Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How to become a challenger brand

Published in Jul-Aug 2017
Six guidelines on how new and small brands can beat strong and established players.
Illustration by Creative Unit.
Illustration by Creative Unit.

In any branded category, you will inevitably find brands that enjoy a leadership position. Market leaders enjoy a favourable status quo, whereby they can almost sit back and enjoy the spoils of victory, simply by retaining a high level of consistency in their brand delivery. This is especially fruitful in a growing market like Pakistan where brand owners can enjoy year-on-year growth by virtue of simply retaining a leading market share.

Other brands face a less cushy reality. They face disproportionately higher market, business and HR pressures. They have to work twice as hard to achieve favourable results. One can hardly blame such brands for wanting to be like, or at least acting like the big boys (or big girls), in the hope that some of their success will rub off on them. After all, it is only natural to gravitate towards the market leader. However – a naïve and short-sighted hope. Imagine if David had tried to copy Goliath’s moves in their epic battle. It would have simply hastened Goliath’s victory, as David would have played to Goliath’s strengths. Instead, David chose to move out of his comfort zone and do something different, which was not in his favour in conventional terms. He changed the game.

The need is to reverse the food chain so that the predator becomes the prey. Challenger brands that recognise this fact have gone on to become change agents in their category. They are the brands which succeed in changing their situation from unfavourable to highly desirable. To succeed, brands must be and remain challengers at their core.


Remember that as a challenger brand, you can choose to be the predator or the prey. The choice is yours. The predator is the change agent, and the prey is the follower of the conventions set by the market leader.


I can relate to this better than most, as I have spent a good deal of my career strategically leading a challenger agency brand after having served in a leading agency. If a challenger brand was a spaceship, it would have to expend half its fuel supply to lift off and achieve optimal speed before success even becomes visible. It is really tough to be a challenger brand in a category infested by big sharks. This is why we decided to name our challenger brand agency Pirana; a small fish, capable of devouring much larger prey, as a result of its sheer ferocity. To survive, let alone succeed, we had to quickly come up with our own highly-differentiated offerings. The same applies to other categories – brands are brands and the principles that lead to brand success tend to be fairly consistent across the board.

Remember that as a challenger brand, you can choose to be the predator or the prey. The choice is yours. The predator is the change agent, and the prey is the follower of the conventions set by the market leader. Brands get to set their own goalposts. Following the rulebook of the leaders may help them scrape enough for an abysmal existence; however, for sustained success, brands must be prepared to change the rules of the category they operate in. They need to embrace the role of David in the face of the seemingly invincible Goliath.

Read: Nailing big ideas.

Challenger brands have certain advantages over leadership brands. For example, they don’t need to be all things to all people. They can afford to be somewhat polarising, standing for something unique in the market. True challenger brands are about provocation, seduction and transforming categories. I believe this attitude of seeding a change of behaviour in consumers is the defining characteristic of today’s challenger brands. Strong challenger brands need to have a point of view, some form of belief or value system that sets them apart. They believe in themselves and they project their beliefs insistently.

Here are some guiding principles for brands in competitive categories dominated by strong leading brands:

Acquire a strong footing in the market before you decide to challenge the leader As a newborn brand, it is wise to carve out a defendable niche while staying under the leader’s radar. Newborn challengers are not ready to get into head-on battles with the leaders. Good, well thought-out first steps can help challenger brands shape future victories. For example, I used to handle the Crest brand, which was a challenger to Unilever’s dental care brands which dominated the Arabian Peninsula some years ago. The Crest team decided to create and own the ‘beauty’ sub-segment rather than launch a head on confrontation with Unilever in its traditional areas of strength. The strategy paved way for a massive and effective offensive to challenge Unilever for leadership a few years later.

Chart out your path to future leadership before you begin your war with Goliath
Every brand leader should have a clear vision of their desired endgame, even when conventional logic makes victory seem unlikely in the prevailing market conditions. Nokia enjoyed a strong leadership position in feature phones for a long time. Then Nokia became complacent, no doubt disinclined to believe their brand could ever be overcome by a competitor’s product. Apple had a clear vision about changing the category through the introduction of the smartphone. Nokia has become a shell of its former self, while Apple invented an entirely new, game-changing alternative (offering internet, emails and apps).

Become the thought leader of your category
Strong challenger brands should develop a lighthouse identity that other brands (even the market leaders) look up to. Achieving thought leadership is easier to achieve than market leadership. Thought leading challenger brands take on the guise of future leaders – definitely a good thing in my book. You may never have flown with Virgin Atlantic, but you probably know what they stand for.

Read: The importance of simple ideas.

Red Bull started off as an unlikely challenger in the cold drinks category, yet it ended up carving out its own sub-category. Red Bull has always had the irreverent edge to counter the staid sameness of the cola brands that dominate cold drinks. Red Bull stood for extreme sports versus the traditional and tiresome platforms adopted by the leading colas.

Don’t lose your challenger brand edge and aggression
Creating a challenger brand is not easy and keeping the maverick spirit going is an even harder task. The main reason challenger brands achieve success is because they are truly different from the leaders and followers. Traditional leader brands are good at maintaining strong consistency in execution. Strong challenger brands are great in maintaining a strong consistency of differentiation.

Be a maverick by considering new technologies and new ways of doing things
Good challenger brands excel at innovating. They redefine categories. They rewrite the rules while bringing in a disproportionate benefit to their consumers. Careem revolutionised the car-for-hire category in Pakistan by introducing a unique democratised model, driven by smartphone technology. Although they were not the first, they changed the market dynamics significantly in a way that had their competition reeling.

There is a fine line between calculated risks and stupidity
Be a smart maverick. When you pick fights with the big boys, make sure you only pick those that play to your strength. Remember, the big boys have deeper pockets than you have and would like nothing better than to watch you fail.

Afzal Hussain is General Manager, M&C Saatchi World Services, Pakistan.