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What makes a retail brand a challenger brand?

Here, Paul Forrest explores what tenets, traits or characteristics contribute towards a brand becoming a true challenger brand in the modern retail environment. 

Its not intended to be an empirical or lengthy list, instead it’s one based on my recent observations of what it takes to be a challenger in an otherwise crowded market and what others may do to join the club?

However much a retailer tries, the chances are they won’t be number one for their sector – like most things in life there are plenty of contenders but only one real winner. Coca Cola is the most recognised name in the soft drinks arena but there are also plenty of challengers for the top spot with Pepsi, Fanta, Dr Pepper and co battling for their share of the customer pie.

In truth, the majority of retailers consider themselves to be challenger brands. There’s nothing particularly new there. What seems to have changed is that many retailers are starting to happily define themselves as challenger brands without having a clear idea what this really entails.

In short, retail challenger brands are the ones who are currently shouting loudly, the bold businesses that stand chin to chin with top dogs and peers. Challenger brands are not necessarily the small fish in the big pond but are the companies that have big ambition and are succeeding whatever their size. True challenger brands do not have the major share of the market, but they are out to gain a bigger slice of the sales pie, are making efforts to define themselves differently from the competition.

Generally for a challenger brand to have any impact they need to incorporate the 8 credos that define success. Since the term was first mentioned in 1999 by Adam Morgan, the opportunities for new businesses and established organisations to boost their visibility have increased considerably.

Having an Unapologetic Identity

Any business can become a challenger brand – if the will is there and they have strong enough leadership traits coupled with a well thought out brand identity, there is no reason why they shouldn’t succeed in taking more of a market share. The change in the last few years, particularly for retailers who are hoping to break through the ceiling into the bigger leagues, is that there are more resources for brand development available.

Take a look at Purple Harry. As a brand, they are young and have entered an established and deeply competitive market place with a strategy to disrupt and to conquer the competition by challenging the retail relationship their competition have with their consumers.  Not just an interesting name: Quirky, yes, different, yes but actually, the difference that drives their challenger perspective comes from the quality of their relationship and engagement with their customers which, dare I say it, looks to be based on a model of ‘crowdsourcing brand equity’.  Being different and challenging established products is only one side of the story.  To truly stand out, their products need to bring other benefits that support the challenger ethos.  Purple Harry’s certainly do whether measured in terms of value for money, quality, durability or ease of use (or maybe all of the above), they present a compelling proposition that should have some of their more established competitors feeling somewhat embarrassed about their own offerings.

Of course, challenger brands need to have real meaning to their customers if they are to survive and thrive in the long term. This comes from a ‘brand truth’ backed by a strong identity with brand values that people associate with. If you don’t have something that sets you apart from the competition then you become a mere clone of your more successful counterpart.

Transparent Strategy – Self Awareness

Today, we have more access to information than ever before.  We also have a clearer idea of who is succeeding and who is not. Brands can look at their competitors and explore new avenues that might well push them up the ladder quicker than before. This applies to international companies and those who work to a more local agenda. Consumers are using this information to form a perspective and to drive word of mouth.  Brands, retailers in particular, struggle to control this and frequently find that they can only respond reactively rather than driving the influence they previously held.  What this means is that a challenger here can promote themselves more robustly by sharing their strategy, plans and their intent in an open and transparent way.  A way in which many established and perhaps slightly tired retailers struggle, either due to complacency or due to the bullish attitude towards their previous market position.

Taking Risks

In retail, today’s challenger brands were born to take risks. If you want to have your voice heard then your business needs to take a few risks, particularly if you want quick results. Actually you need to take calculated risks. It’s not just about pushing out your latest idea and hoping for the best – if you have researched your industry and found out what works and what doesn’t, then now is the time to use your imagination and be brave.

A good example here is the high-end shapewear brand, Ender Legard – Spoiler alert before clicking… the website contains photographs of lingerie and corsetry! http://www.enderlegard.com/

What Ender Legard have achieved in a very short order has been done through a combination of personal risk by the people behind the business and a challenger perspective that others in their space have yet to make the shapewear product the market and its customers want.  By listening to their customers and designing innovative products that universally achieve plaudits indicating their product, unlike many others, is deeply functional shapewear that is comfortable and sexy (to look at and, by all accounts from those who partake, to wear) they have destroyed the myth that attractive undergarments are either not functional or not comfortable. Already in stores such as Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Barneys, this young challenger is taking on the more established and sometimes global brands and beating them at their own game by being a disruptive innovator.

