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5&Vine’s Ultimate Guide to Challenger Brands

What is a
Challenger Brand?
What is a Challenger Brand?

A Challenger Brand is any brand, regardless of size or industry, that is relentlessly focused on “challenging” the status quo to create a better, more equitable world. They fight from a position behind establishment brands to win customers and prized market share from competitors.

Who coined the
term “Challenger
Brand”?
Who coined the term “Challenger Brand”?

In 1999, Adam Morgan published Eating the Big Fish How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders. It discussed examples of how a Challenger can get noticed so they can poach customers from the incumbent, along with frameworks to do so. Morgan founded eatbigfish and, with PHD Worldwide, the agency defined 10 different kinds of Challengers, which you can explore below.

What is a Challenger Archetype?
What is a Challenger Archetype?

Challenger Brands are most often associated with the story of David and Goliath, where the feisty underdog – David – overcomes seemingly insurmountable competition from Goliath.

While this is one archetype, there’s actually 10 distinct types of Challengers, each of which has their own approach to bring down incumbents.

Missionary
Missionary: Right IconChanging something in the world it sees as broken or unfair.
Examples: Patagonia, Dr. Bronners, Fluxx
Next Generation
Next Generation: Right Icon Questioning the appropriateness of the market leader, or even the whole category, for the times we live in today.
Examples: Greenlight Financial, Meati, Sophie’s Kitchen
Enlightened Zagger
Enlightened Zagger: Right Icon Deliberately swimming against a prevailing cultural or category tide.
Examples: Pixie Mood, Kotn, Eileen Fisher
Irreverent Maverick
Irreverent Maverick: Right Icon Using wit and humour to challenge complacency and apparent comfort found in the bland.
Examples: Liquid Death, Crocs, Corteiz
Dramatic Disrupter
Dramatic Disrupter: Right Icon Offering a product or service that is significantly superior to the incumbent.
Examples: Trove Recommerce, UBQ Materials, Dan-O’s Seasoning
Real & Human
Real & Human: Right IconChallenging the impersonality and faceless service of the market leader.
Examples: Crayola, Djerf Avenue, LEGO
People's Champion
People’s Champion: Right Icon Standing up for a group of people short-served or exploited by the establishment for too long.
Examples: Cleo, Shopify, TekSavvy
Democratiser
Democratiser: Right Icon Bringing ubiquitous access to the things that have previously only been available to the elite.
Examples: Cheekbone Beauty, Premier Dental, Rent The Runway
Feisty Underdog
Feisty Underdog: Right Icon The David, sticking it to Goliath.
Examples: A24, Vitruvi, Adidas
Local Hero
Local Hero: Right Icon Reflecting the emotion and energy around a renewed appetite for localism and local character.
Examples: BlocPower, Tim Hortons, Once A Tree Furniture

What does 5&Vine believe?

5&Vine believes customers aren’t just interested in brands that champion change, but those that actively align with their ethics. Instead of cashing in on quick capitalism, a Challenger Brand balances short-term goals and long-term vision to deliver results that meaningfully benefit society and environment.

Whether they’re an Enlightened Zagger or a Feisty Underdog, we work with Challengers who look beyond profit to purpose, always.

A Challenger Brand isn’t something defined by size but its hunger to upend the status quo.

Challengers are not defined by size.

Despite what you might think, a Challenger Brand isn’t something defined by size but its hunger to upend the status quo. They’re brands that believe there is a better way to do things through their products and services and fight relentlessly to make it happen, no matter how many people are on the team.
Challenger Brands are not defied by size.
When it seems like everybody is following a standard process, a Challenger Brand can enter and displace the market leaders.

Challengers change how we see things.

Because of their innovative approach to business, Challenger Brands often allow us to change how we perceive things, or approach a situation. When it seems like everybody is following a standard process, a Challenger Brand can enter and displace the market leaders.
When it seems like everybody is following a standard process, a Challenger Brand can enter and displace the market leaders.
By introducing a dramatic change that wins the hearts of consumers, a Challenger Brand can solve problems consumers didn’t even know they had.

Challengers fight smarter.

Typically, a Challenger Brand is not a category leader. Rather, they fight from a position behind incumbents to win customers and prized market share. Peeling those customers away from a monolithic and iconic brand can take years, unless you’re smart. By introducing a dramatic change that wins the hearts of consumers, a Challenger Brand can solve problems consumers didn’t even know they had.
By introducing a dramatic change that wins the hearts of consumers, a Challenger Brand can solve problems consumers didn’t even know they had.
Instead on cashing in on quick capitalism, a Challenger Brand balances short-term goals and long-term vision to deliver results the meaningfully benefit society and environment.

Challengers care and have purpose.

Today, customers aren’t just interested in brands that champion change, but those that actively align with their ethics. Instead of cashing in on quick capitalism. a Challenger Brand balances short-term goals and long-term vision to deliver results that meaningfully benefit society and environment.
Instead on cashing in on quick capitalism, a Challenger Brand balances short-term goals and long-term vision to deliver results the meaningfully benefit society and environment.

