Pitching Marketing

Challenger brands Vs disruptors

By Greg James, chief strategy and development officer

March 29, 2018 | 5 min read

Agencies discuss it in hushed tones, but the volume of pitches for new and retained business in 2018 looks like it could surpass the ‘Mediapalooza’ of 2015.


Last time out, many client contracts were awarded on a three-year rotation. We’ve therefore been preparing ourselves for this latest run of ‘review or renew’ and it’s been fascinating to witness key insights that have emerged from multiple RFPs and client discussions.

How brands see themselves and how they require strategy to be framed accordingly, is of particular interest to me.

Many brands define themselves as ‘challengers’ without really understanding the difference between a true challenger brand and simply not being market leader.

How many times have you heard a client tell you that theirs is a 'challenger brand'? (About as many as have told you they are “Just like mini – so democratic you never know who’s going to step out when the door opens…!...”) It’s become something of a catch-all when in fact, a challenger brand is a specific type of brand situation, with a specific set of behaviours.

Often, the success that brands hanker after most isn’t that of a challenger brand, but of a ‘disrupter’ instead.

In today's disruptive times, almost every category has a raucous new entrant - and this is causing even more brands to feel 'challenged'. But being a challenger and being a disrupter are different - and media plans and marketing behaviours for both show different types of behaviour.

Challenger Brands

Adam Morgan's brilliant team at Eat Big Fish are the definitive leaders in work on Challenger Brand theory. They define them as:

- Not the number one but not a niche player

- Ruled by a state of mind - willing to recognise their resource deficiency but push onwards regardless

- Leaning in to a rate of success, championing the thing they know they are (or sometimes were) great at

So as a challenger brand, we might see media plans and marketing that draws on the expertise, heritage or provenance, or capitalises on past or underplayed strengths.

Challenger brands should be thinking about how to out-smart the competition, often on their own turf (for example, rethinking methods in existing distribution channels or seeking white space in a well-used media channel like ‘TV done differently’).

Challenger brands have a confidence and often just have to tap into it again. They can frequently play the underdog card because consumers, ever more mindful of how meaningful a brand is, recognise the strength and disproportionate power of the number one player.


Disrupters are trying to change the game and play by new rules. Often today, being a disrupter brand means something very specific - often disinter-mediating or disrupting through new platforms or technology; think AirBnB, Netflix, Uber or Birchbox.

In traditional marketing terms, disrupters are more frequently changing the product to disrupt a market rather than merely the promotion, pricing or distribution strategy.

The disrupters are often launched from a product development or even engineering perspective. Marketing comes second.

Necessity is the mother of invention and even in major categories with big budgets (beauty, fashion, CPG, technology, luxury...) disruptive brands find big success with personalised, 'insta' marketing.

The biggest example may be beauty category disruption, where multi-million dollar brands peak in mere months through smart targeting with minimal assets and some basic endorsements.

This success isn't singular - there's a hidden underlying benefit of this market route: launching on Instagram, Snapchat, Weibo or Facebook with a new product can cause rapid disruption and begin to steal market share, not just because of smart targeting, but because the consumers most likely to respond are inherently early adopters in the traditional sense.

So a virtuous cycle is [almost unwittingly] created as the specific audience who become customers are inherently more viral, more vocal and more rapidly transformed into advocates, using their own social platforms.

Perhaps that's why disruption is yet to fully reach the 'grey market' - there’s certainly fewer social advocates for emergency pull cords or retirement villages - but with an ageing digitally savvy population, there soon will be.

And finally...

During this year’s round of pitches, clarity on what a business believes in and the changes that it aims to bring about, acts as both inspiration and filter for the kinds of disruption it should peruse. As Eat Big Fish warns however, without that clarity, disruption can turn to chaos pretty quickly.

Greg James is chief strategy and development officer of Havas Media

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