Being Bold

Shout loud and be heard. People are bombarded with a tonne of information and if you want to be heard above the crowd then you need to be a challenger brand with a big voice. You don’t need a whole lot of money to get your message out there but you do need your brand message to be bold, beautiful and engaging. Unpaid celebrity or consumer endorsement for their innovative products features at the heart of both Purple Harry and Ender Legard.  This in turn has delivered tremendous word of mouth for what are essentially young online retail brands.  So now, it’s not just about them shouting – their customers are doing it for them.

Leading Thought

All brands need to have an opinion. They need to lead their customers and the industry in one particular arena that is important. They also need to be able to change the way people think about their world. That means getting great new ideas out there any way you can through blogs, videos, emails, podcasts and white papers to name just a few.  The more disruptive challenger brands in retail use viral, guerrilla and heavily user centric techniques – providing a great exemplar, these are the ones to watch, follow and learn from.

Pushing Forward Brand Awareness

The major change in the business landscape over the last ten years has been the development of social media platforms that have allowed brands to create greater brand awareness at a relatively low cost. It lets brands build a targeted audience and push the messages that set them apart from their competitors.

By far the biggest change in success or failure as a retail brand is that we can now communicate to a much greater extent than ever before.  For challengers, they recognise that this is a two-way process and all about conversations.  Those who trail here treat such communications as a one-way street – all push. Using social media, email marketing, online videos and other tools effectively and efficiently is the key to success in today’s battle to be amongst the leading lights. It also makes it easier for challenger brands to maintain the momentum they need to push onwards and upwards.

Building the right customer and follower base on social media and other platforms is vital if you want your brand to move up the ranks but it also takes a concerted and relentless strategy that is to remain relevant and of interest to your audience. Remember too, size of following is not a proxy for the quality of the following!  The brands that fail in today’s market are the ones who don’t have the guts for the long haul battle or have a deluded perspective that size, not quality matters.

Big Data and Better Metrics

Another key development for retail brands hoping to forge a reputation are the better metrics that are now available. You won’t succeed with your strategy if you can’t measure how you are doing. With cheap analytics tools from providers and the wealth of big data initiatives driving forecasting and ‘what if’ type testing, challenger brands are setting themselves apart from others by becoming more agile whilst also securing a good notion of how their nearest competitors are doing. Fleet of foot changes in strategic direction fuelled not just by sentiment but by data is allowing the challenger retail businesses to steel a march over more traditional businesses.

I have only mentioned a couple of stand out retail brands I have worked with in the last year and there are many, many more.  They all have tenets in common.  They are unapologetic, self aware and determined.  They have passion, drive, innovation and the appetite for personal risk.  They are prepared to challenge and that is the starting point. So, my tips for becoming a retail challenger brand:

  1. Discover your difference and keep it fresh: What sets you apart from the market leaders and your nearest competitors is largely what defines you as a brand. If you want to stand out from the crowd then you need to have something different, done differently and with a discernable benefit to the consumer over the status quo.
  2. Build your marketing plan and test its working: You can shout as loud as you like and tell everyone that you are the retail challenger brand to end all brands but without an effective marketing strategy you’ll end up nowhere fast (and probably poorer!).
  3. Build your following and enhance its quality through engagement: No brand can grow strong without a loyal and responsive following. Build them on social media and through other channels and never take them for granted. Share what’s on your mind but solicit feedback to initiate genuine conversations of worth.
  4. Have the right metrics in place to help remain agile and a thorn in the side of your competition: Measuring results ties everything together and allows you to develop your business and marketing plan without using The Force. It shows you what works and what doesn’t and is one of the most vital components to success. Keep it simple and affordable but think about the holy grail here… predictive customer insight!
  5. Be brave, be bold, be opinionated and keep going: Finally, being a challenger brand is all about having the courage and the energy to get out there and compete with the big players. You can’t do it half-heartedly and you have to keep going no matter what.
  6. Find supporters, collaborators and select alliances carefully: Recruit people into your network who help you to achieve all of the above. Find them and work with them to understand and validate your plans, goals and ambition.  Calibrate this and feed it into your strategy and make sure its not just a one-time activity.
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