The Importance of Challengers in the Age of Disruption

The terms “disruptor” and “challenger” have become buzzwords in the marketing industry. The words are not interchangeable and when it comes to marketing strategy, they are quite different. What exactly is the difference between a challenger and a disrupter? More importantly, must every challenger be disruptive and if so, what does this mean for their branding strategy? 

Challengers versus Disruptors 

Challenger brands bring innovation, enhancements, new pricing, or other tweaks to an existing marketplace. Challengers are underdogs—they aren’t the heavy hitters in their category. And true challengers take on the leaders in their industry by introducing new criteria of choice.  

A good example of a challenger brand is Monzo Bank Ltd, a digital, mobile-only bank based in the United Kingdom. At first glance, Monzo doesn’t appear all that different from the challenger banks that have come before. It’s their self-described ambition to solve problems, rather than selling financial products, that makes them stand out.  

Challenger brands out-smart their competition and Monzo certainly has done that! From their eye-catching cards that make users easily identifiable to their dramatic limited-edition style rollout that introduced a powerful sense of rarity, Monzo has built a sense of being part of an elite community for their half a million customers 

Disruptor brands, on the other hand, take on an entire industry category through product innovation. Transforming the market with a game changing concept is key to becoming a disruptive brand. Once consumers see what they offer, all the current players seem outside of what consumers now want. Disrupters change the product to disrupt a market rather than changing the promotion, pricing or distribution strategy– marketing strategy is secondary to product innovation.  

When Airbnb stepped onto the scene in 2008, they turned the hotel industry on its head by giving homeowners the opportunity to rent out their homes and apartments to travellers at a low price. They didn’t just provide innovative accommodation, they changed the way the hotel industry conducts the business of travel. Over the past decade, Airbnb has built up 3 million listings in 65,000 cities and 191+ countries. They’ve forced the hospitality industry to improve the guest experience. Hotels aren’t disappearing but, thanks to Airbnb, they’re evolving.  

Must challenger brands be disruptive? 

Adam Morgan from eatbigfish believes that if challengers can’t monopolize via a disruptive business model, disruption in the branding sense becomes essential. Challengers must be disruptive because when a company’s ambitions exceed its resources, they have to offer something genuinely new and innovative to stand out. For a challenger to cut through the noise in an already bustling market, the last strategy they’ll want to take up is the one that the leader and those fast followers are already using. 

Challenger Brand Strategies 

According to Morgan and Mark Holden in their book, “Overthrow: Ten Ways to Tell a Challenger Story,” there are 10 types that represent the challenger brand state-of-mind:

The Missionary: The missionary strives to do better. They have a transparent sense of purpose and see themselves as agents of change. They wear that bigger purpose with pride and ambition, and consumers respond to it because they identify with the challenger’s beliefs. Dove is a potent example of a missionary challenger with their campaign for real beauty. 

The Real and Human Challenger: This type of challenger appeals to consumers on a personal level by making a human connection. People are the resource, and their brand voice reflects that philosophy. Consumers can more easily identify with a small, idealistic group of people than with a faceless corporate brand. Jim Koch, the founder of Samuel Adams beer company, is this type of challenger.

The Next Generation: This challenger questions the relevance of the past to a new world, daring to call out category leaders for being old fashioned. Consumers respond to this because they want to be a part of this “new, and more modern world.” Audi has done this brilliantly in the North American market.   

The Irreverent Maverick: This challenger is big on attitude and uses humour and shock tactics to attract consumers. These challengers directly appeal to consumers’ rebellious nature. They embody counterculture attitude. When you think of Irreverent Mavericks, think Red Bull. 

he Feisty Underdog: This challenger embodies the David vs Goliath model, calling out the industry leader as Goliath. The Feisty Underdog appeals to consumers’ desire to “stick it to the man”. Pepsi is a classic example of this archetype.     

The People’s Champion: This challenger is standing up for the consumer who has been subjugated by everyone else in the category. Richard Branson is a prime example of this challenger. 

The Game Changer: Game changers think outside the box and introduce an entirely new service or experience, wrapped in an entirely new category narrative. These challengers change the way we think about and experience the category, through our relationship with its product and service. Steve Jobs was a Game Changer in the technology industry.

The Visionary: A Visionary Challenger rejects the mundane ways the category thinks about its nature and role. They see a higher vision for the future and then turn that vision into a reality. When you think of a visionary, Uber comes to mind. 

The Democratiser: Democratisers believe in taking from the few and giving to the many. Often seen in retail, their mission is to challenge elitist brands. Ikea is an excellent example of a Democratiser.

The Enlightened Zagger: These challengers swim against the current and challenge conventional wisdom–and they aren’t afraid to call others in their category on their BS. The key difference between The Enlightened Zagger and The Irreverent Maverick is the ‘truth’ that the Enlightened Zagger reveals to us as to why they are taking the stand they are. Newcastle Brown Ale is considered this type of challenger.

The difference between challenger brands and disruptors is ideology versus product innovation. While disruptor brands turn an entire industry category on its head through product innovation, a challengers’ dogma provides clarity around what their brand believes in, their values, and what change it’s trying to bring about. This ideology acts as both inspiration and filter for the kinds of disruption it will pursue. Without that clarity, disruption will quickly deteriorate into chaos. 

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