Challenger Brand Mount Rushmore, 1950-2000

October 26, 2021 | blog | By Tina Tackett

On a crisp, South Dakota morning in October 1927, Danish sculptor Gutzon Borglum repelled down the granite face of a local Black Hills mountain. He carried with him a chisel and drill, beginning a project that would take him 14 years to complete. Mount Rushmore – the majestically carved faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt – would become one of America’s most beloved, and most controversial, monuments.

It’s been called the “Shrine of Democracy” and “the utter desecration of the Native American land on which it was built.” But Mount Rushmore is now also a metaphorical vessel for any fascinating debate to determine the best of the best… of anything. I was recently at a sporting event with a bunch of friends and, to kill some time before the game, someone had an idea. “If there was a Mount Rushmore for Sports, who would be on it?” (For the record, the answer is: Muhammed Ali, Michael Jordan, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps.) It’s a fun, fascinating, insanely subjective question to consider and that’s what makes it so fun. It got me to thinking. If there was a Mount Rushmore for challenger brands, which ones would make the cut?

The Challenger Brand Fab Four, 20th Century.

Not surprisingly, there is no shortage of great challenger brands that could stake their claim as one of the four best ever. Here at LOOMIS we have enjoyed a vigorous debate. But after several cold beverages and way too much chocolate, we did agree on one thing: this is too much fun to confine to one list. So, to keep the party rolling, we’re naming our Challenger Brand Mount Rushmore, 1950-2000 here and in November, we’ll look at our Challenger Brand Mount Rushmore for the 21st Century.

By most consensus, marketing as we know it started in the early 1950s as brands like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and General Foods developed the brand management discipline to grow and differentiate their products from their competitors. At the time, building brands vs. selling products was a whole new concept. But by the mid-1960s, it was an idea consuming Madison Avenue and one that found its stride in a young New York ad agency called Doyle Dane and a brilliant creative director named Bill Bernbach, the man destined to become the “B” in DDB and the father of creative advertising. It’s only fitting that one of DDB’s brands gets the first slot in our challenger brand Mount Rushmore.


Before Bill Bernbach ushered in the creative revolution, Hertz was the dominant rental car company in America. But with one extraordinary insight and an unexpectedly self-deprecating ad for Avis, Bernbach changed the way brands viewed creativity and initiated one of the most talked-about underdog challenges in advertising history.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Bernbach also set in motion the idea of challenger branding as we know it.

Read the copy in this ad from the “Avis. We Try Harder.” campaign. It’s damn near a mantra for challenger branding itself.

The Origin Of Challenger Branding

When you’re only No. 2, you try harder. Or else.

Little fish have to keep moving all of the time. The big ones never stop picking on them. Avis knows all about the problems of little fish. We’re only No. 2 in rent a cars. We’d be swallowed up if we didn’t try harder. There is no rest for us. We’re always emptying ashtrays. Making sure gas tanks are full before we rent our cars. Seeing that the batteries are full of life. Checking our windshield wipers. And the cars we rent out can’t be anything less than lively, new, super-torque Fords. And since we’re not the big fish, you won’t feel like a sardine when you come to our counter. We’re not jammed with customers.

For challenger brands to succeed, there are three states they must embrace – State of Mind (who am I?), State of Market (where do I fit?) and State of Readiness (am I ready to go to battle?) With the help of DDB’s “We Try Harder” campaign, Avis resoundingly lived into all three. A year after the campaign started, Avis went from losing $3.2 million a year to posting a $1.2 million gain. Hertz’s market share plummeted from 61 percent of the market to 49 percent. For Hertz, it was like a heavyweight champ getting stunned by a smack in the mouth they never saw coming. For six years, Avis pounded away at Hertz (stealing considerable market share) with ad after ad. By the time Hertz finally swung back with a campaign from Madison Avenue legend Carl Ally, the damage was done. And the campaign, and Avis brand, were legend.


When you position yourself against the biggest brand on the planet, you’re likely destined to be a challenger brand for life. But that doesn’t mean you ever stop fighting. Just ask Pepsi.

For nearly 130 years, Coca-Cola has been the dominant player in the soda category and for much of that time, the world’s biggest and most beloved brand. What might surprise you is that while Coke was founded in 1892, Pepsi-Cola was only a few years behind making its debut in 1898 with the hope of matching the success of the fizzy phenom from Atlanta.

Entire books have been written about the competition between Coke and Pepsi, affectionately known as “the Cola Wars.” But for the sake of our discussion here, and why Pepsi deserves our second spot on the challenger brand Mount Rushmore, two events come to mind. The first was a brilliant marketing tactic that took the country by storm. The second was a corporate blunder that only lasted 77 days, but some people still regard it as a cautionary tale 36 years later.

The Inconceivable Mistake

In 1970, Pepsi intentionally set out to take down Coca-Cola with a new campaign to go after “The Pepsi Generation.” That pursuit was fully manifested in 1975 with the creation of “The Pepsi Challenge,” a marketing tactic and ad campaign created by Pepsi executive John Sculley. A brilliant strategist and marketer, Sculley devised a “taste test” that had consumers blindly taste samples of both Coke and Pepsi. Then, they were asked which sample tasted better. For an underdog brand without the market share of Coke, the fun, gamelike nature of the taste test was an effective way to get people to try Pepsi. And thanks to the sweeter flavor of the challenger, many people indeed chose Pepsi.

For a decade, the Pepsi Challenge cut into Coke’s market share aided by flashier, more expensive television ads, cooler, more varied package graphics and the introduction of the 2-liter bottle.

