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Brand Strategy

Strategy Of The Gamechanger Brands


Some brands seem to rule the world. They’re big, powerful, profitable and widely adored. They talk and the world listens. They are the game-makers.

They made the game and they continue to run it. Their playbook seems to pretty much decide the rules for most. But not everyone aspires to that level of success and not every market leader is at the apex of a totally satisfied segment. Which is why some brands opt for a different agenda. The gamechangers’ intentions are, quite literally, to change the world, or at least to shake the tree of the mighty incumbents.

How do you do that without getting crushed or ignored? It depends. Did your brand start out as a challenger, or did challenging the status quo become your purpose as a brand? Because the starting point drives very different strategies and storylines.

If your brand was a challenger from the start, one of the most powerful assets you have, providing it’s true of course, is a dirt-poor story. The brands that start from nothing and with nothing have been shown time and time again in market research to be the ones that consumers root for. It’s an eternal idea because it makes for such a compelling storyline: the brand that rises from nowhere, defies the threats and the odds, sets the record straight, battles its way to the front confronting injustice and barriers strewn across its path and somehow makes it to prominence while managing to keep its integrity, its faith and its modesty. It is, in direct allusion to Malcolm Gladwell, the classic David and Goliath story.

As David Aaker observes in a recent article, “The giant firm is really good at their business model; they are financially successful and make incremental improvements each year, which apparently make them even more formidable.” In the parlance of dance band LMFAO, [they] “work out”.

The giants’ size and their strength makes it almost impossible to take them on toe-to-toe. Playing them at their game and by their rules plays right into their hands. But that doesn’t make them invulnerable. They are still susceptible to a brand capable of bewildering the game they know so well. An outlier, to borrow again from Gladwell, can at the very least give them a good run for their money.

And if your brand becomes the voice of protest against the giants of the establishment, if it does indeed become ‘David’ in the minds of consumers, then you can turn every advocate of what you stand for into a stone-thrower, every purchase into a vote for change, every act of defiance into one that buyers support. As Nigel Hollis pointed out in this recent post, gamechangers actively look for the assumptions that govern the current brand structure and seek ways to undermine it. They attack the prevailing attitudes and price structures of industry giants. They go after what irritates customers the most. Underdog brands successfully highlight incumbent actions as unjust because, as N. Taylor Thompson has observed, “most people will punish unfairness, given the chance”.

Both Hilton Barbour and Sandra Pickering make some excellent points in the comments section to Nigel’s piece. As Sandra points out, in markets with these characteristics, ways of working quickly become the de facto “market rules”. By linking their challenger brand to the resentment at what is happening, underdog brands rewrite those rules into what Sandra refers to as the “customer rules” and then provide opportunities for customers to ‘protest’ the present and endorse the rule change by switching allegiance.

But what if you’re on the other side of the change coin? What if you’re an incumbent now and a challenger mentality is something that comes to your brand later in life, how do you explain that change of mind to consumers in a way that makes it feel convincing not just convenient? How do you make your decision to change look deliberate, necessary, customer-motivated and prudent? How do you show that you are not just reacting wildly to falling sales because the other large players have got the better of you? Staying with the Bible theme, the most powerful way to position a volte-face is to prove to customers that you have indeed had a “road to Damascus” moment. For those of you less familiar with this event, it’s a moment described in the New Testament in which Paul the Apostle comes to see, literally, the error of his ways and begins a new life.

A brand that has had an epiphany and pursues a new, less mainstream course with renewed vigor, explaining its actions and its reasons for dramatic change, can quickly win [back] converts. This too is a powerful storyline. The inside story. The whistleblower. The pillar of the establishment that turns its back on the very actions that made it famous. We used to do this … one day we realized that it was wrong … we changed what we wanted because we recognized that wasn’t what our customers wanted … so we changed our approach … we have pursued a very different course ever since … it’s working better but there’s a long way to go. This is a very different route than the one taken by challenger brands but the admission needs to come from the top. It needs to be authentic. And it needs to point to a failure that customers readily recognize. Done properly, it is powerfully redemptive.

