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Taking On the Giant: Key Strategies for Challenger Brands

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Challenger brands are businesses that have ambitions bigger than their conventional resources, and they’re prepared to do something bold and against conventions.

Most often associated with being the “underdog,” these brands are changing the game because they’re challenging what is being offered versus who their customers are. Virgin Atlantic, Uber, Warby Parker: These are all brands that have offered an alternative to their respective category leader. And, all of these brands have been extremely successful.

It calls into question—what should a business keep top of mind to become a successful challenger brand? And, additionally, what can brand strategists do to help?

1. Think about research differently
There’s nothing a strategist loves more than a juicy research budget. But, as much as we love the opportunity to conduct ethnographic research or multi-city focus groups, it’s just not always the reality. Tighter budgets and shorter timelines are an inevitable reality of working with a small challenger brand. Qualitative research is extensive and expensive. Well, at least that’s how it used to be.

Qualitative research should never be off the table simply because budgets and timelines are tight. We just have to think about it differently. Rather than relying on in-person insight gathering, reach consumers where they are most present: Their phones. Mobile research has opened the door to innovative research techniques that shake up the way we think about qualitative research. Now, instead of traveling to consumers and talking to them in the confines of an outdated focus group room, vendors like Instapanel allow you to send qualitative surveys to consumers who then respond in real time via video recording, right on their phones. Is mobile research a focus group killer? Probably not. But with the right partner and the will to push ourselves to think about traditional research in an untraditional way, we can uncover meaningful insights that don’t break the bank.

2. Find (and attack) a vulnerability
Imagine you’ve been tasked with chopping down a giant tree. What’s your approach? I’m willing to bet that it doesn’t involve running blindly, full speed at the trunk and hoping you knock it over. Instead, you’d chink away at a single weak spot in the trunk, eventually turning that tiny puncture into a massive chunk. With persistence, your applied force will eventually cause the tree to topple to the ground.
The same applies to a challenger brand taking on a giant: Find their most exposed vulnerability and counter it with your greatest strength. Finding the giant’s vulnerability is a delicate dance between what the consumer needs, what your brand can offer and what the competitor can’t. Take Dollar Shave Club, for example. When looking at the current Gillette consumer, they saw an unmet need for an affordable shaving option. So, rather than trying to beat Gillette with multi-blade, comfort glide, best-shave-of-your-life technology, they found the one vulnerability they could attack: Price. When your brand’s focus is direct and rooted in an unmet consumer need, you have the ability to slowly, but effectively, take down the giant.

3. Have empathy beyond the brief
As a strategist, empathy is at the core of how we solve problems. In short, it means observing, engaging and immersing ourselves in the world of the user. When we can see—and truly understand—the world through the user’s eyes, we can successfully solve business problems with human-centered solutions. But, notice that we’re talking about the ‘user’ not ‘consumer.’
That’s because empathy doesn’t start or stop with a brief. Smaller brands are run by people, just like us, who face daily challenges, just like us. We have to be empathetic toward the client’s smaller budgets, tighter timelines and lean operations. Can’t afford that marquee billboard? No problem. Paint a high-traffic wall with instagrammable content and watch the organic impressions roll in. Don’t have time to produce a thirty second spot? Say no more. Use live-stream social feeds to reach consumers in real time. When we open our minds to what the client is experiencing, we can face oncoming challenges as a united team—And have some fun doing it.

About the Author: As a Senior Strategist at VSA, Kendall has had the privilege of leading brand strategy and designing through-the-line consumer experiences for iconic and innovative brands, including Kimberly Clark, Crystal Light and Marvin Windows and Doors. She is a champion of Design Thinking, bringing user empathy to all facets of problem-solving for both stakeholders and consumers. Contact Kendall at

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