tuned for more in our series on challenger brands, as we explore what it means to communicate one-on-one with a consumer, why helping trumps selling, and how sustainable brands can succeed in a competitive marketplace. There’s still a lot to learn!

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