How does 5&Vine approach building a Challenger Brand?

5&Vine’s signature Challenger Brand system helps brands redefine category norms and win. Developed with first hand insight into the playbooks and blindspots leveraged by industry incumbents, alongside the successful (and often counter intuitive) strategies leveraged by challengers, we help you identify your unfair advantage, and win.

Watch Rahul Raj’s Challenger Brands Ask “Why” TEDx Talk

In 2020, our founder and CMO Rahul Raj delivered a TEDX talk on Challenger Thinking. He shared his perspective on the mission that motivates our work at 5&Vine, the successes and misses that prompted its founding and how you can start to embrace your own Challenger Thinking to move the world forward.

“Life forced a lesson on me,” he said at the talk. “And the value of Challenger Thinking became clearer. Either be a Challenger today or be challenged tomorrow.” Watch it now.

Challenger Brands Q&A with 5&Vine’s CEO
Rahul Raj

It’s important to be a Challenger Brand because, more than ever, consumers are aligning with brands that share their values. The 2023 Meaningful Brands™ Study showed that meaningful brands are not just good for the world, but also have stronger bottom lines that outperform the stock market by 222%.

Companies have a responsibility to double down on their political position and speak out about issues that matter most to their customers, employees, and communities. Don’t shy away from this. Embrace it. Challenger Brands are the leaders that the world needs.

Read more in our blog: 3 Questions Brands Must Ask Before Addressing A Social Issue

  1. Challengers pursue both profit and purpose
  2. Challengers are brave
  3. Challengers question the status quo
  4. Challengers surround themselves with Challengers
  5. Challengers make it work with the resources they have
  6. Challengers prioritize community and connection

Read more about these in 5&Vine’s blog: 6 Characteristics That Make a Challenger Brand

One of the best and most iconic Challenger Brands is Airbnb. Airbnb has disrupted an industry that was growing complacent and accepted as the norm. It showed the power in mobilizing a community of independent hosts and their properties to help us connect with each other on a human level, and build an exceptionally strong business in the process.

Our affinity towards the brand stems from its drive to forge connections when we travel, to deepen our understanding of others and build community.

There are few things more sacred than the privacy of our homes. They often reveal who we really are, from our strengths to our struggles. Inviting guests into our space is something typically reserved for those we are closest with. Airbnb has helped bridge that gap by helping prospective guests get to know prospective hosts, find commonalities and build trust. In doing so, it has enabled countless individuals to experience a new dimension to their travel and understand the people and neighborhoods they are visiting in a way that centralized and sanitized hotels are unable to.

Airbnb has also challenged the notion that we must build new structures in city centers to house those visiting, when there are hundreds or thousands of underutilized rooms or houses that can provide the desired shelter and comfort.

It’s taken the neglected art of hosting and brought it back into the spotlight, enabling individuals to show their care and attention to detail through guidebooks, warm greetings, welcome amenities and more. At the same time, large hoteliers and airlines continue to unbundle their service offering, charging for internet access, snacks and early check-in.

Discover more examples in our blogs: What Is A Challenger Brand?, and Challenger Brands We Love: Guide Beauty, about Haute HIjab in It’s Time to Build Your Challenger Network.

Becoming a Challenger Brand is not an instantaneous shift – it’s a journey that begins by challenging the way we think and act. This journey starts with asking crucial questions to spark Challenger Thinking such as:

  • “Who loses when we win?”
  • “Are we hindering progress in important areas?” 
  • “Why does it have to be this way?”
  • “How could this be better?”

These questions enable us to critically examine our practices and identify areas where change is needed. It entails conducting internal audits, engaging with stakeholders, and seeking diverse perspectives. By embracing these questions and actively listening to the answers, brands take the first step towards becoming more responsible and impactful.

Discover more about how to transition from an Establishment Brand to a Challenger Brand in our blog: What Is The Opposite Of A Challenger Brand?

Rather than being defined by size, being a Challenger is defined by mindset and a desire to upend the status quo. Challengers are brave in speaking out against wrongs and unflinching when making the most of their unfair advantage.

Challenger Brands embody a level of care that goes deeper than a mission statement or marketing campaign. It permeates through every individual in every department. And when a brand adopts that kind of culture, they’ll remain a Challenger Brand for life.

A Challenger Mindset needs to start internally. How can you discuss sustainability with your consumers if you’re not evaluating and optimizing your internal operations? How can you join the fight against prejudice if you’re not championing inclusivity and asking the tough questions within your own team? How can you challenge your competitors if you are not challenging yourself?

For brands to fully embrace Challenger Thinking and encourage employees to do the same, we suggest an intervention that forces teams to consider an alternate point of view.

