The Challenger Trap: fighting the status quo with the status quo

Once up on a time, to be a “challenger brand” simply meant that you weren’t number one.

On this basis pretty much any brand could be framed as such, without it really saying anything about their philosophy or approach to the market.  One of the original challenger brands, for example, was Avis, the car rental guys.  There wasn’t much more to their challenger status than simply “owning” their position as number two behind Hertz – exemplified by their classic ad campaign which stated “we’re number two so we try harder”.

Pretty basic stuff.

However today, I think we all recognise that “challenger” has come to mean something more than simply “not the market leader”.

To be a challenger brand is to be a particular type of brand, rather than size.  It carries with it suggestions of a “rebellious” and “youthful” nature.  Hoodies and sneakers rather than jackets and ties.  Unorthodox vacation policies, flat hierarchies, and slick design.  There is definitely a “feeling” to what a challenger brand should be – a feeling so distinctive that there are arguably various categories today where the number one is seen as a “challenger” and the number two is not.

In short it’s become a more of a worldview than a position in the market – one we might summarise as:

Opposition to the status quo.

Now on the face of it this all sounds great – and quite aligned with the kinds of stuff we talk about in these pieces.  But there is a problem.

You see there comes a point where certain challenger brands become so successful, that their position ceases to be “against the status quo”, and instead becomes the status quo.

Brand icons like Nike, Ben & Jerry’s, and Patagonia all began with counter-cultural, counter-category plays, that’s for sure.  But today they are all the very opposite of those things.  They represent the heart of their respective categories, and profoundly “establishment” cultural positions.

Now there’s absolutely nothing wrong that – especially from their perspectives.  On the contrary, the best thing you can be is the arch representative of the status quo – and I would encourage any brand who has that opportunity to grab it with both hands, and forget all this challenger crap.

No, the problem comes for the next generation of challenger brands.  They look at these icons, think “that’s what a challenger brand looks like”, and then copy them – without realising that this is the exact opposite of challenger behaviour.

Clearly a true challenger to Nike, or Ben & Jerry’s, or Patagonia, or any other established ex-challenger brand, would be nothing like them.  But that’s not what we see.  We instead tend to see a flood of copycats who think they are being disruptive because they’re copying what was disruptive 30 years ago – without realising that they are simply echoing what has become the establishment.

This then is the challenger trap:

Where upcoming brands adopt positions which used to be challenger in their category, but have now become orthodoxy – and so end up fighting the status quo with the status quo.

The challenger trap doesn’t only play out in categories where there is a big sexy ex-challenger at the heart of them.  These days boring corporates have become quite adept at mimicking challenger positions as soon as they become popular – thereby negating any threat from below that may arise.

To give you a concrete example of this, think about the UK grocery scene.

The quintessential challenger in this space was, unquestionably, Innocent – who came to dominate the drinks market 20 years ago through their “tastes good does good” positioning, and their artful blend of healthy product and ethical behaviour.

Thanks to their success, almost every challenger food and bev brand since has been something of a “mini-Innocent” – a strategy that on the whole has worked quite well, since there are lots of other categories in store where Innocent don’t play.

Today however, in 2021, you are deluded if you think that “health” + “ethics” is in any way counter cultural – even amongst the big corporates.  I had to laugh the other day when I learned that Alpro, a soy products giant owned by Danone, who are pretty much as establishment as they come in the UK, now uses the platform “good for you, good for the planet”.  For them this is a brilliant play, since big brands with big budgets like them are able to take ownership of the status quo.  But for challengers, this should be taken as a signal that the health and ethics ship has sailed.  It is no longer an effective lever against the market leaders; it’s their own lever.

(Needless to say this doesn’t mean that current challengers need to be “unhealthy” or “unethical” – although this would at least be a genuine challenger position.  It simply means that they have to find new battle grounds on which to fight, new angles with which to challenge, rather than relying on these orthodoxies).

At the end of the day if you’re a real challenger brand, your life should be pretty uncomfortable.  You should be raising a few eyebrows, attracting criticism, and running a bit of risk.

After all, that’s what happens when you challenge the status quo.  That’s what happened to the iconic challengers back in the day.

But if you feel safe and celebrated, and are attracting approval from all the right places, then that doesn’t sound like a challenger to me.  That sounds more like a pet.  A pet of the establishment, who are happy for you to have the crumbs beneath their table while they dominate the very position you think is so new and edgy.

Not every brand needs to be a rebel.  That’s just a style.  But every brand does need to bring something fresh to the party.  And if you can’t do that then you’re not a challenger, by any definition.

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