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Fighting Words: Writing Like a Challenger

Fighting Words: Writing Like a Challenger

By Noah Davis, Executive Creative Director, Door No. 3

At Door No. 3 we talk a lot about challenger brands and how we can help them compete. Truth is, “challenger” is as much a state of mind as it is a state of being. A mental switch that, once flipped, can dramatically change how a brand views its competitors, its category, and most importantly, itself. 

Fully embraced, a challenger mindset can and should touch every part of a brand’s business, but nowhere is this shift more readily apparent than in its messaging.

Creative writing, as applied to headlines, copy, concepts and content, will not only form the largest portion of any challenger’s advertising arsenal, but also define the character and quality of all of their marketing efforts. It will serve as, quite literally, the voice and personality of the brand across every touchpoint. The purpose of this particular bit of creative writing is not to offer a definitive guide to the art, but rather to share a few morsels of useful advice that the author has picked up over the years. May they serve you well. 

Writing Like a Challenger: Five do’s and don’ts.

1) DO start with an insight. 

A ludicrous proportion of the marketing copy that litters the internet is completely pointless. Too many brands write to fill needs rather than because they have something worthwhile to say. Challengers have to find their insight — that revealing nugget of truth that strikes a nerve and gets heads nodding even before the solution has been offered.

Finding a good one might take some digging. It might be buried in an unwieldy research deck, or tucked into an unnoticed passage on the corporate homepage. A note you’ll scribble down in your idea book, only to forget about completely until you rediscover it a week later with an excited “Aha!” Insights are treasures worth hunting for, because when they’re good, the creative almost writes itself. 

The insight that drove the Got Milk? television campaign was simple genius. A terrific morsel of recognizable truth, overheard during a focus group: You only think about Milk when you’re out of it. That casual utterance led to the most famous two-word creative brief of all time: Milk Deprivation. Suddenly, a bland and boring commodity had emotional resonance, and a legendary campaign was born. 

got milk

The insight for milk: You’ll miss it when it’s not around | Photo courtesy of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners


2) DON’T be afraid. 

It’s become a bit of a cliché in marketing to say that fear is the enemy, but despite its bad rep, fear isn’t all bad. Without it, you can’t have courage.

Challengers have to show courage, even if just a little. It could be as small as trying a new tactic or adopting a slightly uncomfortable headline tone. It could mean spending a little more money than you did last quarter, or ruffling a few feathers inside the organization. 

Or, it could mean boldly challenging a notion that we’ve all come to accept, and using our words not just to nudge behaviors, but to completely change perspectives. That’s what Dove did when they challenged their own industry to embrace a truer depiction of beauty, earning the appreciation and devotion of millions of new customers along the way. 

The only thing marketers truly need to be afraid of is consumer indifference. So take a big breath, then take a big step. 


A soap company brave enough to NOT talk about soap.

3) DO find your boogeyman. 

If you’re not pushing up against something, you’re falling flat on your face. Challengers need foes, the bigger the better. A category leader is a good foe, and a common target, but an idea is an even better adversary — a condition of our lives that you are no longer willing to accept and are compelled to change. 

An Idea? Really? Can’t we just push up against something universally hated like pop-up banners? Sure, knock yourself out, but as in life, real change starts by looking inward. Only when you know what you stand for, can you truly know what you stand against. 

At Door No. 3, we write a Brand Mantra as part of every new positioning exercise to help shape our clients’ challenger identities. It’s a belief statement. A hundred-word document nailed to the church door that not only covers the whos, whats and hows, but also the why. A good one will be true enough to be painted on the wall at corporate headquarters, and clear enough to identify your boogeyman, as big and terrifying as ever. 

The brands that do it well live authentically by their mantra, leaving no ambiguity about the stand they are taking — and what they are standing against. It’s not marketing to them, it’s a mission. A determination that attracts followers and fans for life, building meaning beyond product alone. 


