Posted by Prentice Howe, Owner/Executive Creative Director, Door Number 3

Unless you’re fat, happy and alone at the top of your category, you’re likely battling giants of some kind. You’re a challenger. And as such, you’re playing from a position behind the dominant player or leader in your industry. You’re forced to turn constraints into opportunities by outthinking the competition. 

But not all challengers are created equal. Some will never gain enough momentum to topple giants. Others have a strong power of belief and know exactly what it takes to differentiate, fascinate and effectively build their tribe for the long haul. 

The most legendary challenger of all was a little guy named David. He picked up five stones to battle Goliath. Here are five “stones” to battle your giant. Empowered challengers (the challengers that succeed) have multiple personalities. They need them. They fight on multiple fronts. 

So, what challenger personalities do you have?

1. Lightning Rod

Think Lady Gaga. By identifying her monster fans and catering her brand to their tastes, she was able to become an icon. It wasn’t just about wearing a dress made of meat. It was about doing the unexpected. Love her or hate her, you never forget her.

Much can be learned from challenger brands that strut the Lightning Rod personality. Girls Who Code is a national non-profit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. They’re also an organization willing to ruffle feathers in order to make a point. Using humor to boldly shatter gender stereotypes works to splash cold water on the faces of unsuspecting audiences, and more importantly, energizes their fan base around core vales and passion points they care about most.  

Another challenger with a Lightening Rod personality is Thinx, who creates “period proof underwear that protects you from leaks and keeps you feeling dry.” Thinx is re-thinking the underwear and feminine hygiene categories by boldly addressing the taboo topic of women’s periods. They’ve done what every smart Lightening Rod brand does so well – zero in on an audience and cater only to what those customers care about. To hell with the grossed out teen male passerby or the uptight, conservative post-menopausal granny who is unable to relate. Move on down the road, people. Thinx just ain’t for you. 

In what ways can you disrupt, stand apart and, in turn, shatter the status quo?

2. Heretical

Amazon is an example of a challenger that doesn’t want to change the rules – they want to change the game. They look over the horizon and discover what people will need in the future and bring it to them before they ask for it. Those who feel cozy in convention do not work in companies such as these. You need to be ready when your boss walks into your office and says, “Jim, we’re going to start delivering packages with drones. I need to you to create the communications plan.”

Behemoth brands like Amazon aren’t the only ones winning in the marketplace with a Heretical personality. Silvercar, a company out of Austin, isn’t just offering silver Audis for rent at the airport. They’re providing a whole new way to think about the car rental experience. You download the app and reserve your silver Audi A4. No lines, no wondering, no waiting. With stylish predictability and concierge-like customer service, they’re changing the rental car game.

How can you make “redefining perspective” part your brand ethos?

3. Foster Rejection

This challenger commits to pleasing a select few. They may price people out of contention as a way to get rid of some. They may be like Tough Mudder where they require you to carry logs through ankle-deep mud. This personality is often about a very specific cult-like following around one singular passion point. But more often, they make their offering an obsessive need to a select few. They attract their most ardent fan by pushing others away.

When K-Swiss released their Kenny Mother F-in’ Powers as CEO campaign, they knew they’d offend some in order to attract their most passionate fans. It was brash. It was offensive to many. It was anything but PC. But you can’t steal market share from Nike and Reebok by being mild. Mild doesn’t move the needle. And K-Swiss knew that. 

How can you narrow your audience in a way that actually grows the tribe?

4. Compulsive Servitude

We see the Compulsive Servitude personality in brands that are challenging business as usual. When I was looking to send flowers to family members in Washington DC, I came across a company called Urban Stems. They were the antithesis of FTD – a breath of fresh air, powered by very likable customer service. I ordered online. Nice selection. Nice graphics. Nice UI. Easy checkout. Then, in a matter of hours, I received this…

Urban Stems didn’t have to deliver the unexpected. But now “surprise and delight” has become their calling card. I’m starting to send flowers to random people in DC just so I can receive nice emails from Lisa!

What are some ways you can over deliver to the extent that it becomes the very definition of your brand?

5. Constant Evolution

The most powerful brands transcend product categories. There are few brands that do this as well as Apple or Virgin. When a brand has a pristine record in every product launch and it always delivers the expected experience, consumers will trust in products outside that brand’s original category. Companies that are inventors at heart never stop looking for ways to demonstrate their core values in a new product category.

Shinola, the Made in America-centric watch company in Detroit is all about craftsmanship. They were (and still are) known for impeccably manufactured watches. Then they started making bikes. Now they’re making journals. They’ve most recently launched a line of pet products. As a company that’s always innovating, they can move into just about any space because their reputation for creating high-quality, handcrafted products now transcends any one category.

How can you express your core values in new categories?

Pick up your stone and carry it at all times.  

There aren’t many challenger brands that succeed accidentally. The smart ones – the empowered ones – are the brands that strategically adopt these personalities and then find ways to creatively express them at every touch point. Their employees live it, their customers believe it and their prospects understand it. No doubt, it takes guts, vision and an unwavering self-belief. But isn’t that what being a challenger is all about?

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