Challenger Brand Stories Resurrected

December 1, 2022 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

It started for me in a three-story, 1800s mansion on Hamilton Street. The summer I turned six, my mother took me to our town’s public library and enrolled me in the Smokey Bear Reading Club. I can still remember the creaky floors. The narrow, winding staircases. An antique aroma that must have lingered for a century or more. Streams of light flooding in through hundreds of windows, illuminating endless walls filled with 50,000 books. I no longer remember the particulars of the club, but I will never forget the result. I fell in love with reading. It’s a love that’s lasted more than 50 years. And one that now informs my favorite challenger brand story of the year.

The next chapter.

Bookstores — the ultimate challenger brand industry — are making a comeback. After decades of decline thanks to Amazon, an overall shift to online sales, the disappearance of malls, and a dozen other things,free-standing, independent bookstores are on the rise.

Independent bookstores are growing in number, popularity, profit, and against all odds, relevancy. Proving once again that great challenger brands find a way — even when it looks like there is no way.

One of the foundational tenets of challenger brands is that they embrace a lighthouse identity. Successful challenger brands don’t attempt to navigate by the consumer. They invite the consumer to navigate by them. They start with a brand beacon based on a truth that’s so bright, consumers will see it even when they’re not looking for it. That’s the mindset many new bookstores are taking across the country. They’re not trying to out-Amazon Amazon. They are creating authentic identities and inviting people to embrace them. And it’s working.

If you can make it here…

Recently, an article in The New York Times caught my eye about the new growth of indie bookstores. I was particularly taken with a story about Lucy Yu who opened Yu and Me Books in Manhattan last year, not the cheapest place to open a new business. Here’s a bit of Lucy’s story from the article:

“[Yu] raised around $20,000 on GoFundMe, enough to rent a narrow storefront — a former funeral supply store — on Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan. A neighborhood grant gave her $2,000 for shelves and books. And in December, she opened Yu and Me Books, which specializes in titles by and about immigrants and people of color.

The store was profitable within four months, Ms. Yu said.

Yu and Me Books is one of more than 300 new independent bookstores that have sprouted across the United States in the past couple of years, in a surprising and welcome revival after an early pandemic slump. And as the number of stores has grown, the book selling business — traditionally overwhelmingly white — has also become much more diverse.

‘People were hungry for a place focused on Asian American and immigrant stories,’ said Ms. Yu, 27, who worked as a chemical engineer and supply chain manager before opening the store. ‘That’s something I was always searching for when I went to bookstores, and I wanted people to come here and not have to search.’”

In a classic challenger brand strategy, bookstores specializing in diverse voices are popping up across the country and succeeding by filling the void left by underrepresentation.

Diversity makes for a great story.

In addition to Yu and Me Books, the article highlights more than half a dozen other bookstores thriving in their communities, each one committed to greater representation and started by owners who represent the very communities they are working to serve.

The Salt Eaters Bookshop in Inglewood, California specializes in books by and about Black women, girls, and nonbinary people.

The Libros Bookmobile, a Latina-owned mobile bookstore in a converted school bus in Taylor, Texas offers fiction in Spanish and English.

Reader’s Block, a Black-owned bookshop in Stratford, Connecticut where “people come for a cure… about books, culture, and anything else they feel they need to bring to the table.”

Pocket Books Shop in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, “an eclectic feminist bookstore,” started by three friends with a passion for reading, inclusion, and friendship.

Socialight Society in Lansing, Michigan carrying a curated collection of 300 titles by Black authors — the vast majority of them women.

Just as the voices of many authors of color and immigrants are increasingly finding an audience, now the bookstores where they can be found are also flourishing. In an industry long in need of greater diversity, opportunity, and availability for minority and marginalized groups, the growth of independents is a welcome next chapter. Who knows? They might even carry one of our favorites.

Underdog strong.

This is how challenger brands work. They look at the world differently than the category leaders. They often represent new perspectives and deliver completely new experiences for consumers constantly on the hunt for something different. While estimates suggest there are 500,000 to a million new titles published in the United States each year, all this new growth suggests there are still plenty of points of view and stories to be explored. That’s more than a good thing. It’s a great thing. And why, just like bookstores, challenger brands are more relevant and exciting than ever.

Still curious?

Here are some great lists of the country’s best independent bookstores:

18 of the Best Independent Bookstores to Visit Across the United States

The Best Independent Bookstores Across the U.S.

30 Cool Indie Bookstores Across The Country That You’ll Want To Check Out

50 of the Best Indie Bookstores in America

25 Independent Bookstores We Love

20 of the Coolest Bookstores in America

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

ad agencyadvertisingadvertising agencybuying into culturechallenger brandchallenger brand marketingchallenger brandingchallenger brandscompany cultureMike SullivanThe Voice of The Underdogtop 10 Dallas Ad Agency

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.