Pepsi had Coke’s attention. So much so, that in 1985, Coca-Cola – the world’s leading brand – did the absolute unthinkable. They abandoned their secret formula and launched “New Coke,” a sweeter version that tasted a lot closer to Pepsi than its original recipe. The world was literally outraged. Just 77 days after discontinuing Coke for New Coke, Coca-Cola took New Coke off the shelf and reintroduced the original recipe as Coca-Cola Classic. It was the biggest “underdog has his day” story in the history of branding. Pepsi’s CEO at the time, Roger Enrico, summed up the moment perfectly in the title to his book, “The Other Guy Blinked.” For that moment alone, Pepsi deserves a place on the challenger brand Mount Rushmore.


It’s hard to think of Nike as a challenger brand. But that’s the thing about underdogs – sometimes they grow up. In 1964, when Phil Knight started Blue Ribbon Sports with his former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman, the intent was to produce lighter, cheaper, better versions of the German running shoes that dominated the market from Adidas and Puma. Knight and Bowerman tried to do that, partnering with a Japanese distributor. But by 1971, that relationship ended in a split and a lawsuit, but ultimately independence.

In May 1971, Knight and Bowerman rebranded their company as Nike. Then, they  did what successful challenger brands have done for decades – they came up with better ideas to serve their customers. They watched their resources and they zigged where others zagged. Consider Nike’s branding, now arguably one of the most recognized logos and typography on the planet.

As the story is recounted on TheStreet regarding the famous Nike logo, “[Knight and Bowerman] reached out to a design student at the nearby Portland State University named Carolyn Davidson, to provide sketches. Phil Knight reluctantly settled on a swoosh design, reportedly saying, ‘Well, I don’t love it, but maybe it will grow on me.’ Davidson charged $2/hour and received a total of $35 for the logo. In 1983 Phil Knight, apparently having come around to the logo, held a party for Davidson and awarded her 500 shares of Nike stock.” Today, thanks to six stock splits, those shares are worth a little north of $5 million.

The Best Have A History Of Pushing To Get Better

Whether it was branding or product design, Nike was always pushing for better. Born out of coach Bowerman’s obsessive tinkering to improve his runners’ shoes, Nike was always on the hunt for ways to give their running shoes more traction. One morning, inspired by a waffle his wife made him for breakfast, Bowerman came up with the Waffle sole design that adorned millions of shoes in the 1980s and 90s and sent Nike profits soaring.

And yet… all of this happened before 1980. Before all the celebrity endorsements. Before Chiat Day and Wieden + Kennedy worked their advertising and marketing magic. And way before Air Jordans and Bo Knows and female empowerment.

Decades before Nike was the global giant it is today, it was a challenger brand competing with bigger brands with deeper pockets, greater market share, and far greater distribution.

It was tough. But that just made Phil Knight the underdog even more determined to win. He didn’t make excuses. He just did it. And that’s why he’s on our Mount Rushmore.


Consider the dominant presence Apple’s computers, tablets, phones, watches, earbuds, and streaming network have in our everyday lives. Like Nike, it’s hard to think of Apple as an underdog. But in 1975, America had no love affair with computers. We had mainframes that were inaccessible behemoths taking up buildings the size of a city block. There was no consumer email, internet, or online anything. But where category killer IBM saw thousands of big business computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak saw the potential for hundreds of millions of small, personal, user-friendly computers that would occupy desks in every classroom, office, and home across the world.

Challenger brands find a way where there is no way. They turn convention upside down and look at the world in a way no one ever has before. IBM could have gotten into the personal computer business. With their gargantuan market share, they could have owned it. But they weren’t interested. Jobs and Wozniak had the computer industry right where they wanted it.

Challenger Brands See What Others Often Refuse To

One innovation followed another. Personal computers got Faster. Smarter. Better. Then Jobs introduced the Apple Macintosh aided by the brilliance of Chiat/Day’s “1984” directed by Ridley Scott. It was one of the seminal moments in creative advertising. And just like the commercial promised, Apple’s personal computer made it possible for anyone to sit down, start the computer and begin learning and creating in a matter of minutes. Indeed, everything changed.

In their finest hours, that’s what challenger brands do. They show us what’s possible and they never stop fighting to turn that potential into reality. Is it any wonder we love rooting for the underdog so much?

Avis. Pepsi. Nike. Apple. Those are the four brand faces on our challenger brand Mount Rushmore for the 20th Century. Disagree with us? Have your own list? Leave us a comment or send us an email. We’d love to start a conversation.

TINA TACKETT is Executive Creative Director 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

1984Abraham Lincolnad agencyAdidasadvertisingadvertising agencyAir JordansappleAvisBill BernbachBill BowermanBlue Ribbon SportsBo KnowsCarl AllyCarolyn Davidsonchallenger brandchallenger brand marketingchallenger brandingchallenger brandsChiat/DayCMOCoach BowermanCoca-ColaCokeCoke Classiccompany cultureDDBDoyle Danefemale empowermentGeneral FoodsGeorge WashingtonGutzon BorglumHertzIBMJohn SculleyKnight and BowermanMichael JordanMichael PhelpsMount RushmoreMuhammed AliNew CokeNikePepsiPepsi ChallengePhil KnightProctor & GamblePumaRidley ScottRoger EnricoSimone BilesSteve JobsSteve WozniakTeddy RooseveltThe Voice of The UnderdogThomas Jeffersontop 10 Dallas Ad AgencyunderdogUnileverWieden + Kennedy

Tina Tackett

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.