A challenger brand mindset wins consumers — and changes the world

Like all great brands, challengers succeed by mastering the balance between delivering on their customers’ functional needs and providing the emotional benefits that only they can provide. What we can learn from challengers, however, is how a bold vision coupled with a commitment to embrace a unique and authentic difference can help any brand rise to the top. Netflix, Warby Parker, RXBAR, Everlane, and Slack are just a few great examples.

Challenger brands come in many shapes and sizes, representing some of the most exciting and well-loved household names around. Some are contrarians or provocateurs; others are crusaders, driven by their passion. They innovate, reinvent, and disrupt; and they do it, surprisingly, by being great listeners committed to meeting the needs of their customers. While what drives them varies, what defines them — for the most part — is remarkably the same.

Whether you’re out to unseat competitors or maintain a lead, here’s how a challenger mindset can help you achieve your goals.

Have a clear vision.

Challenger brands in any category are most successful when they are propelled by a clear vision, embracing an organizing principle to live out their mission and deliver on an unmet customer need. Navigating a crowded landscape takes discipline and distinct positioning. Once identified, a North Star must guide every marketing, product, and service experience, setting the brand apart from competitors and the current customer mindset.

In 2002, MINI Cooper launched in the U.S. with a tall order in hand. The goal was to challenge the prevailing car culture centered on size, power, and excess. Creating desire for a new mindset altogether, MINI felt empowered to launch with a platform that was at direct odds with the well-traveled course of the category. Recognizing that, MINI led with the rally cry “Let’s Motor” to invite a whole new generation of drivers into its membership and to celebrate the conscious and conscientious act and experience of driving again.

Maximize your competitive advantage.

Challenger brands ask and then answer what they do better than everyone else. They understand that the greater their difference, the greater their impact — whether through better service, unique features, quantifiable performance improvement, availability for an audience not currently served, better bundling of products and services, improved ease of use, more efficient delivery or distribution, more compelling customer experiences, or even unbeatable prices.

Perhaps there is no better example of a brand, of sorts, that is challenging convention and creating a movement than the emergence of blockchain technology and its wide-ranging applications. One of many practical examples putting this revolutionary technology to good use is a consortium of energy and financial institutions including Royal Dutch Shell and Citigroup, who plan to start trading commodities on a new blockchain platform called Komgo. Add to that uses like copyright protection, real estate title transfer, digital voting, and supply chain logistics, and you have a potentially disruptive mode of transacting the likes of which the world has never seen.

Identify opportunities where only you can win.

Challenger brands are often well-positioned. Typically, they have the freedom to take more chances than category leaders and to leave the worry of pleasing the majority behind. By turning what many may perceive as the weakness of the underdog or comeback kid, challengers know how to capitalize on the strengths of their unique position to upend the status quo.

Above all, focus on what makes you distinctively different and irreplaceable in the market. Challenger brands excel at identifying and then solving unmet customer needs and then turning that into a platform for stealing market share from competitors. Challengers win not by positioning themselves as the best option, but rather as the only option.

As attitudes toward conspicuous consumption have changed, Shinolasaw an opportunity to tap into a consumer market that craved a new style of luxury, focusing on designing products fit for a generation’s eclectic and inclusive lifestyles. In turn, the brand has helped spur growth in the category, even contributing to a creative and industrial renaissance in Detroit. The brand work and complementary campaigns helped reclaim Detroit’s pioneering past following the recession by celebrating its people, products, and resiliency as a city. By rethinking and reintroducing time-honored traditions of craft, heritage, and in a sense, timelessness itself, Shinola was able to energize a space with a unique, newfound vitality and an authentic point of pride and differentiation.

Not yet category leader and not content being a niche player, challenger brands don’t play it safe. They disrupt category dynamics by defying convention, often changing consumer behaviors along the way. Although challengers aren’t necessarily aiming for the top spot, they are characterized by an unbridled energy to grow their businesses by providing the market with a product, service, or experience that no one else does — and in a way, that no one else can.

Jim Misener is principal and president of 50,000feet

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