How Challenger Brands Use Culture to Win

October 29, 2019 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

In the last two installments of this four-part #BarkBlog series, we’ve looked at how two challenger brands — Red Bull and Monster Energy — focused on smaller niche consumer segments to create big success. This week, we’ll take a look at the way culture drives the kind of company behaviors that help challenger brands achieve and maintain the focus they need to win.

Red Bull and Monster accomplished something every brand wants by carving out brand positions that can’t be co-opted by competitors.

Not even the mighty Coca-Cola has succeeded in disturbing the trajectory of these high-flying challengers. Not that it isn’t trying. Earlier this year, Coke rolled out its first energy drink under the Coke brand. Coke Energy hit the shelves in the United Kingdom touting its ingredients with a hopelessly predictable invitation to, “try a new and different energy drink that is designed to complement upbeat and busy lives.”

Anytime the category killer flexes its muscle, competitors are well advised to pay attention, but the odds of Red Bull or Monster-like success for Coke’s new offering are long, indeed. That’s because it’s the behavior of the brand that defines the challenger, and as we’ve already seen, it’s a company’s culture that drives the brand’s behavior.

Creating brand distinction rests on the successful alignment of a brand’s values with its cultural values.

In this sense, culture serves as the fundamental challenger brand advantage. Best of all, a big advertising budget isn’t required for achieving this advantage. All that’s required is commitment but not ordinary commitment. Challenger brand cultures are shaped by their people’s passion for the values they all share. They’re relentlessly focused on only the things that matter for living out their brand values.

This level of commitment is only possible when a brand’s values are tightly aligned with the personal values of the people responsible for it. As consumers, we recognize this when we see it because it’s not our usual experience. We want more of it, and we reward it. It’s the authentic friendliness we’re greeted with at Chick-fil-A, the enthusiasm we might share with an Apple Store employee for our favorite gadget, or the kindred foodie spirit we encounter at Whole Foods. It’s always about the human connection consumers make with the brand. While this is obvious for service sector companies it’s also true for manufacturing-based brands.

The most successful products connect on an emotional level and take on significance well beyond their utility value.

The best customer experiences happen when products and services are supported by employees who share the brand’s values, believe in the company’s vision, and show up as enthusiastic enlistees in the company’s mission. It’s a tall order to be sure, but companies that benefit from deep alignment between brand and culture radiate their distinction from the inside out. In doing so, they make it difficult for customers to ignore them and impossible for competitors to encroach.

Brand congruence like this can only be achieved when leaders are themselves congruent with their brand.

That’s because leaders set the pace for culture. Leadership sets the tone for the way a company behaves. The magic unleashed when culture matches brand is the unlocking move for challengers. Alignment between brand and culture energizes organizational behavior, clarifies priorities and decision-making, brings necessary focus to the mission, and creates and fortifies unassailable brand distinction.

Most importantly, challengers that benefit from strong brand and cultural congruence attract the right people to their cause in what often looks to outsiders like a conspiracy for success. Of course, this doesn’t happen by accident. It starts inside, at the very top, with vision and clarity of purpose.

Next week, in the final installment of this four-part Bark! Blog series, we’ll look at the way one leader used this kind of alignment to win when nobody thought he could.

MIKE SULLIVAN is President of 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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