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How activation helps challenger brands break through

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

Recently I received my order of a 1 litre refill to replenish my glass bottle of Savon de Marseille Extra Pur Figue. Nestling at the bottom of the box was a sample of Billy Jealousy Fuzzy Logic Strengthening Shampoo, a brand I’d never heard of. On reading the pack copy I was impressed: “Cleans deeply to rid hair of impurities that lead to hair thinning and loss.” How clever to have profiled me as a folicly challenged consumer of premium toiletries and put their product in my hand!

During my in-home trial next morning the tingling from the Peppermint Oil in the formulation was noticeable. However, for me, showering is refreshing enough and I don’t need my shampoo to be. And I doubt Billy Jealousy can succeed where Regaine failed. Looking at its website it also turned out that perhaps its targeting wasn’t as tight as it first seemed. Here’s an excerpt from its philosophy:

“Billy Jealousy is more than just a product — it’s a way of life that defines who you are: effortless yet edgy, playful but still polished. Sharply tailored for today’s sophisticated bad boy and bad girl, our line is geared towards those who know how to look good. After all, an investment in your appearance can really pay off."

But that’s not the point. The fact is that Billy Jealousy, a challenger brand, had managed to break into my usual portfolio of shampoos and conditioners in a really effective manner. It got under my radar and got me to do something. Its strategy could have recruited a customer with a lifetime value worth many times more than the cost of the trial programme. Might it have been done better? Yes, and hopefully other sampling tests will have used coupons, questionnaires, and competitions to capture permissioned details, and thus the opportunity to get feedback and re-market to these prospects.

This anecdote is a microcosm of the daily battle between challengers and brand leaders which is framed within the context of consumer cognitive dissonance. Many people don’t realise how significant a factor it is in marketing communications, especially for challenger brands. In a nutshell, cognitive dissonance is the powerful human desire for consistency between behaviours and beliefs. The relevance to marketing is that a brand’s buyers are more favourable to it in all respects, and are more attuned to its advertising and marketing communications, whereas infrequent buyers are less so. It’s as if they’re wearing mental blinkers which prevent them ‘seeing’ other brands.

People are creatures of habit and cognitive dissonance is a reinforcing factor. It means that it’s hard for a challenger brand to get the brand leader’s customers to pay it much attention, and even harder to get them to think and feel good things about it.

So challenger brands often spend most of their marcoms budget on image advertising to overcome cognitive dissonance, and change attitudes. It can be done, but it’s slow and expensive, especially as brand leaders have an unfair advantage – they need to spend less than challengers to retain their market share as proven by Andrew Ehrenberg.

The difficulties caused by cognitive dissonance resulted in the famous ‘Pepsi Challenge’ campaign which the number two used to attack brand leader, Coca-Cola. Research had shown that Pepsi outperformed Coke in blind taste tests, but frustratingly, once named, the power of the brand leader’s imagery overcame people’s preferences.

The ‘Pepsi Challenge’ was devised to get people to confront their cognitive dissonance by tasting the two colas side-by-side, preferring one and then being surprised when the brand was revealed as Pepsi, not Coca-Cola. This classic challenger campaign was one of the key steps which built Pepsi’s brand share to the point where it outsells Coca-Cola in some key markets.

The traditional view is that behaviour change is brought about by changing attitudes first. As the Pepsi Challenge showed all those years ago, and many recent experiments have confirmed since, behaviour change can affect attitudes, often far more quickly, thus reinforcing the changed behaviour.

The Long and Short of It’, the 2012 IPA/Thinkbox report by Les Binet and Peter Field, investigated the difference in effectiveness between the short and long term effects of campaigns, to discern which was the more profitable and why. Their statistical analysis of over 1,000 IPA Effectiveness Awards cases, and related author questionnaires, proved that campaigns which combine brand building and brand activation are twice as efficient as brand building alone. As a result, Binet and Field recommend a 60:40 brand budget split between long-term and short term marcoms.

So, Billy Jealousy is off and running in the UK with PR, social media, and sampling. How long before it needs some brand building advertising to challenge the leaders and steal some serious market share?

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor to 23red. He tweets @hamishpringle

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