Photo credit: Robert O’Brien
Hope is the rocket fuel that makes challenger brands go. I’m not talking about an empty, vacuous, blind faith kind of thinking. I’m talking about the kind of optimistic, girded heart, adrenaline-filled belief that when you work hard, do the right things and fight for something bigger than yourself, good things happen. Not always. But enough that it doesn’t feel like a fool’s errand to believe David can actually beat Goliath.
Of all the leadership opportunities I’ve had in my lifetime, few have made me happier or prouder than editing The Battalion my senior year at Texas A&M. On this past Saturday night, as the minutes and then the seconds ticked down at Kyle Field on the Aggies’ improbable 41-38 upset of top-ranked Alabama, my mind kept racing back to my old newspaper office, imagining what headline I might have written for the following morning:
- 12th Man Mugging at Kyle Field
- Alabama’s Train Derails At College Station
- Aggies Roll Tide
No matter how you slice it, A&M’s win over Alabama was a special one. It was the first time one of Nick Saban’s former assistants bested him in 25 tries. It was the first time in 100 games that an unranked team beat the Crimson Tide. For an Aggie team that started the season at Number 7 in the AP college football poll before losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State, it was validation that they were who they thought they were.
That’s a reminder every challenger brand needs from time to time.
There’s nothing easy about being an underdog. I’ve helped lead the country’s top challenger brand advertising agency for more than 20 years and in that time, we’ve worked with dozens of underleveraged brands fighting every kind of category leader. In every case, the first and biggest step to actually winning was believing we could. That may sound painfully obvious. But way too often, challenger brands say they believe without the conviction to back it up.
The Secret to Challenger Brand Success.
On Saturday night, 106,815 people packed Kyle Field, the second largest crowd in the history of the stadium. A&M came in 2-2 and unranked. Alabama was number one and the reigning national champion. Even among the Aggie faithful, no one expected the team in Maroon to beat the team in Crimson. But we believed we could. That was the difference. Two weeks ago, Zach Calzada struggled to complete a pass against Arkansas. Saturday night against Alabama, he took the ball and drove it the length of the field down Alabama’s throat not once, but twice to set up the tying touchdown and the winning field goal.
For challenger brands, believing you can do something is the first step to making it so. Our job as leaders is to instill that kind of confidence in the people we lead. How? By believing in them. By giving them the support to be the best versions of themselves they can be and putting them in a position to win. Brand battles, new business pitches and college football games aren’t won in the moment. They’re won in the thousands of moments you spend preparing and supporting your team every day. In the culture you build and the commitment you deliver.
Underdogs don’t win most of the time. But when they do, there’s nothing sweeter.