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4 Keys to Building Challenger Brand Advocacy

By Prentice Howe, Principal, Door No. 3

The fastest growing brands are the ones migrating culture, changing the vernacular and turning predictability inside out. They’re not leading their respective category in the revenue column (yet) but they are, hands down, the ones attracting the most loyalists in droves.

They’re challenger brands. 

But what makes these companies so topical? Do they invest more in R&D? Do they spend more on marketing? Actually it’s much simpler. They’ve mastered the art of advocacy. They know that in the age of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, brands no longer control their marketing message – their customers do. So they make their brand ethos inherently shareable by tapping into what customers of challenger brands care about most.

When REI decided to advertise around the holidays, they turned Black Friday on its head by closing all of their stores and instead invited customers to #OptOutside. Whatever was lost in post-Thanksgiving revenue was easily trumped by the lifelong bond created between customer and brand.

 In Jonah Berger’s book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, he talks about “social currency” – shareable information that makes us look good to those around us. Warby Parker disrupted the eyewear industry with this very tactic. The ability to skip the mall kiosk and instead test out stylish frames via mail? How can you not want to be the first to share that with anyone who will listen?

Understanding the mindset of customers who are magnetically attracted to challenger brands is a critical step in the pursuit of advocacy. Here are four characteristics to tap into: 


1. They want to share their passion.

I shop at Whole Foods because I believe what they believe. When I step through the front door of my neighborhood Whole Foods in South Austin, I’m greeted with a brimming basket of apples and bananas. It reads: “FREE healthy snacks for the kids! Help yourself!” This gesture creates immediate value alignment before I’ve even had the chance to grab a wobbly-wheeled basket and begin shopping. A complimentary burst of fiber and vitamin C is a simple offering that delivers upon their Declaration of Interdependence: Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet. 

 2. They want to convert others.

Our own personal brand and social credibility is inherently linked to the brands we love. Ever witness someone receive a compliment on a piece of clothing only to hear this response: “Thanks. Got it on sale at Tar-jay.” Think for a moment. Would the response have been the same if their shirt was purchased at Kmart instead of Target? What about Kohls? Macy’s? Dress Barn? Ok, I’ll stop. 

The answer is: No, not a chance. Target has built a tribe of zealots that love to share their “Tar-jay” experience with anyone who will listen.

 3. They want to be rewarded.

And not just monetarily. Sure, a good loyalty program with freebies works hard to build commitment. But sometimes it’s just about offering a communication line to be heard. I was stuck in traffic and in mid-conversation with my wife when she opened the Waze app on her iPhone and said, “Hold on a sec. I want to report this accident. 

Me: “To who?” Her: “My fellow Wazers.” Me: “Why?” Her: “I get points.” 

I asked what the points are good for and she said, “I have no idea. But I get points.” More taps and more swipes ensued. She went on, “Look, more points!” I asked if we were about to win a free toaster or maybe a 2-night Bahamas cruise. The answer was No and Absolutely Not, but that wasn’t really the point. When brands show customers that their voice matters, they hit pay dirt. And with Waze as my example, it doesn’t always require a monetary reward.

4. They want to change paradigms.

They, too, are frustrated by the status quo. They themselves are agents of change. So it’s a no brainer for them to embrace the concept of having groceries delivered to their home in under an hour (Instacart!) or the notion of renting a charming bungalow instead of a stale hotel room while visiting their old stomping grounds for a college football game (Rent Like a Champion!). 

I recently interviewed Carey Smith, founder of Big Ass Fans, on my podcast. Carey is an investor in TUSHY, a company that makes bidet attachments for toilets. In Tushy’s own words, “your butt will be healthy like kale and clean like a toddler’s vocabulary.” Their copy is as refreshing as their product surely is. Point is, customers of challenger brands are magnetically attracted to companies that look over the horizon, discover what people need in the future, then bring it to them ahead of schedule.

Now you know all about the customer mindset and what motivates them most. These challenger brand zealots want to share their passion, be empowered to convert others, be rewarded, and change paradigms by rejecting how things have always been done in the past. Apply some of these principles to your own marketing playbook and you’ll be toppling giants in no time. 


Door No. 3 is an advisory firm to challenger brands. Based in Austin, Texas, the award-winning advertising agency represents a diverse stable of growth clients including Cirrus Logic, Maine Root, ShippingEasy, Drunken Sailor Spirits, NIC USA, NorthStar Financial, FirstCare Health Plans, Alen Air, Cintra US and Centennial Bank. Services include brand development, creative and media planning/buying. Door No. 3's work has been recognized by publications such as The New York Times, Communication Arts, AdWeek, INC., Entrepreneur and The Wall Street Journal.