4 Tips for Marketing a Challenger Brand

Challenger brands have always existed, however, the label is new.

But “challengers” are more than just an underdog category of brands trying harder to topple their market leader.

Being a challenger brand is a markedly different approach to running a company. Like breakout brands, stalwart brands, startups and legacy brands, challenger brands must operate within prescribed constructs.

Labels be damned, let’s stop trying to put challengers in a box and take a closer look and how they can better position themselves for success in competitive markets. If you think you might be a challenger brand, consider these tips for your marketing plan:

Partner with like-minded challenger brands with similar goals

As a challenger brand, understand that you are not alone. While legacy brands may be threatened by co-op partnerships and alliances with smaller brands, partnerships are the currency of challenger brands.

For example, Company A is entering a national market on an advertising budget of $3 million dollars. This budget is small given the market leader is spending $18 million and had pre-paid media in all the right places through the end of the year – essentially blocking any competitors from entering the space. The media providers recognize the practice of exclusivity and will group ads into larger bundles and sell deeper into the calendar year for this benefit. Costs rise under demand and challenger brands are priced out of the market.

This may appear to be an un-winnable situation to the challengers. Despite this, it plays out every day in business.

However, when ad inventory becomes low and prices rise, new media providers enter the market to capitalize on the unspent ad dollars. This is where Company A can benefit. In this case, new media providers appear in the form of challenger brands, eager to take market share from the big publishers.

Suddenly, the $3 million ad budget finds an opportunity with a new publisher. As a challenger brand itself, the new publisher is trying to win market share over its competitor. It is motivated to impress it’s new advertising customer with its innovation and fiscal prowess, vowing to give greater value than the market leader. It is possible that the new publishers will give value greater than the sum of the small ad budget. Likewise, the new publisher enjoys the revenue and opportunity while the advertiser earns the benefits of higher than retail value by partnering with another challenger. The rising tides lift all boats.

Their weakness is your emphasis

Legacy brands often fail to watch their rearview mirror. The taxi industry never saw Uber coming. Blockbuster Video failed to see Netflix coming. With challenger brands, it is imperative to market against the weaknesses of your counterparts.

Being a loud, disruptive voice about the problem you’re solving is key to winning market share from legacy brands in two ways: the volume of your marketing voice attracts attention to your brand from the press wanting to introduce new narratives and consumers fashioned as early adopters and brand advocates. You’re the shiny new object. But additionally, your voice is labeling the market leader as antiquated and forcing consumers to second guess their buying decisions and the “problems” they have chosen to live with.

Hire when it hurts

The costs of weeding through endless resumes and paying high recruiter fees can mean you endure without the necessary staff to run your business. Contractors, freelancers and the so-called gig economy can be helpful to challenger brands that emphasize one budget over another – perhaps pumping out ad dollars over hiring dollars.

Take advantage of this gig economy and invest in full-time employees when you need it most. Full-time employees are expensive to hire and even more expensive to lose. When you do make the decision to hire, invest in retention so that valuable information and training doesn’t leave when they do.

Spend money like it’s your own

In this thriving economy, it’s easy to forget how conservatively we ran our business just ten years ago. For challenger brands and the vendors and agencies you hire to help grow your business, it’s vital to spend smart. Hire vendors and agencies who share this ideal and vow to manage your money as if it were their own. Employ analytics to measure output and ROI, adhere to strict schedules and have controls in place that minimize loss. Reduce waste by running a minimal business that opts for digital over print, manufacture products with less packaging, conserve energy and water consumption; being eco-friendly can be cost effective too.

Questions to ask of any logo design

A good logo is not just pleasant to look at. It’s a functional tool in your marketing toolbox and a key piece of your visual identity.

I designed this logo sign for a client and I just can’t say it enough: when you design a logo – don’t fall in love with it on paper or your computer screen. It’s important to visualize where the logo will go. Can you shrink it to fit on a business card and still read it? Can you enlarge it to hang it on the side of a building? Can it grow and evolve over time? Can it be silk screened onto a t-shirt without losing detail? Is it unique enough to be trademarked?

These are good questions to ask of any logo.

Choosing new brand elements

Selecting brand elements, such as your new logo and colors, can be a fun process. I always advise my clients that it requires the decision-makers to step out of their usual role within the organization and look back – objectively – at the company, perhaps seeing the company through the eyes of a customer.

This process can often take many weeks or months before a decision is reached. The brand elements that I offer are their first choices, but not last. A strong collaboration period may result in new designs, logos, colors before we can all decide on what’s best for the brand. At this early stage, I attempt to show a broad spectrum of designs, from conservative to crazy.

Important to note: the decision making process is not a contest or lottery, it’s a somewhat scientific evaluation of the options, with business objectives in mind. It’s not a popularity contest. The least popular logo may be most effective.


Effective brand elements are trademarkable devices that identify and differentiate your brand. The test of a good brand element is what a customer would know about your product or service or values if the element was all they knew.

According to Philip Kotler, great brand elements should be:

  • Memorable: How easily can it be recalled or recognized?
  • Meaningful: Is the element credible and suggestive of your business category? Does it suggest something about your customer? Does it have inherent meaning?
  • Likeable: Is it aesthetically pleasing? Is it verbally and visually likeable?
  • Transferable: Can the brand element be used to launch a new product line? Can it be reduced to the size of a business card, or enlarged to fit a building sign?
  • Adaptable: How adaptable and updatable is the design? Can the design evolve of over time?
  • Protectable: Is the element unique and capable of being protected with a trademark?