7 Challenger Moves We’ll See Post-COVID

May 5, 2020 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

If there’s one universal truth about business in the age of the coronavirus, it’s that consciously, or unconsciously, every company is having to embrace the challenger brand mindset. Thanks to COVID-19, even category leaders are having to figure out how to survive without an abundance of customers, sales, or capital. Welcome to the world of challenger branding!

At this point, there’s little question that America’s extended sheltering in place and the long-term financial ramifications of a global pandemic are going to forever change the way companies do business and how people spend money. Some have categorized that as some kind of Armageddon for advertising and marketing. It’s not.

What it is, if you choose to embrace it, is an opportunity to begin thinking and marketing like a challenger brand. To build a challenger culture within your company. And to look at the kinds of relationships you’re building with your customers with fresh eyes. Like it or not, they’re doing the same thing with you right now.

For more than 20 years, LOOMIS has sounded the clarion call for challenger brands across the country. We’ve dedicated our agency and our careers to helping smaller brands punch above their weight and enjoy greater success than their size and station suggests they should. In a few weeks, we’re publishing a book about challenger branding and the role culture plays in building great companies. This is the world we’ve been living in for two decades.

It’s with that background that we offer these seven trends we think you’ll see emerge in advertising and marketing in the next five years:

Everyone will be forced to think like a challenger.

Whether the economy comes roaring back or takes years to return to where it was pre-pandemic, we’ve seen the dark side of what happens without customers and it doesn’t work for anyone. True challengers don’t follow convention. Instead, they expose the weakness of category norms with alternatives that often appear obvious with the perfect vision of hindsight.

Under normal conditions, challengers zig while others zag and generally wreak havoc on competitors by showing up in a way that’s anything but expected. On the other side of COVID-19, every brand will have the opportunity to show up in a fresh, unexpected way. Those who want to survive won’t have a choice.

There will be less red tape to fight through (and fewer excuses).

In a time when Congress can deliver billions in aid in a matter of weeks, car factories can transform themselves into ventilator producers seemingly overnight, and medical companies can manufacture millions of COVID-19 tests in a matter of days, agencies are going to have to adopt the mindset of finding a way where there is no way and doing it quickly.

If you’re already a challenger brand, you’re used to that. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen how quickly we can move, how agile and collaborative we can be and that making quick decisions and adjusting rather than taking the longer, safer route can actually be a good thing. On the other side of the coronavirus crisis, there will be little patience for excuses with clients or, frankly, with each other. Embrace your inner challenger and find a way.

More employees will work at least a franction of their week from home.

I don’t know why encouraging people to spend regular intervals working from home has caused so much consternation in the past, but whatever the reasons were, we now see the concerns may have been overblown. Don’t get me wrong. There’s no substitute for the cultural and personal connections we make by physically being in the same space and spending time with each other at the office. But we’ve gotten a good look at what it looks like for ALL of us to work from home and some people prefer it. Every company will have to figure out what works for them.

But if the shutdown shows companies that people can be more productive at home or even equally productive, yet with a better mental or emotional outlook, look for WFH to be an integral part of the mix moving forward.

There will be more thinking given to “what if” scenarios.

It’s not like agencies were swimming in extra time before COVID-19, but watch for clients to ask their agencies to dedicate some time to contingency plans for more what if scenarios. And, if they don’t ask, the smart agencies will be making some time to think ahead.

What if our supply chain is disrupted? What if consumers get sick or die from one of our products? What if our entire business sector is 2-3 years from becoming completely obsolete? The best challenger brands (and their agencies) are really good at this kind of thinking. But how much better would the thinking be if it wasn’t done in the span of an emergency weekend?

More companies will embrace Conscious Capitalism and the Stakeholder Model.

If we’ve heard “we’re all in this together” once since the coronavirus emerged, we’ve heard it 10,000 times. And as cliché as it is, it’s also true. Conscious Capitalism and the Stakeholder Model are built on the idea that we’re all in business together and that when we work for the benefit of multiple stakeholders, including customers, employees, vendors, communities and shareholders (as opposed to shareholders taking the lion share by squeezing everyone else), then EVERYONE does better.

The national response to COVID-19 has shown that selfishness doesn’t have to dominate commerce and that we can do what’s in the best interest of keeping everyone in business. As we emerge from lockdown, there will certainly be companies that take a cutthroat, winner-take-all approach to recovery. But it’s also a real opportunity for companies to work together, to lean into Conscious Capitalism, and to grow their business in a way that’s mutually beneficial.

Agencies will start mixing in more freelance work.

By the end of April, more than 22 million people had filed for unemployment, primarily due to COVID-19. Agencies in New York and other hard-hit cities laid off or furloughed hundreds of people including some in upper management. Advertising, marketing, and PR were all hit really hard and when we reach the other side, companies may be hesitant to hire back their full staffs.

Watch for agencies to start filling the gaps with more and more freelance help.

After the layoffs, there will be an abundance of talent on the street and companies may either want to try before they buy, or simply ease back into full time employment. Besides, now that creative directors have gotten used to fielding work through email over the shutdown, they may find working with remote talent is easier than they did before.

Prepare for the emergence of Gen Z.

In the next five years, there’s a really good chance that Gen Z looks at the country’s lack of preparation for a wide-sweeping pandemic like the coronavirus, and the sluggish response once it hit, and starts to find their voice. The thing is, it won’t just be on issues like climate change, politics, healthcare, business practices, fiscal responsibility, and social issues.

Like the millennials before them, this group will start questioning the status quo everywhere, including your office. They’ll ask, why do things have to be like they’ve always been? Why can’t we try something different? Break the mold? Risk failing? Those questions are foundational to the challenger brand mindset. And while sometimes it can be hard to hear them because most of us know too much, we need to hear them. We need to hire the kids asking those questions and give them some latitude. Will that be tough to do? Yes. Challenger moves aren’t easy. But then again, who ever said advertising after a pandemic would be easy?

MIKE SULLIVAN  is president 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


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.