If It Ain’t Broke, Challenger Brand Thinking Says, “Go buy a hammer!”

February 25, 2015 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

There are very few things I can recall from my college days for a variety of reasons that need not be chronicled here. But there is one thing that has stuck with me and served me well over the years.  It was advice given by a creative director from a major advertising agency that was invited to do a guest lecture.  Of course, I can’t remember his name or his agency, but what he told us landed and stuck with me. It was his theory of “Productive Disruption.”

In particular, it was his response to a question along the lines of, “To what do you attribute your success in advertising?” that made such an impression on me that to this day I use it to maintain my professional edge. He said, “If you want to communicate effectively with people who don’t think, act or look just like you then you had better resist the temptation to fall into a set routine. Because once you do, it becomes much harder to stop thinking like yourself and truly adopt the personae of the person you wish to reach.  If you want to stay mentally limber, you need to constantly disrupt your routine.” It’s classic challenger brand thinking.

I was just a few months from graduation and that was the first time it occurred to me that being a great marketer meant developing the innate ability to really think like the target audience. It’s pretty basic stuff, but I guess I just never thought about it until that minute.  Sure, I was familiar with the concept of a target audience, but up to that point the target audience consisted primarily of demographic data, not sentient beings that might not be anything like me. That’s a scary thought, or at least it was for me. How can we build communications strategies for connecting with people we don’t understand?

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

Adopting the mindset of an 18-year-old skate punk who happens to be at the heart of the bulls eye for one product, and then slipping into the worldview of an over-fifty housewife for another client’s product takes skill and discipline.  It requires the self-awareness to first recognize our opinions and biases for what they are, and then to keep them from making a mess of things while trying to understand the target mindset. It means remaining open to all sorts of alternative ways of thinking and being in the world and actually cultivating a sense of curiosity around that.  Advertising and marketing professionals can’t enjoy the luxury of being set in their ways.

I have tried to create productive disruption in my life and my career and, for what it’s worth, I will share with a few of the ways I accomplish that. These are just a few of the ways I try to embrace challenger thinking in my own life:

  1. Go to a movie that I am not the target audience for and would never go see if I were not in this business.
  2. Spend an hour listening to the current Billboard Top 20. I must admit this one gets a little tougher for me every year.
  3. Read or do something that is contrary to my personal beliefs or out of my comfort zone. This means, if you are pro-life, read the pro-choice literature or vice versa as you are inclined. If you are left, read what the right has to say.  If you are against guns, go to a gun range and empty a few clips, and really try to understand why someone might like it.

Whatever it is, try to disrupt your thinking on a particular subject and see if you can change your own mind. It’s actually fun and you will be amazed how much you learn in the process.

challenger brand

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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