All along the muddy banks of the salt marshes live colonies of fiddler crabs. There are actually 100 different types in the family Ocypodidae. Each of these species shares a similar habitat. Similar behaviors. And one unmistakable similarity… the fiddle-shaped claw that gives these crabs their name.

You see, for fiddler crabs, it’s all about the claw. A male fiddler crab has one regular-sized claw and another enormous one… that helps him to ward off aggression from his peers.

When a new fiddler crab shows up — on the salt marsh — he must quickly make an impression. To announce his presence. And to challenge all of the other fiddler crabs, that are already on the mud flat.

His motivation isn’t a fight. Instead, it’s a “show.” His goal is to be perceived by the other fiddler crabs as a smooth communicator — and as a crab who’s strong enough that his rivals decide to leave him alone.

He’s a “challenger.”

And, as such, he has a short amount of time to be recognized. And to be taken seriously.

So, what exactly is a challenger brand?

An executive at TBWA/Chiat/Day, Adam Morgan, published Eating the Big Fish and coined the term “challenger brand.”

According to Eating the Big Fish, “A challenger brand is defined, primarily, by a mindset — it has business ambitions bigger than its conventional resources, and is prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.”

Morgan’s book marked a watershed moment in how people talk about brands. What they mean. And how they function.

Econsultancy defines challenger brands as “neither the market leader nor a particularly niche brand, but one that sets itself apart with a driven mindset.” And notes that challenger brands distinguish themselves by, “The ability to tell a story, authenticity, caring about the community, and [having] purpose.”

Misconceptions about challenger brands

challenger brand need not be the new kid on the block. Rather, being a challenger brand is all about attitude. And it’s a stance that any building product brand can adopt… regardless of its current market position.

A challenger brand certainly can enter the marketplace as a start-up. Yet, established brands can just as easily assume the challenger mantle, as any newcomer.

Here are five common misconceptions about challenger brands:

Challengers are not the same as disruptors. True Disruptors are brands that create products or services — historically only available to a few — and make them widely accessible. Disruptors employ innovation to create a rapid, significant change in buying preferences and loyalty. 

Think about how Netflix fundamentally altered how people around the world consume entertainment. The category that the brand more or less invented, streaming… may well prove to be a death knell for movie theaters. And now, Netflix — the onetime disruptor — finds itself competing in a field of new challenger brands exploring alternative distribution channels and platforms.

You can’t really be a challenger within a corporate environment. While many challenger brands start their lives as independent companies with charismatic owners pushing them forward, there are many who don’t. PlayStation and Lexus are large organizations that have redefined their categories. Leading a challenger brand is most significantly… about their team members. And a will for change. Not merely a story about a compelling founder.

Challengers are always startups. Businesses can successfully recast themselves as challengers, regardless of the age of the company. All it takes is a desire to break free from old habits. And, instead, a commitment to looking at the category with fresh eyes. 

Ikea, which continues to challenge itself and its industry, was founded in 1943. CVS has become the virtually every-street-corner drugstore, from an initial location that dates back to 1963. Old Spice, a brand launched in 1937… is suddenly the “go-to” body wash for men under 30. These brands are anything but startups. Instead, they took a hard look at themselves — and began behaving as if they were newcomers — to rousing success.

Challengers are always small, ‘underdog’ brands. Uber, Warby Parker and Airbnb are all large, successful, global challengers. These brands have found success not by challenging a competitor… but by challenging the conventions of their categories. And each one of their successes, has completely redefined their industry. 

Challengers are primarily youth-focused brands, focused on creating an ‘edgy’ attitude and voice. While some challenger brands are indeed youth-focused, like Red Bull or Vans — others, such as Dos Equis and Charles Schwab — have succeeded by capturing a very different demographic. Their branding strikes a distinctive tone. And uses a “voice” that sets them up as irreverent mavericks or underdogs… even though they remain legacy brands.

How to be a challenger brand

Remember, being a challenger brand is not simply a ‘business stage’ that a brand passes through, and then — if it’s successful — moves on to become a “leader brand.” That’s not how it works at all.

While disruptors tend to move quickly and break things… challenger brands typically are the tortoise, moving steadily to win the race. Challengers don’t always come to the table with a flashy new product or revolutionary service. They do, however, identify a pain point in the marketplace and clearly demonstrate and communicate that they can provide a better solution. They exude authenticity. And genuine concern for specific needs of the customer.

So, what does it take to be a challenger brand?

A challenger must identify the market players. Define its own strategic objective. And set out to capture more market share… by targeting or exploiting the weaknesses, of rivals. These shortcomings can include outdated products. Inefficient product delivery methods. Unrealistic prices. Or simply, bad customer service. 

A challenger brand is an aggressive competitor who isn’t afraid to ‘hit a nerve.’ And who is willing to take some risks to do it.

Think about some of the iconic challenger brands that have found ways to excel in a crowded field of established competitors. Now-classic challenger brand stories like Avis vs. Hertz. Pepsi vs. Coke. Apple vs. Microsoft.

With compelling storytelling, out-of-the-box-thinking and innovative market strategies, these challengers boldly nibble at the market share of industry giants… often achieving great success. Because they realize that established brands who rest on their laurels and rely on their good name in an attempt to stay above the fray… can often find themselves overtaken by innovative newcomers.

Seizing the moment

Building product brands can leverage many tools and opportunities to challenge their competitors. And attack the market from multiple angles. The key to success is committing to a strategy and doggedly pursuing it.

Consider being more like the fiddler crab and send the right signal. A signal that attracts and welcomes the right type of attention.

Interested in exploring proven strategies to help your building product brand expand market share and increase profitability? Check out our whitepaper on Challenger Brands — you can download it here.

And, if you’re ready to talk about the mindset that makes a brand a winning challenger, drop me a line at sk@kleberandassociates.com to get the conversation started.


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