When Is a Market Leader a Challenger Brand?

August 19, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

Last week I took the long drive from Dallas to Los Angeles with my daughter to start her freshman year of college. I promise there’s a great tie-in to challenger brand marketing here, but for an absolutely beautiful piece on the process of letting go of your child, check out Rob Lowe’s Unprepared.

As for my daughter and me, our journey took us through Sedona, Arizona. It was a little out of the way, but I couldn’t come that close without sharing the spectacular beauty of the place with her. We arrived late and awoke early the next morning to cool air and the gentle fragrance of pinion and juniper. I decided the best way to get the most from our half-day visit would be to take a Jeep tour through the area’s red rock formations. Sedona is famous for its majestic series of red and orange sandstone formations that glow brilliantly under the rising and setting sun.

There are several Jeep tour operators in Sedona, but one dominates the market. It’s called Pink Jeep. The company was started in Sedona by a real estate agent in the 50s who soon realized his clientele was more interested in the spectacular rides he was taking them on than actually buying property. Recognizing the business opportunity, he became the first tour operator in the area.

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

For many new companies, first-mover advantage is where the competitive edge begins and ends. Category innovation is often the contribution of followers. But this is not the story of Pink Jeep. Today, Pink Jeep runs 70 vehicles in Sedona every day of the week, and they’re expanding operations into Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, and Scottsdale. The company is the undisputed market leader, and they got to the front with very little use of traditional marketing and advertising. Instead, they relied on one very unconventional marketing decision and committed to sticking with it over the long run.

By now you’ve likely guessed what that decision was. They painted their Jeeps pink. Pink is one color nobody would associate with the brand American consumers consider the most patriotic ahead of Levi Strauss and Coca-Cola.  Jeeps are rugged, tough, and masculine. They were first designed in 1941 to help the U.S. Army and its Allies in the rough conditions of World War II. They run on testosterone and bravado and are anything but feminine.

So why choose pink, a color demonstrated to be so emasculating it’s been shown to produce negative effects on the strength of men? (For more on that read, Drunk Tank Pink.) Because people can’t ignore pink Jeeps. They stand out like . . . well, pink Jeeps. You simply cannot miss them rolling the streets of Sedona and climbing and descending the red rocks filled with people who look like they’re having a whole lot of fun. You might not look twice at a pink Mary Kay Cadillac parked at the mall, but pink Jeeps are positively peculiar under any circumstances. The color is especially striking on Jeeps in the rugged context of Sedona doing the honest work 4X4 vehicles were designed to do.

Whether they knew it or not, the folks at Pink Jeep were leveraging a classic challenger brand strategy when they painted that first Jeep—against a chorus of ridicule, no doubt.

Challengers focus on outthinking their competitors, not outspending them. One truly unconventional idea and an abiding commitment to seeing it through literally made the Pink Jeep brand. In fact, because the Pink Jeep brand is so darned identifiable, there is extra onus on operations to perform well. Customers won’t forget the color, the brand, or the ride. Thankfully, for the folks at Pink Jeep, their penchant for commitment extends to the way they run the company, and they deliver a great customer experience. It’s just hard to beat a brand that’s easy to spot and delivers as promised—no matter the category. Pink Jeep is a great example of a market leader that beats the competition by thinking like a challenger.

Mike Sullivan is president of The Loomis Agency, the country’s leading Challenger Brand advertising agency.

challenger brand

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.