We can learn a lot from nimble, independent challenger brands

It doesn’t take long for marketers to badge new developments – and for the creative community to adopt their clients’ terminology.

One of the most significant moves has centred on the use of ’branding’ to denote what used to break down into identity on the one hand and packaging on the other. The brand is king and everyone’s into branding now.

Inevitably, branding has developed subsets, of which the ’challenger brand’ is among the latest. A challenger brand is one such as wholesome cleaning products company Method and 02’s ’edgy’ offshoot mobile telecoms brand Giffgaff that purports to do things differently, being nimbler than the corporate players that define its category (see News in Depth).

Challenger brands can come from anywhere, though many emanate from the West Coast of America where investors seem keen to back great ideas and designers such as Yves Béhar have the expertise to create not just the product, but the service – and, to an extent, the financial package – around it. But while they pride themselves on being different, challenger brands have common traits, the focus on a younger audience and the use of social networking media among them.

But when does a challenger brand become mainstream? We’ve seen organic chocolate brand Green & Black’s and ice-cream innovator Ben & Jerry’s sell to Cadbury and Unilever respectively, while retaining their original values – for now.

Was it the deal with L’Oréal that stripped The Body Shop of its ’alternative’ feel or the downturn in the high street? And what keeps global airline Virgin Atlantic as a challenger in public perception?

And when does a challenger brand become ’authentic’? Is, for example, blended whisky Cutty Sark still a challenger some 90 years on? Its owners and creative group Devilfish say so.

There’s much to learn from thrusting, independent brands and ’challengers’ are no exception – but the fact they are already badged suggests there’s scope for different thinking.

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