Patagonia challenges a powerful foe in its fight for public lands.


4) DON’T speak to everybody all at once. 

In my big, old agency days, creatives would often joke that our target audience was anyone with a wallet. And when your client is a massive and beloved chocolate cookie available on every store shelf in America, it’s kinda true. 

Challenger brands can’t play that game. They don’t have endlessly deep couch cushions full of loose, grabbable media dollars. But sometimes having less money can be a real advantage. Skinnier budgets force challengers to be selective about their audience, allowing them to forge a closer relationship with a smaller group of users. A tighter emotional bond with your audience is the first step to advocacy and eventually, full-on fandom. 

But there’s a flip side. Forming deeper bonds with fewer, more ardent followers also means intentionally excluding everyone else. And being explicitly NOT for everyone can be a tough pill for some companies to swallow. It’s called Fostering Rejection and it’s worth reading more about. For now just remember, if you’re speaking to everybody, you’re talking to no one.


The Economist has been pushing away the masses for 25 years.


5) DO write something worth reading. 

Not that long ago, all advertising was delivered the same way, using the same situational context to get people to pay attention: interruption. Whatever programming a consumer had chosen to enjoy (likely via television, print or radio) was interrupted in order to expose them to an ad. No one really liked ads, even then, but it was a value exchange that was generally accepted without too much complaint — you give me free entertainment and I’ll give your message my attention in 30-second chunks. 

Nowadays, for reasons too vast and well-known to itemize here, interruption is dead. Consumers have endless ways to avoid your message, and the harder you try to freeze them in their tracks to listen, the more they’ll resent you for it. But the value exchange is still very much alive. You still owe them something for their time and attention, and if they can’t get it from the programming you’re no longer able to interrupt, they have to get it from YOU. So, above all, endeavor always to write something worth reading. This is especially true for challenger brands who are working with limited dollars and can’t afford to be ghosted by potential advocates. 

Worthy writing is a slippery topic open to interpretation, and a lifelong practice that you never quite master, but here’s an at-a-glance list of some practical reminders: 

  • > Be relevant. Write something that matters to your audience, that solves their problem, not yours.

  • > Be entertaining. A laugh is worth a look. Humor has always worked to earn eyeballs and it still does. It’s an emotion, after all, and joy is contagious. So, if emotion is the ask, funny is a good answer.

  • > Be useful. Not just in how you write but in what you offer. Most internet traffic is oriented around finding answers. Provide them.

  • > Be new. If it sounds like a line you’ve seen before, it’s because it’s a line you’ve seen before. So has everyone else, and they’re tired of it, too.

  • > Be pointed. Have your purpose in mind before you pick up your pen.

  • > Be dramatic. No one wants to read the bullet points from your PowerPoint. Write it with a twist, or a bounce, or a reveal, or a smile. Hate to say it, but sometimes style matters.

  • > Be truthful. Tolerance for obvious BS is at an all-time low and facts can be very impactful. If you have them, use them. 

  • > Be truthful, part 2. Find a central truth about what you’re really offering — not product attributes, but human benefits — and much of the above will come along for the ride. 

  • > Be yourself. It’s the key to not sounding “addy.” Start by saying it like you’d say it to a friend or spouse. Then rephrase that base argument until it has the impact you need without losing the personal passion of your own voice.

  • > Be brutal. Would this resonate with you?

Much of the advice above is applicable to all good creative advertising (challenger brand or not), but has special resonance to disruptive brands who are ready to scale and start making a difference. For them, not adopting the challenger mindset truly is the riskier move. The flat meaningless bromides of sameness that already occupy too much of our bandwidth just won’t move the needle anymore. Might be time to break some stuff. 



Door No. 3 is an advisor 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 strategy, brand positioning, integrated campaign development and media planning/buying. Door No. 3's work has been recognized by national publications such as The New York Times, Communication Arts, AdWeek, INC., Entrepreneur and The Wall Street Journal.