For those of us lucky enough to have family and friends to celebrate with, the holidays are pretty magical. One of the things I enjoy most about the parties I attend with my family each year is explaining what I do for a living to the older generations in attendance. It’s through that process that I’m able to test out different narratives about my career.
So at my family friend’s get together, I decided to go with the following statement to describe what I’m doing to a pair of lovely and curious octogenarians: I’ve decided to join a marketing agency dedicated to helping challenger brands beat the incumbents in their space.
That statement, largely because it’s short and sweet, did a pretty good job of illustrating what I’m up to. It fell short in one aspect, however. It requires people to understand what a “challenger brand” is. And, unless you’re as immersed as we are when it comes to all things marketing, chances are you’ve never heard that phrase before.
So, I decided to start keeping an eye out for examples and stories in real life and in pop culture that help explain how we define “challenger brand” and ultimately, how we define the dream clients we’d like to work with.
I lucked upon a veritable gold mine of an analogy in short order: the battle between the beloved George Bailey and sinister Henry F Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
For those reading this that have never watched the film, my first recommendation is to watch it as soon as possible. It’s a truly magical motion picture, and despite it being over 70 years old, it feels as relevant as ever.
In the film, George Bailey runs a local savings and loan in the imaginary town of Bedford Falls, NY, a business more dedicated to social good than profit, often at their own expense. Mr. Potter is a local businessman who operates with an inverse set of priorities: he seeks to profit by any means necessary, often at the expense of the people who rent property from him.
As I was sitting in the IFC theater on West 4th Street, watching a screening of the film with my family, as we do every two years, I couldn’t help but see an opportunity to use George Bailey to illustrate to the world who we dream of working with. George is the beloved underdog who abandons plans for a European trip to take over the family business when his father passes unexpectedly. It’s that same George who then puts off going to college so he can run the Bailey Savings and Loan when it’s threatened into receivership by an opportunistic Mr. Potter. It’s George who uses his honeymoon money to cover a deposit shortage at the S&L when there is a run on the bank.
George goes on to build houses and offer loans to community members who don’t qualify for traditional loans - those housing loans help the local townsfolk avoid living under Potter’s thumb, paying too much rent to live in too little house at Potter’s Field. (The parallels between the Bailey Building and Loan and some of the upstarts in the lending services space are remarkable).
There’s an inflection point about midway through the movie that drove the analogy home for me. One of Mr. Potter’s employees at the bank comes to him with a warning that the Bailey Building and Loan is encroaching on his market share:
Reineman (Bank Employee): Look, Mr. Potter, it's no skin off my nose. I'm just your little rent collector. But you can't laugh off this Bailey Park any more. Look at it...Fifteen years ago, a half-dozen houses stuck here and there. There's the old cemetery, squirrels, buttercups, daisies. Used to hunt rabbits there myself. Look at it today. Dozens of the prettiest little homes you ever saw. Ninety percent owned by suckers who used to pay rent to you. Your Potter's Field, my dear Mr. Employer, is becoming just that. And are the local yokels making with those David and Goliath wisecracks!
Potter: Oh, they are, are they? Even though they know the Baileys haven't made a dime out of it.
Reineman: You know very well why. The Baileys were all chumps. Every one of these homes is worth twice what it cost the Building and Loan to build. If I were you, Mr. Potter...
Potter: Well, you are not me.
Reineman: As I say, it's no skin off my nose. But one of these days this bright young man is going to be asking George Bailey for a job.
Partial clip here.
All of the sudden, in the middle of Greenwich Village, in the days leading up to Christmas, I became even more overjoyed to be part of 5 and Vine. Not only am I lucky enough to work with a stellar team and the awesome clients we’ve partnered with thus far, but I am also part of something that I feel extremely proud of: a company dedicated to helping the George Baileys of the world win.
The Bailey Building and Loan is the ultimate challenger brand, and George Bailey is the ultimate social entrepreneur. Being a challenger brand is not just about being smaller than the incumbents - it’s about taking an approach that is markedly different from the industry status quo. It’s about being as dedicated to a net positive impact on the world as you are dedicated to making a profit.
At the end of the movie, when George is in dire straits facing a significant loss of the company’s capital due to an employee’s error, the townsfolk of Bedford Falls chip in to bail him out of trouble. As miraculous as this moment of sheer generosity and righteousness is, it’s unrealistic to expect this kind of cosmic justice for every challenger brand that’s out there. And that’s where I hope 5 and Vine can come to the rescue.
Not every incumbent is Mr. Potter. The world is not as black and white as Frank Capra presents it. But there are some pretty Bailey-esque entrepreneurs in the world, and boy are we excited to help them win.
If you feel like your the George Bailey of your industry, let’s chat. We want you as a client because we know that your success will pave the way to a better world.