This approach varies markedly from the just-add-innovation manner of other incumbents because it is a story of revelation and revolution from inside the corridors of the market-makers. It restores purpose and credibility to a brand that was fading. It reignites the mandate and the energy to do the ‘unthinkable’. Marissa Mayer’s made it her mission to make such changes at Yahoo! And she’s drawn the requisite praise and ire for doing so. Howard Schultz’s resurgence of Starbucks began with his very public admission that the company had lost its love of coffee and needed to rethink its strategy.

Brands that seek to fundamentally change the game, no matter at what point in their history they start that, are active not reactive participants. They perceive that, if they are young, they have nothing to lose by behaving this way or, if they are well established, they have everything to lose by behaving the ways in which they have. Both will face significant barriers along the way – and all should in my view pursue their daring approach with nine questions in mind:

  1. What will customers love about what we’re doing/seeking to do?
  2. How do we know that?
  3. What is success for us?
  4. What do we believe [now] that we didn’t and that others don’t?
  5. Why do we believe that [now]?
  6. What has to change in order for us to triumph?
  7. What are we going to do to instigate and quicken that change?
  8. Why will people want to believe us?
  9. What do our customers stand to gain?

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Hilton Barbour
Twitter: ZimHilton
on November 01st, 2013 said

Mark – excellent article and thank you for the acknowledgement. Challenger brand theory remains a very viable strategy for upstarts and start-ups. What is often forgotten is that being a Challenger or Game-Changer shouldn’t be a moment in time attitude. If its is pervasive in the culture and ethos of the company it will fail miserably. Unlike many other strategies, I’d contend you can’t turn Challenger brand thinking on and off on a whim.

You may enjoy this list of de-facto Challenger brands that inspire me. http://www.hiltonbarbour.com/wordpress/the-definitive-a-z-of-challenger-brands/

Mark Disomma
Twitter: markdisomma
on November 01st, 2013 said

Hilton – I totally agree with you, and I hadn’t meant for that to be nuanced. Thanks for pointing it out. Gamechanging as you say is a full-on commitment, and so many brands challenge till they get to the top, and then stop challenging themselves and others. Great list. Cheers, Mark.

Sandra Pickering
Twitter: opento
on November 05th, 2013 said

Another great piece, Mark, and a belated thank you for the mention from me too.

One of the issues we’ve been looking at recently is how to balance global-local management of brands. It’s made even more problematic if you happen to be an incumbent in one geographical market and a challenger in another.

There’s a very practical day-to-day tension for the brand manager on the ground (how do I maximise success in my market?) and it’s also a headache for the global brand leader (how do I ensure a consistent brand meaning long-term?)

Perhaps a topic for another post?

Rune Dalgaard
Twitter: runedalgaard
on November 13th, 2013 said

Thanks for an interesting take on a classic challenge, Mark.

I think your are right to stress that brands can be ‘against’ in many different ways, that they must also be ‘for’ something (meaningful), and that they need to own or create a real meaningful difference that runs deeper, than just communication. Otherwise odds are that they will fail – and a quick look a some of the most successful cases bears witness to that, in my view. Could be interesting to learn what you consider some of the best cases that support the 9 questions you raise?

Virgin succeeded through an against-strategy based on a Robin Hood ideology: we are the company that challenges the price structures in mature categories and expose established players as ‘robbing people’. Virgin told a convincing story and acted accordingly across an impressive amount of categories.

VW with their famed ‘Think Small’campaign in the US challenged the category norm in the US market and offered a no nonsense view of cars (it’s just a car) and they still own the ‘no nonsense reliable car’ position but as a market leader in many markets (not an incumbent).

Apple took on the industry with their ‘Think Different’ campaign but the strength of that relied on a real difference in their view of technology (the computer as a tool for human creativity and expression) that set them apart from IBM, Microsoft, Intel and others at the time who focused on performance, intelligence etc.

All of these brands were to some degree challenger brands in their category or in certain markets and probably the key reason they succeeded also as market leaders, is that they were not just against something but also for something. And this something was at the time and has continued to be a very meaningful difference for people – and they managed to uphold a meaningful point of difference in their categories.

Cheers, Rune

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