A challenger brand doesn’t conform to its market’s expectations. They find an aspect that cuts through the noise of their competitors, be it their vision, tone of voice or products.
This unusual mindset sets it apart from more established brands, and even the most unlikely, unnecessary product can slip through with the right direction, ambition and vision.
There are 3 principles that help to determine if a brand is a ‘challenger’ brand.
#1 The market
The position of the brand in the market has to be placed outside of the status quo. There needs to be an ideal, concept or way of working that the challenger brand is re-inventing or opposing. This means that they won’t capture an entire market – just those who are interested in what they’re proposing.
#2 The state of mind
This is the mentality or premise that the brand was founded on and continues to drive as part of their growth vision. Whatever part of the world or industry they’re trying to change, it’s not a fad to get them on the map, it’s a long-term brand driver.
#3 The rapid success
Because the offering is quite unusual or presented in a unique way, challenger brands tend to garner a lot of attention, and quickly. This can lead to initial and sometimes ongoing success.
The challenger brands that have become market leaders
The last thing the world thought it needed was another chocolate brand gracing the shelves, especially one that’s higher priced. But that’s where Tony’s Chocolonely stepped in and made us all take notice.
Over 13 years ago their story started when journalist Tuen van de Keuken discovered the harrowing truths behind child slavery in the cocoa industry. He created a TV programme about it, was repeatedly shot down when trying to encourage big brands to rethink their slave labour practices, and ultimately tried to get himself prosecuted (it’s a wild ride, you can read more about it here).
But in 2005, Tuen tried to prove that chocolate can be delicious and affordable without engaging in unethical labour practices and produced the first chocolate bars under the Tony’s Chocolonely brand.
He soon discovered that a fairtrade status only gets you so far, and has fought continuously to bring new ideas and morally conscious processes into the chocolate producing industry. The company has now rightfully earned its place in Christmas stockings and everyday snacking. It took several years to get there, but their success in Europe in particular has been rapid.
Another area of the supermarket shelf you might not expect to see a new face is the cereal aisle. Across the world brands have taken a foothold in specific countries, so you wouldn’t be surprised to see Kelloggs and Shredded Wheat in the UK, Cheerios and Cap’n Crunch in the U.S., whole wheats, multi-grains and mueslis across many other parts of Europe – the list goes on. But what U.S.-based Magic Spoon has done is deliciously simple.
The founders discovered that the average American consumes 100 bowls of cereal per year. And with kids one of the biggest lovers of the breakfast treat, owners Greg and Gabi felt it was time that a tasty cereal came onto the market that fell outside of the traditional mix of grains, sugar and GMOs.
They combined nostalgia-inducing branding with healthy, filling and tasty breakfast cereal, and at the height of the pandemic saw their success skyrocket. Their price point is high, but so is the value they offer, outstripping competition when it comes to protein, net carbs, sugar, grain-free and gluten-free features. And while you may only see the Magic Spoon boxes on U.S. shelves right now, we’re sure their success will see them move further afield in the not-too-distant future.
For decades, meat alternatives had a bad reputation. They were either tasteless and unappealing, or so over-processed and pumped with salt and fat that they were considered to be more unhealthy than some junk food.
What lots of brands got wrong for so long is that they didn’t want their products to resemble or taste like meat, to not offend non-meat-eaters, but Beyond Meat came in and changed the game. They created a burger so tasty and environmentally conscious that it’s now used by many big chain restaurants, including McDonald’s.
What was interesting about Beyond Meat’s strategy, is that they weren’t necessarily going after the vegetarian market – they were monopolising the world’s newfound moral compass that saw just how detrimental the meat industry is for the planet. What made this move so genius is that not only did they capture the vegetarian market, they also switched many meat-eaters onto the product. They encouraged other large meat alternative brands to rethink their recipes, and we’re now seeing more high-quality substitutes than ever before.
Beyond Meat did get an exceptional amount of investment – some of which was from Bill Gates – so while it doesn’t fall into our ‘underdog’ category for that reason, its mission has completely transformed attitudes in both the meat and meat alternatives market. Compared to a meat-based burger, they use 99% less water during processing, 93% less land and 46% less energy – a very worthy mission that’s made them what they are today.
Let’s move away from the food industry and into the feminine hygiene category. After noticing that just a handful of brands had the monopoly on these products, the founders of Ohne were annoyed with every pad they purchased being decorated with unnecessary pink hearts and filled with harsh fragrances. They now create both organic and sustainable period products, as well as distributing natural pain relievers and hormone balancers.
They attribute their success in a flooded market to the way they are framing the conversation. They’ve grown revenues by 240%, doubled their Instagram following and donated over 50,000 tampons through a crowdfunding campaign. They’ve opened wider conversations that other market-leading brands simply weren’t having. They’ve cut through with bold, powerful branding and a tone of voice to match. This, along with buckets of hard work, is helping them grow exponentially in the UK – and could see them on their way to becoming a market leader in no time.
Are challenger brand strategies the future?
The success of challenger brands such as those listed, and even the likes of Tesla, Brewdog and Ovo, can teach even the most established brands a thing or two about success. Where investment, time and resources are no object, a challenger brand can effortlessly trail into a market-leading position – but very rarely are all three readily available.
We’re likely to see even more challenger brands emerge, particularly in the food and beverage space, as plucky entrepreneurs look for new ways to make the world a better place. The food and beverage industries are among the highest consumables on the planet, so logically this is where many are looking to break into.
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