The challenger challenge

With a mindset that sees their business ambitions go beyond conventional resources, and with an intention to effect change, these challenger brands are setting the pace and getting noticed.

A favourite quote I read recently was from challenger-agency-of-the-moment Mischief USA’s CCO, Greg Hahn: “The least interesting Super Bowl work is mostly the result of people trying to do something that everyone is going to like. The goal is to do something that enough people love.” I love everything about this. Not just because Hahn is a total creative legend. But because the same thinking applies to how challenger brands need to operate in order to grow – or even be noticed in the first place. You don’t need everyone. Just enough.

Great challenger brands know this, and that’s why I love working with them. They don’t want to please everyone. Because of that, they’re more willing to be bold. They have energy and impatience over reticence and inertia. They’ve come this far through sheer audacity and drive, and they don’t need to protect the fifteen brand pillars, international brand codes or manage a pile of embedded, suspicious stakeholders. They find reasons to say yes. That doesn’t mean they should be reckless. But it does mean being open to an element of risk – which is crucial.

The power of the mosquito

Anita Roddick’s famous line “if you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito” perfectly captures the potential of the challenger brand. A mosquito is not reasonable. You know what it is and what it wants. By definition, a challenger needs to be quickly distinct. Then you have to make people notice. We certainly leaned into that with our recent rebrand of energy provider, Flick. Their point of view was a simple, one-word equity: Activist. Historically, they’ve always been a thorn in the side of an unfair energy industry. They walk the walk every day in their activism, product offering, and innovation. Agitating was in their DNA, but to be heard, we needed to turn it up to 11, inject it with energy and fun, and y’know, create a rock song that breaks down into a high-speed anger-ramble about quite specific wholesale price-fixing by large energy suppliers, with a goat in face paint at the end. We knew not everyone would like it. But there are plenty of people who would notice and enjoy it. We knew people would look at it and go “what the hell was that?” and they did. Then they went to the website to find out what it was and on launch day gave Flick their best-ever day of sign-ups, ever.

It’s not just all about the noise

You can be a challenger brand and not be loud at all, too. Oceania Healthcare is the exact opposite of Flick in category, tone and audience. But they still stand for questioning the accepted norm of aged care in New Zealand and are doing something about it. Our recent spot for Couples Care Suites was a great opportunity to highlight a tangible proof point behind Oceania’s challenger brand position of “Believe in Better,” by showing that Oceania understood the importance of couples staying together should one of them become ill. The film we created, somewhat shockingly, was disruptive too. It turns out that presenting stories with heart, empathy and dignity stands out among ads dressing up elderly people in designer clothes or making them act young to be “fresh.”

Corey Chalmers.

Know who you are, not just what you aren’t

The best challenger brands truly know their place and the core of their personality. They’ve found a cultural truth, a human pain point to relieve, and have a simple north star. One of my favourite examples of this was launching 2degrees. The company had a clear point of view – keeping Kiwis connected while the duopoly tries to do the opposite with confusing plans and high prices. They also had a common goal and a central ball of relentless energy, CMO Larrie Moore. He knew we had one chance. But he also had a lot of great product foundations, a clear offering and a brand whose name itself suggest Kiwi closeness. Using Rhys Darby was just a natural extension with a uniquely Kiwi perspective, at a moment where that style of humour was taking the world by storm. It was also a relief and an alternative from the inconsistent, fragmented and forgettable output of Telecom and indeed Vodafone – who themselves entered NZ as a plucky underdog before the inevitable marketing rigor mortis of international corporatization kicked in. Happily, 2degrees are still fighting for fair, over a decade later.

Awaken people emotionally, not just with innovation

To be a challenger, you need to challenge (obviously), but even more importantly, you need to enable. A real-world example that strikes me is how Brendon McCullum did it for New Zealand cricket. As captain, he took an underperforming team from a culture of “we could still lose this” to “we could still win.” He’s continued that as coach of England, turning a team as stodgy and institutional as they come into an exciting, energetic disruptor. All it took was McCullum to remind the players why they played in the first place – the sheer joy and love of the game – then empower them to get back there. It’s not revolutionary or even innovative, but it clearly unlocked a truth that allowed the same failing players to become the ones they dreamed of being – almost overnight. The lesson? Challenging points to the door blocking our way. Enabling gives us the key.

Turn your firework into a burning flame

Success is great but it also breeds a new monster. If we’ve done our job right, a challenger can often start to protect what they’ve earned at the expense of their soul. Time and again, I’ve seen a challenger get a level of attention they dreamed of, heard their squeaky sphincter suddenly tighten, and then coast into oblivion. The work starts to lose its edge as it tries not to lose customers rather than gain new followers. The growing pains of moving from niche to mainstream are large and sharp. It means backing up the promise with a meaningful offering and tangible proof points in year two, three and beyond, which our friends like Flick and Oceania actively do, every day.

It’s an even greater challenge than starting out. But those who know what they are and keep feeding the dream will shine bright and enjoy an unfair share of success. And those who don’t will risk fading as quickly as they appeared.

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of NZ MarketingClick here to subscribe.

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About Corey Chalmers

Corey Chalmers is the Executive Creative Director of independent NZ agency, YoungShand. Previously at Saatchi & Saatchi, Droga5 and TBWA, Chalmers has spent over 25 years creating popular, award-winning, iconic work for ASB Bank, adidas, 2degrees, Chorus, Toyota and more.

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