Two Fundamentals Every Challenger Brand Has To Understand

December 11, 2018 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

As we near the end of 2018, we thought we’d take a few weeks to look at a situation we know a number of brands find themselves in heading into 2019 – that of being stuck in “marketing no man’s land.”  You might be a fairly young brand, one that’s just starting to hit your stride, or a challenger brand looking to make some noise and move up the ladder. In any of those scenarios, challenger brands often find themselves stuck in an “in between” space –  big enough to need advertising and marketing help, but not big enough to warrant the investment in a CMO.

Next week, we’re going to look at the best move a brand in that position can make. But for now, we’re going to look at the reason you need to make that move, starting with two fundamental branding building blocks: differentiation and loyalty.


A better question, perhaps, is ARE you differentiated at all? In reality, most companies are not.

In large part, this is because most business owners don’t really understand the concept of differentiation in branding. Without differentiation, all businesses that sell the same product or service would be in direct competition with one another. That is, of course, precisely where many businesses find themselves – stuck in the middle of a sea of sameness with no discernible difference between themselves and their competitors.

Bottom line, a lack of sincere differentiation means your customers have absolutely no way to decide whether they should buy from you, or a competitive company, leaving them with only two questions to ask to make that decision:

  1. Are you cheaper than everyone else?
  2. Are you geographically closer, or more convenient than anyone else?

Of course, neither of these are “differentiators” a business could logically be built around. But with no plan for differentiation, many companies have to resort to selling at thinner and thinner margins – a death spiral from which many companies can’t recover.


Early in my career a client said to me, “we need a new brand; can you guys do a new logo for us?” Unfortunately, most agency professionals can tell you it’s not unusual for their clients to think a new logo equals refreshing the brand. Even more unfortunately, there are some marketing and ad agency professionals who believe the same thing. (Personally, I think ad agencies should be licensed.)

To understand the basics of differentiation, it helps to first understand what it is NOT. Here are some common mistakes many challenger brands (and companies in general) make regarding differentiation:

  • Thinking that your product makes you different.
  • Thinking your senior staff’s years of “experience” makes you different.
  • Thinking that “experience” means you don’t need customer research.
  • Thinking you can “work harder” and “be better” that your competition.
  • Thinking you can make a “better product” and “customers will find us.”
  • Thinking that a new tag line is the answer.
  • Thinking a “catchy” new headline on last year’s ad will set you apart.
  • Thinking a new ad or marketing collateral is all you need.

Even if you are moderately successful, making any of these basic mistakes can limit the success you have as a company. You’ll never really separate yourself from the competition, and customers will likely be loyal to you only until a brand comes along that resonates with them at a deeper level.


Well, it won’t happen because of an event, or a new logo, or anything you say in a tagline, or because of how cheaply you can sell your product or services. Real differentiation is not a product or service, nor is it the result of management experience or expertise. Real differentiation is the result of the ongoing experience your customers have when dealing with your brand — an experience they choose to repeat, or not, based on how their needs and expectations are met.

If another company does this better, your customers won’t have any reason to value you for it, unless you happen to be cheaper. Differentiation must make you stand out from competitors and compel customers to choose you for a reason other than price or location. If they value you enough to become your advocates, then you’ve truly succeeded. Then you’ve inspired loyalty and connected at a deeper, visceral, emotional level. That’s the holy grail of branding. The question, is how do you get there?


If customers aren’t singing your praises to friends and associates, your brand could be missing its point of differentiation. To achieve that, you need to clearly understand who you are and why you matter to your customers. To know that, you have to ask them.

We help clients do this with their branding all the time. As a little Merry Christmas from us, here are five ways to make sure you’re communicating your points of difference (that, in turn, will make sure you matter to your customers):

Conduct customer research. The best way to find out if and why customers value you is to ask them. A survey accompanied by a letter or email explaining that you want to make sure you are providing the best service can do wonders. Encourage them to be blunt and offer them the opportunity to provide their feedback “blind” (without their name attached). Give them the option to provide their name and contact info for detailed follow up.

Rank your attributes. Rank why customers do business with you based on THEIR opinions, not yours. List as many attributes, characteristics, and capabilities as you can and allow your customers to tell you how those rank when it comes to their buying decision or their overall experience with your brand.

Create benefit statements. Take what you learn from your customers, weigh those against what you can and want to deliver and create benefit statements that accurately depict (A) the things you deliver that (B) your customers value you for most. It is EXTREMELY important that you actually be able to – and want to – deliver the attributes and characteristics they desire, otherwise yours will be a business model you can’t sustain.

Create a messaging platform. Take your benefit statements and create a messaging platform to shape how you’ll communicate to customers and prospects. For each of your target audiences, you’ll need to be able to delineate the following:

  • What is the single most important benefit we provide to this target audience?
  • What is the most compelling thing we can say to them about this benefit and how we provide it?
  • What proof points can we provide to help them believe this?
  • What, ideally, do we want them to do once they have received this information (fill out a form, call us, go to a page on our website, call a dealer? etc.)
  • How do we want to measure the success of our results?

Communicate these statements consistently. Once you understand why customers in each of your target audiences value you, you will have the tools you need to reach customers (and potential customers) at every possible point of contact. It’s important to be consistent in what you say, no matter the venue, from your website (critical) to your marketing or advertising materials, sales letters, trade shows, packaging, internal communications … you get the idea.

There you have it. A straightforward approach to understanding why your challenger brand matters to customers, what is important to them, and how you can use that knowledge to differentiate your company and brand.

Check back next week for Part Two, when we’ll look at the one critical move challenger brands can make to thrive and survive when you need both an ad agency and a CMO, but you can only afford to invest in one.


MIKE SULLIVAN is president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a leading advertising agency in Dallas. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other things that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on any of our more than 300 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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