Start by identifying the unassailable truths of your industry and competitors: pricing, quantity, packaging, delivery, timing, efficacy, communication, service, lifespan, availability, target, jobs to be done, accepted points of failure, warranties, and consider the following questions:

  1. If we started our business from scratch, releasing ourselves from constraints, how would we address the customer pain point?
  2. With respect to our target customer – who are we serving and who are we ignoring or leaving behind? How can we better serve them?
  3. What would need to be true in order for us to deliver a product or service at half the cost or twice the quantity? With considerably less packaging? etc.

In addition, read your customer reviews – both positive and negative – to identify opportunities to be better and deliver requests that have gone unanswered. Do the same exercise for your competitors. Make sure you use your own product and journal your experience to identify how you can be better. Ask others in your company or network to do the same, ensuring you get a diverse set of perspectives.

Spend a day, month or quarter in customer support engaging with customers and helping them with their concerns to build your empathy and understanding.

Accept that you will fail, because it will happen. It’s the only way you’ll make progress. Embracing Challenger thinking means embracing discomfort. Use that discomfort to propel you forward. Let the feeling become the force that guides you to ask hard questions and change something in the world for the better.

Discover more about How Corporations Can Embrace a Challenger Mindset.

The benefit of working with a Challenger Brand marketing agency is that you’ll be working with a team uniquely trained to identify your unfair advantage, the vulnerabilities of your incumbents, and leverage them both to win.

Having helped dozens of Challenger Brands win, 5&Vine has codified these lessons into a playbook to help you take on or take down your industry incumbents. This improves your chances of success and helps you avoid common pitfalls.

We are led by a CMO with decades of experience enabling socially minded Challengers to win, supported by an exceptional team of experts in growth, paid acquisition, branding, organic social, content, and design, so we can deploy the resources needed to succeed.

And we care. Life’s too short to spend time with people you don’t like or respect, working on something you don’t care about. We don’t have time for that. At 5&Vine, we believe we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. We choose those people wisely. We collaborate with smart, brave and socially conscious Challenger Brands to achieve the impossible.Discover more in our blog: Challenger Brand Marketing Agency vs. a Traditional Marketing Agency

Measuring the success of a Challenger Brand goes beyond profit and market dominance. A truly impactful Challenger Brand understands the importance of balancing financial growth with the betterment of society. 

Explore key indicators to assess success in our blog: A Balanced Approach to Measuring Success as a Challenger.

To win like a Challenger, you must think like one. A Challenger Brand strategy is a marketing strategy that maps a brand against the competitive landscape to determine where white space, threats, and opportunities to win exist. They are built to be nimble, quickly building and iterating on key learnings to outmaneuver the competition and make the best use of limited budgets and resources. Challenger strategies are rooted in a deep understanding of the 4’Cs – the Company, Category, Consumer, and Culture that makes up a brand’s reality. 

Discover the three core steps of 5&Vine’s Challenger Brand system and download our interactive worksheet to get your team started on our Challenger Brand System.

In 2023 we saw two opposing ideas converge in a very real way: technology and innovation VS authenticity and mindfulness. On the one hand, the world is thrilled about the advancements in AI and large language models, which are driving progress in healthcare (e.g. diagnostics and drug recovery) and finance (e.g. more precise trading decisions). On the other hand, Merriam-Webster Inc. selected “authentic” as its word of the year to highlight how the rise of AI and misinformation on platforms like Elon Musk’s X have made it more difficult to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake.

As we close the books on 2023, we’ve compiled 5 thought provoking topics to consider to guide your strategic thinking in 2024. 

5&Vine is a full-service marketing agency that propels challenger brands that better the world. We offer:

Complete the Contact form and our CMO Rahul will be in touch within 3-5 business days for complimentary 30-minute consultation on your brand’s next chapter.

An underdog brand is any brand with limited budget and resources to take down industry incumbents. They must be smarter and act faster in order to win prized market share. Underdog brands demonstrate how a dedicated team with a great idea can knock the pins out from under the fiercest market giants.

Most underdogs, however, stay underdogs whenever an industry giant has secured a chokehold on value chains, distribution channels, and media coverage. Peeling away customers from a monolithic and iconic brand can take years unless someone introduces a dramatic change that wins the hearts of consumers, often by solving a problem they didn’t even know they had.

A thorough understanding of what your customer hopes to accomplish and a strong Challenger Brand strategy will help you build and market a product that customers choose again and again.

Challenger Brands behave in a way where their business decisions align with outcomes that are better for people and the planet. They ask “Why does it have to be this way?” and “How can it be better” to take intentional action. Challengers don’t need to do things the way they’ve been done in the past, but architect new ways based on what the world needs now.

Unlike the slow, traditional thinking of dormant market leaders, a Challenger in the workplace is nimble and flexible, embracing calculated risk and yearning for disruption. Real Challengers never cease their intention to do right by their customers and the world. In the workplace, Challengers are often able to go beyond expectations and impact the business model itself.

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