WHEN GOLIATH SUDDENLY HAS TO THINK LIKE DAVID

WHEN GOLIATH SUDDENLY HAS TO THINK LIKE DAVID by Mike Sullivan, President of The Loomis Agency, the country's leading challenger brand advertising agency and the voice of the underdog
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” – Henry Ford

While there’s plenty of conjecture as to whether Henry Ford ever actually said those words, the sentiment behind them is no less valid. Consumers don’t always know what they want. But one thing is true – they know it when they see it. And as time passes and industries evolve, so too do the wants that drive our economy.

I suppose in Henry Ford’s day there were older generations blaming their kids for making horses obsolete, but today, it’s almost become a rite of passage for adults to blame Gen X, Y, and Z for rocking the boat with their disinterest and desire for something better. I haven’t seen it yet, but any day now I’m expecting to see some marketing blogger rename Gen Z the “Armageddon Generation.” Because according to the articles I see about every six months, our youngest adult generations aren’t just killing off certain brands. They’re wiping out whole categories.

For instance, studies show Gen Z — those born between 1995 and 2010 — are not big fans of Facebook, preferring Instagram and Snapchat instead. Hard to cry for Facebook considering they have more than two billion monthly users, but we all know how a pipeline works and there’s certainly cause for concern when that pipeline gets pinched. It’s when disinterest extends to multiple brand categories that shock waves lead to panic.

In addition to their disdain for Facebook, a Business Insider article suggested there are eight other categories that could very quickly find themselves on the Gen Z chopping block:

  • Preppy brands like Ralph Lauren and Sperry
  • Department stores
  • Cable TV
  • Anything related to paper
  • Pandora
  • Traditional luxury goods
  • Crocs
  • Casual dining restaurants

This, after Millennials killed the 9-to-5 work week, focus groups, dinner dates, cruises, napkins, running, golf, bar soap, sex, relationships, marriage, face-to-face interaction, vacations, home ownership, wine corks and diamonds. At least, according to a MarketWatch article from a year ago.

So, are all these categories really dead? No. But to a great extent they do suddenly find themselves in the territory we specialize in at LOOMIS — the position of “challenger brand.” Where once these giants were “too big to fail,” they now find themselves in the unexpected role of David having to fight new Goliaths, with weapons and a mindset that may be unconventional and unfamiliar. All the more reason to lean on an agency that lives to fight those battles every day.

OKAY, I’M A CHALLENGER BRAND. WHICH ROCKS DO I THROW?

There’s an old joke that goes, “How many Art Directors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” The Art Director answers, “Why does it have to be a lightbulb?” When companies find themselves facing challenges, the easiest thing to do is to look for a solution in what they already know. But that’s not where inspired solutions live. Inspired solutions — the lifeblood of any challenger brand — require looking at the challenge from a completely different angle. By definition, challengers don’t have the resources, the staff, or the budget to fight an all-out war. To compete, they have to be smarter, craftier, and driven to redefine the fight. There’s a reason William Wallace is the patron saint of challenger brands.

When you’re trying to compete as a challenger brand, there are two keys to success and they go hand in hand. The first is mindset and the second is creativity, in every sense of the word.

Whether you’re in 10th place, seventh place, or second place, the first key to any challenger brand getting ahead is a belief that it’s possible. Sounds easy enough, but that mindset requires constant focus, and the willingness to embrace and be patient with things that can easily get in the way of progress:

  • Knowing things won’t change overnight
  • Understanding growth involves calculated risks
  • Not blaming your position on all the things you DON’T have
  • Staying positive in the midst of the storm
  • Trusting and believing in the people fighting beside you

The challenger mindset challenges the status quo, because when you’re competing against brands with bigger budgets you have to do things differently. You can’t make it about size. You have to say something that stands out. Disrupt the category. And give people a reason to care about your brand.

Twenty years ago, LOOMIS was not a Top 10 advertising agency. We had not yet been named one of Dallas’ Best Places to Work, or an Adweek Small Agency of the Year. We had not yet won national awards for our creative work. But when we chose to make helping challenger brand companies our vision and purpose, we started by taking on the mindset ourselves. We embraced it, we learned from it, and then we unleashed it on behalf of our clients, helping many of them grow by double digits year after year.

Whether you’re a brand that’s stuck on the way up, or a brand that used to be on top and suddenly finds yourself now looking up, the natural tendency is to assess where you are and then try to fix what’s broken using as many of the broken pieces as you can. But that requires looking backward at what USED to work and trying to patch old holes rather than starting fresh with something better. You wouldn’t build a new house on a crumbling foundation, but a lot of brands try to do just that, with predictable results.

Challenger brands that thrive are the ones with a mindset toward renaissance and reinvention. That leads us to creativity, the second key for success. When most ad agencies talk about creativity, they’re talking strictly about the executed work. But for challenger brands, it’s imperative that creativity apply to everything from the strategy to the work to the digital and social executions to the media planning and buying.

Think back for a second to those categories supposedly on the Gen Z chopping block:

  • Preppy brands like Ralph Lauren and Sperry
  • Department stores
  • Cable TV
  • Anything related to paper
  • Pandora
  • Traditional luxury goods
  • Crocs
  • Casual dining restaurants

There’s no question these categories face a serious uphill climb. Some may indeed have one foot in the grave. And there are some ad agencies that will look at brands like these and say, “Not worth it.” “Dinosaurs.” “Already dead.” But challenger brand agencies see them very differently. We see them as potential phoenixes with the potential to rise again with the right care and direction. It’s not a fool’s errand. It’s about having the willingness and diligence to take an old diamond, polish every facet, and look through it from every new angle with the intent of seeing something different for the first time. And then, when that process is complete, having the courage to ask, “Why does it have to be diamond? What else could it be?”

Helping brands find new ways to compete is what we do. It’s a whole different way of thinking. But it’s also the only way to slay a giant – whether you’ve been one before, or not.

MIKE SULLIVAN is the president at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency. For more about challenger branding, subscribe to our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog

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