Agency Culture Challenger Brands Marketing

Why big corporate brands can’t just sit and watch the challengers be ‘brave’


By Ed Hall, Creative director

May 20, 2024 | 7 min read

Love’s Ed Hall reflects on why brand scale ultimately leads to risk aversion. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Dan Levy stars in Loewe

Soft drink challenger Poppi recently became the number one soft drink seller on Amazon, with a market share 1.5x greater than Coca-Cola’s. Its sales at large are growing faster than those of Monster Energy, Gatorade, Liquid Death, and VitaminWater. Standing out in a market as saturated as soft drinks takes something special – for Poppi, that something special is brave design.

Vivid colors and a cheeky tone of voice (on the dazzling and vibrant cans, it says ‘no BS’). Add to that a fun social media strategy: memes, using events like the eclipse to talk about product, engaging with the forefront of culture – and it’s the sort of bold strategy that we say only startup and challenger brands can get away with–being loud, noisy, fun, kicking up a fuss, and disrupting the status quo. Success.

Of course, being brave is easier when you’re a startup or challenger brand. It’s essential: you’ve less to lose and everything to gain. You’re in that sweet, early phase with clarity around a single-minded mission. Cereal disruptor Surreal is another example; it has taken a spoonful of the market by employing a self-aware sense of humor and ads that tap into meme culture. When this leads to success, which it so often does, things scale up.

But then, too often, creativity goes stale.

There are myriad factors for this. The stakes become much higher. Brands feel they have fewer opportunities to surprise; they may be forced into a more ‘mainstream’ personality, whether to appease shareholders or to keep their appeal wide-reaching without alienating an existing customer base. Suddenly, they have everything to lose. Confidence in edgier, more exciting, and potentially risky brand behavior wanes.

Playing it safe has become a strategy for many brands in today’s market. It’s viable for a while, but in most cases, it becomes a route to dwindling relevance, and in a culture-first world, this also means dwindling sales. Consumers are wrestling with the cost of living and an overload of visual noise from media channels. They want a product that speaks to them, inspires them, and makes them smile. This takes the unexpected; it takes bravery. Corporate brands can be, and need to be, brave.

It’s more possible than they think. There are examples of established, even legacy and luxury brands pushing themselves to be bold, brave and daring. Look at Madrid’s high-fashion brand Loewe. With its recent ‘Decades of Confusion’ ad, it took the eye-catching decision to bring itself down a peg, breaching the question it knew people have had about the brand since its inception in 1846: how do you actually pronounce the name?

Self-aware and self-deprecating, this daring humility in the refined and precious world of luxury fashion. Risky to brand integrity, you may worry, but that wasn’t the case. The ad has over a million YouTube views.

Selfridge’s ‘tongue-in-chic’ joke shop played with expectations in a similarly brave way, injecting fun into fashion, and saw similar success. British Airways’ recent campaign was brave in a completely different way. Placing the ideal first and the brand second is a subversion of expectation that has certainly got people talking. Burberry has similarly reimposed itself as a culturally relevant fashion powerhouse through a courageous blend of archival branding and a contemporary approach to storytelling – placing the brand alongside hip cafe Norman’s (and serving up a large plate of British nostalgia in doing so). Moncler and Diesel have also propelled themselves into the upper echelon of the fashion zeitgeist through their daring strategy, rising to the third most sought-after brand in a Lyst Index report and being worn by the likes of Kylie Minogue at the Met Gala, respectively.

This isn’t to say there’s zero risk to being bold.

There is, of course – if you do it badly. It’s important to stay true to the brand character. Otherwise, the behavior feels inauthentic and won’t land with consumers. There’s nothing worse than a brand social team trying to get involved in a TikTok trend that doesn’t feel like a natural fit – it’s forced and cringeworthy.

If a brand is going to enter a conversation, especially one within the fast-paced and brand-critical world of social media, it must feel like a conversation they would naturally be part of (or they have to say something incredibly smart). Remember when Heinz and Absolut cooked up a storm? Treating an everyday product like an elite fashion brand is a bold, potentially alienating move, but it was a resounding success. Working with a culturally intelligent strategy meant they could find a way to embed it into the culture and inspire people – here, those in the know were able to uncover that penne alla vodka had become a trending dish on social media and leverage this through a partnership. Their pasta sauce sales went soaring as a result.

Penfolds is another brand with a decades-long history, this time in the wine world. Admired by aficionados for spectacular wine, it decided to raise its ambition even further: it would become not only a wine brand but also a luxury brand. So, we helped it create a series of limited-edition bottles in collaboration with Japanese designer Nigo.

This was a radical shake-up with the potential to outrage loyal customers. Penfolds said, “in with the new” and risked alienating its fans. It paid off. The premium ‘Grange’ version sold out globally within 90 minutes, but more importantly, we brought a new type of consumer into the world of fine wine – and Penfolds was their first foray.

The scope for bravery is large, far larger than most corporate brand teams recognize. And, with ever more smart, bold challengers entering the market and a growing number of corporate brands realizing the creative opportunity here, there is less room for the brand teams that miss the chance. The moment for bravery is now – seize it.

Oh, and it’s pronounced “low-ey-vey,” by the way.

Agency Culture Challenger Brands Marketing

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