Successful challenger brands share key values and methods

You might not think of Jesus Christ as a ’challenger brand’, but, says Contagious magazine editorial director Paul Kemp-Robertson, he displayed all the traits.

Think of his throwing over of tables in the temple and his bid to foster democracy as the underdog.

’Jesus was essentially a socialist,’ Kemp-Robertson told an audience convened by Contagious with digital creative group Devilfish last week to consider challenger brands. As if to reinforce his point, the conference, ’Punching above your weight: The value of a twinkle-toed approach’, was held in a church – St Barnabas in London’s Soho.

Speakers including Spotify UK managing director Jon Mitchell, US eco-cleaning brand Method’s intriguingly titled ’chief ripple-maker’ Louise Roper, and brand strategist Gav Thompson – who divides his time between telecoms giant O2 and its edgier off-shoot Giffgaff, which he founded – explained how they got their brands off the ground.

None went the conventional route, nor is there one way of doing things. But all started out without any cash for marketing, a will to do things differently and a desire to engage – and use – their consumers rather than preach to them.

Mitchell spoke of ’making a noise without budget’ when, in 2008, he brought Swedish music streaming business Spotify to the UK. Launching in a recession proved an advantage, in that ’it can benefit in terms of marketing space’. Word of mouth proved invaluable, as did developing a dialogue with the press and ’seeding’ the venture through an ’exclusive club’ of key influencers.

Method’s products not only look different – Karim Rashid created early packs – but contain different ingredients to competitors’ goods, and therefore appeal to eco- and style-conscious markets. Roper, essentially the company’s international marketing director, favours ’inside out’ branding with total transparency conveyed to consumers by staff who believe in the product as passionately as Method’s founders.

’You build trust through transparency,’ she says, citing the recruitment of ’advocates’ via Method’s website to try out samples and tell their friends. ’It’s all about creating conversations,’ she says, which is what Method’s ’People against dirty’ strapline is all about.

Thompson’s was a different task – engaging an audience that had become tired of ’corporate’ mobile networks like Giffgaff parent O2. ’People want more ownership and partnership,’ he says, and this is behind Giffgaff’s bid to build a reputation virally through creative stunts on YouTube and other social networking sites.

Giffgaff has done more than most to share financial rewards, with users introducing new members and enabling them to donate ’points’ accrued to charities.

Thompson, Roper and Mitchell share key values. All talk of a quality product and engaging users. Collaborating with existing organisations and social networks is a quick way to gain recognition and credibility from day one.

It is key, though, for a challenger brand to be true to its consumers in everything it does, and reputation will follow. Roper summed it up by revisiting the quote ’Advertising is a tax on unremarkable products’. ’If you create a remarkable product first, it changes the way you look at things,’ she says. ’Effective marketing invites participation.’

Pointers for challenger brands

Be bold – you have to change the rules of the game

Make friends – if you give people something relevant, useful and entertaining you will get loyalty in return

Keep talking and listening – have a dynamic relationship with your audience

Make a difference – look at how you could create something of substance with intrinsic value

Spend less, think harder – by thinking differently you can spend less and do more

Richard Holman, Executive creative director, Devilfish

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