Why Is It So Challenging To Be A Challenger Brand?

July 8, 2011 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

By definition, challenger brands work against the grain. They run a reverse on convention, making moves that are absolutely inconsistent with category norms and expected competitor behavior. I believe it’s the willingness of challenger brand leadership to embrace inconsistency that sets them apart.

It sounds more obvious and a lot easier than it is.

To appreciate just how extraordinarily difficult it is to push away from consistent behavior, reflect for a moment on what it means to act consistently. Consistency is not only considered a virtuous trait, it’s regarded as the basis sound-mindedness. So powerful is the pull of consistent behavior that people who act otherwise are generally viewed as indecisive, confused, untrustworthy, and sometimes mentally ill.

In his excellent book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Dr. Robert Cialdini describes consistency as one of the six most powerful “weapons of influence.” In fact, exploiting our psychological drive to behave consistently is a thoroughly researched and commonly practiced approach for compliance gaining. Setting aside the academics for a minute, we know intuitively that this is so. Companies (and individuals) that are first to do something radically inconsistent with peer behavior are routinely viewed with suspicion and are often ridiculed. Only in hindsight is the genius of those who succeed recognized and appreciated.

Flip through bestseller “Built To Last” by Jim Collins for examples of companies that challenged category consistency with no social evidence to suggest they would succeed. History has vindicated their vision, but it takes much more than vision to be a challenger. It takes the courage of conviction to put aside doubt and resist the gravitational force of consistency. I’ve seen those with great ideas and exciting intentions return to the norm too many times to count in my own career. Companies insist they want to break all the rules only to talk themselves “sane” in the end and follow the beaten path. I don’t blame them. I run a creative enterprise in an advertising industry awash in imitation and duplication. Ad agencies struggle to resist consistency, too. Just turn on your television for evidence.

This is not a modern problem. In fact, I like to remind myself and would-be challenger’s of what my favorite 19th Century philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said:

“Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adorned by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with the shadows on the wall.”

When it’s framed that way, being a challenger sounds a lot more promising. Let’s mind those hobgoblins.

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Mike Sullivan

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


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