What Challenger Brands Can Learn from the Midterm Elections

November 11, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan


With all due respect to the NFL, Heavyweight Boxing, and MMA, America’s favorite blood sport is politics. In the past year, candidates in the midterm elections spent  more than $3.7 billion on their campaigns. That may not seem like that much when you consider every year Americans spend $7.4 billion on Halloween, $11.7 billion on dry cleaning, and $78 billion on lottery tickets, but when you’re an underdog candidate struggling to be heard, those numbers can be pretty daunting.

But not unbeatable. Last Tuesday, 18 incumbents on the national level lost their elections—two governors, 13 members of the House and three senators. Many, quite unexpectedly. So how did all the Davids sneak up and beat their respective Goliaths at seemingly every turn? They thought like challenger brands.

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

Here’s what really happened on Tuesday. For starters, the three states of challenger branding aligned for the Republicans. First, State of Market—the political climate was so toxic, America was ready for a change and many of the underdog candidates provided that. Second, State of Mind—after the 2012 election, conservatives needed to get on the same page regarding message and promise and this election; they did. Third, State of Readiness—even in an election with a historically low turnout—just 36.4 percent of registered voters voted, the lowest since World War II—Republican candidates were able to turn out enough voters to win.

That’s the top line. But if we delve into the elections a little deeper, there are five key takeaways every challenger brand should pay attention to no matter what vote they’re courting:

1. Narratives win.

Whether we’re voters or consumers, people are attracted to great stories. And just like candidates who connect with their constituents by communicating a compelling narrative, brands have to tap into their own rich history and tell their story in an interesting way, something challengers should all be primed to do. We all love the underdog. That’s why the story of Apple starting in Steve Jobs’s parents’ garage is so compelling. Why the story of three boyhood friends on a quest to build a motorized bicycle makes Harley-Davidson such a fascinating story. In the election, there were dozens of candidates who used their narratives to help position themselves as the anti-candidate, anti-Washington solution. If you’re a challenger brand fighting a powerful incumbent, figure out what’s compelling about your story and leverage it.

2. You can’t be everything to everyone.

One of the key tenets of challenger branding is sacrifice—knowing who you are, knowing who you’re talking to, and knowing you can’t be all things to all people. Like political candidates who work within the framework of one party, brands have very definite constituencies. Coke branding doesn’t speak to Pepsi people, and Pepsi branding doesn’t speak to Coke people. Nor should it. Challenger brands like Pepsi,Chick-Fil-A, and Southwest Airlines have made their way by looking at the market leaders and figuring out how to be everything they’re not. No challenger brand ever succeeded by trying to beat the market leader at their own game. Success comes in understanding who your core customer is, thinking differently about how you can serve them, and then connecting with them in an unexpected way that has exponential impact.

3. Lack of leadership leaves an opening for the underdog.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And apparently, so do voters. For way too long, we’ve debated and endured the narrative about the dysfunction in Washington and the lack of leadership—perceived, or real—at the federal level. Last week, the people voted to try to change that. The same goes for big brands that fail to lead when given the mantle to do so. In the late 80s and 90s, Blockbuster had the world on a string. They literally seemed like a brand too big to fail. But then, in the early 2000s, the concept of having movies delivered in the mail, or better yet, streamed right to your television, started to gain traction. Blockbuster had the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $50 million numerous times, but dismissed them as a passing nuisance. Today, Netflix has a market cap of $19.7 billion and Blockbuster is a cautionary tale. Where leaders fail to lead, challenger brands have a golden opportunity. Look for those doors and then kick them in.

4. Clarity of message is king.

A caveat to the notion you can’t be all things to all people—when you decide what it is you want to communicate, make it simple and clear. In past elections, both parties have made a mess of communication, not clearly articulating what it was they wanted people to believe in, nor giving concrete examples of how they would make good on the promises they were making. On Tuesday, Republicans were united in message and offered clear solutions that voters responded to. As a challenger brand, you cannot outspend the competition, which means you cannot afford to have a fragmented message. Figure out who you are and what you want to say, and then say it. With strength. With conviction. And with clarity.

5. Perception is reality.

No doubt, Democrats look at the results from the midterm elections and vehemently disagree with both the outcomes and the perceptions that led to their defeat. But in politics, like in branding, perception is reality. Whether they agree with what happened, or not, Democrats are now charged with winning back the electorate in two years. On the other side of the ledger, Republicans are charged with doing something with the opportunity they’ve been given. In two years, if nothing has changed, the 2016 election could simply be the mirror image of last Tuesday. Like candidates, challenger brands have to understand perception is reality. But that doesn’t mean perception can’t be changed. Understand the competitive landscape where you’re doing battle. Embrace your role as an underdog, and use it to fuel innovative thinking and creative solutions that position your brand as the better alternative to the status quo. Give the consumer a compelling reason to believe in you and they will.

For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog, or check out these recent posts:

Challenger Branding From The Inside

Want To Build A Challenger Brand? Start With Your Values

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.