America's love affair with challenger brands is older than the Boston Red Sox, and probably predates the 13 colonies. In recent years, an adoring business press has adopted the term to describe disruptive brands that come out of left field to unseat the market leader or win people's hearts. The oft-told storyline follows a little brand with a better mousetrap as it rises out of obscurity.
Malcolm Gladwell's "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants" references hundreds of examples. While these ascending challengers are genuine, I find the David-and-Goliath paradigm too restrictive.
Challenger brands aren't necessarily small or medium or upstarts. Some are permanent challengers: Avis has been the "We try harder" brand for so long, it's hard to imagine how it might reposition itself if it lets go of Hertz's coattails. AMD has been the stepchild to Intel for decades and still finds ways to win. Challengers can be former leaders, like BlackBerry or Dove. They can include any brand looking to achieve meaningful revenue growth. What they have in common is that the most likely path to those revenues requires jousting with a market leader.
Almost any brand -- and I'll bet yours is among them -- could constantly look for ways to adopt challenger strategies and tactics.
A first step to thinking like a challenger is to realize how easy it's become to dethrone market leaders; technology has ramped up the speed of innovation, and consumers are happy to ditch brands when something better comes along.
How do you adopt the feisty offense of upstarts? Here is some advice:
Listen to the boss. Constantly monitor what customers and prospects think, say and do. Amazon challenged first booksellers and then the entire retail industry by using data to know its customers so well that it can identify what they want before they realize they want it. Customers are your only source of revenue -- pay attention constantly.
Aggressively de-position another brand. Climbing in the ring with the reigning champ is effective if you've got a better product. Among the brands currently winning with direct comparative advertising against bigger brands? Chevy's Silverado vs. Ford's best-selling F-150 and SodaStream vs. the entire soft-drink category.
Focus on experience. Products don't always have to be better, as long as they provide a better experience. Dollar Shave Club convinced men they don't need a fancier product, just a convenient way to buy no-frill razors; Lincoln Financial's B2B "Chief Life Officer" humanizes the financial services experience.
Gain the first-mover advantage. Carving out a corner of your category where there isn't a dominant player can help you rise quickly. Once the first mover has taken control of the category or subcategory, it has the ability to change its definition over time to reflect its innovation, thereby creating a moving target.
Commit to growth through innovation. While challenger thinking requires dogged pursuit of short-term goals, new upstarts must always in the pipeline. Some companies keep their product paranoia front and center; Intel and Monsanto both reinvent themselves every few years. The thinking is that complacency is usually closely followed by getting knocked out of the lead.
Create emotional relevance. Levi's lovers believe in more than fashion. Dos Equis drinkers share a connection beyond beer. Even GE invests in its brands to build emotional equity with its customers. It's a strategy that is very hard to copy.
Fight like hell. This includes borrowing tactics from competitors of all sizes. (Whole Foods is dominating with Pinterest, while Dell is winning with its LinkedIn efforts.) Be careful to not chase unprofitable growth; there is good and bad market share. If share is too costly to acquire, then reinvent and move to adjacent spaces.
If you are a B2B company, the rules are the same. Find ways to create value-added services and use brands to navigate channel conflict. Look at tech leaders like Microsoft, IBM and Verizon or industrial heavyweights like Dow Chemical; the average B2B company today uses at least a dozen different tactics to trumpet its strategic differences.
All that's required to become a challenger is a willingness to do something -- and that can be almost anything -- better than another brand. Intel's Andy Grove once said "only the paranoid survive," and this couldn't be more true today.