5 Things Challenger Brands Can Learn from the 2020 Election

November 5, 2020 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

At the time of this writing, the presidential election is too close to call with final tallies in Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Nevada still to come. Depending on where you stand politically, or how pleased you are with the outcome, that disruption and its challenge to the status quo is either a good thing or a bad thing. Either way, this election is something many will be thrilled to see pass into history. But I would challenge you not to look away quite yet. If you look deep enough, there are five key lessons challenger brands can learn from the 2020 election.

It all comes down to the states.

Winning a presidential election always comes down to how well a candidate understands the states in play and how well connected he or she is to them. That’s certainly true of the 50 states that will actually elect our next president. But I’m talking about the three states every successful challenger brand has to understand before they can distinguish themselves from the brands they’re competing with. Those states are State of Market, State of Mind, and State of Readiness.

State of Market is an assessment of where you fit in your category. Where are there opportunities for you to go on the offensive? Where are your competitors weak where you are strong? State of Mind measures who you are as a brand. Challenger brands are either the best at delivering something important to a specific group of customers, or striving to become the best at delivering something their customers want. Which are you? Third, State of Readiness answers whether you are ready for battle and, if not, what you need to do to get ready. You may know who you are and where you stand, but without the readiness and willingness to act you might as well be paralyzed.

In this election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump were each locked into the three challenger states with just two percent of a record 140 million vote turnout separating the two candidates. Both clearly understood where they fit with the electorate. Both were clear about what they best delivered to their voters. And both Biden and Trump were, and continue to be, ready for battle if reports of the hundreds of lawyers on standby are to be believed.

While you would certainly expect politicians of this caliber to be keenly aware of who they were, who they were speaking to, and what they needed to do to win, that is not always the case.

For challenger brands, understanding State of Market, State of Mind, and State of Readiness can create real advantage against a less focused opponent. The narrow margin of victory for whoever wins our election suggests both men understood that completely.

Challengers rarely buy their way to victory.

One of the foundational tenets of challenging branding is that underdogs lack the money and manpower that category leaders have, and often by a wide margin. Because of that, you can understand why trying to outspend the competition would be a questionable strategy for any underdog. Still, many continue trying to roll that boulder up the same mountain expecting a different result.

Case in point: this election featured seven of the 10 most expensive Senate races in the history of American politics. Cumulatively, the Senate races in North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona, Montana, South Carolina, Maine, and the Perdue/Ossoff race in Georgia spent nearly $1.2 billion in search of victory. In four of the races, the top spender lost and, in a fifth, the top spender is behind. In another key Senate race in Kentucky, challenger Amy McGrath vastly outspend Mitch McConnell and still lost by more than 20 points.

Underdogs trying to outspend their opponents isn’t a winning strategy. Outthinking, outworking, and outhustling them is a far better and way more reliable option.

Know thy audience part 1 — Understand who you’re talking to.

Socrates commandment to “know thyself” is sage wisdom. But for challenger brands it’s equally wise to know your audience. Whether you are the largest of challengers or the tiniest of underdogs, by definition you are working with fewer resources than those you’re competing against. Because of that, it’s imperative you focus your resources on those most likely to buy what you’re selling whether it’s apples, Audis, or America.

The fact that more than 140 million people voted in the presidential election and that the candidates are separated by two percentage points suggests they both knew who they were talking to and did a pretty good job reaching them. Like great brands, great candidates have a look and a language that resonates with their followers. They also understand that deviating from that and trying to be something you’re not in a quixotic attempt to win more followers is a losing strategy. Challenger brands have to know who their audience is and then find a compelling way to communicate with them. In almost every way, they can’t afford to do anything else.

Know thy audience part 2 — Ethnic shorthand is dangerous.

In the U.S., the term “people of color” is frequently used to describe any non-white group of people and, while expedient, its lack of specificity makes it confusing to some and downright offensive to others. Amid the racial tensions this summer, I saw interviews with a number of Black people who explained why the seemingly ubiquitous “African-American” descriptor for Black Americans was, for many, incorrect and offensive to, say, Black Americans with a Caribbean heritage. Likewise, when we use broad collective terms like “Asian American,” or put “Latino” and “Hispanic” people into one big bucket, we risk lumping vastly different people into one collective group. On election night, we saw just how damaging that can be.

For anyone not in the Trump camp, one of the most surprising metrics to come out of Tuesday’s election is how well the President performed with Hispanic voters across the country, especially in states like Florida and Texas. For the better part of his term, progressives and the media have painted the President as racist due to many of the things he’s said and done. Combine that with the President’s policies on immigration and how many viewed his handling of the masses at the border and you might assume Hispanics would gravitate to Joe Biden in overwhelming numbers.

But in key states like Florida and Texas, they didn’t. 47% of Hispanics in Florida and 40% in Texas voted for the President. Why? In the post-election analysis, it was pointed out that rather than targeting Florida Hispanic-Americans, Trump targeted Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans and Nicaraguan-Americans going so far as to change the imagery in the campaign ads targeting each of those groups.

How often do we as advertisers market to “Hispanic” consumers or “Asian” consumers, or “African-American” consumers in a monolithic way that completely ignores the cultural diversity in the group we’re trying to reach?

The President acknowledged specific cohorts with very personal, specific messaging, and against all odds, they responded. We have the same opportunity at our fingertips, especially with the specific versioning afforded by digital campaigns. We just have to choose to embrace it.

There is no finish line.

In commerce, like in politics, there is no finish line. Sure, we give ourselves certain deadlines and milestones to hit, like the launch of a new campaign or an election day. But, the truth is, there is always more to be done. Always more consumers or voters to win. Always more improvements to be made and things to learn. This election is far from over. Between the counting, the recounts, the lawsuits, and the Electoral College, it’s possible we won’t know who the next President is until as late as January 6.

The thing is, in elections, one side eventually has to stop fighting. But if you’re a challenger brand, that day should never come. Underdogs fight like their lives depend on it because, often, they do. For challenger brands, the call to arms is to always get smarter. To increase agility, diversity, and the marketing weapons at your disposal. Challenger branding is a mindset. When underdogs win, they don’t transform into category leaders. They become smarter, feistier, more formidable underdogs. This election is in no way what we expected. But if we spend the next few weeks or months wishing it away, we’ll miss the opportunity to learn from it. And that would be worse.

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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