The PR and comms challenges of being a challenger brand

How do you make sure you are challenging the established ideas, rather than the established companies?

Isn't everyone a challenger brand these days? asks Katy Ringsdore
Isn't everyone a challenger brand these days? asks Katy Ringsdore

'Challenger brand' is, here in 2017, absolutely one of the most oft - and over-used phrases - in the PR lexicon; so much so, in fact, that it's increasingly hard to find a brand out there that, on some level, isn't attempting to pitch itself as the plucky little upstart railing against the inequities of big-business hegemony.

Which, when you think about it, is hard. By simple definition, at least according to that proffered by Google, a challenger is either "a person who engages in a contest" (which, in business terms, is in fact everyone); "a person who makes a rival claim to or threatens someone's hold on a position" (so, an underdog of sorts); or "a person who disputes the truth of or places themselves in opposition to something" (so, a disruptor).

So the key question from a comms point of view is which, if any, of these definitions applies to your brand or business – and how should you articulate this in a way that not only delivers cut-through for your broader corporate messages, but which drives consumer interest and take-up in the product or service you’re presenting?

The most important aspect of establishing and maintaining challenger brand status is, therefore, defining oneself and one’s brand in opposition to something rather than someone.

Katy Ringsdore, head of PR and internal comms at Atom Bank

I’ve learnt some clear lessons on how hard it can be to maintain this status in the eyes of consumers and the media.

Today’s underdog is tomorrow’s lazy, fat golden retriever, gorged on profit; it’s harder to set yourself in opposition when your numbers start being industry-leading.

The most important aspect of establishing and maintaining challenger brand status is, therefore, defining oneself and one’s brand in opposition to something rather than someone.

You are not a challenger to the best-in-class brand; you are a challenger to old ideas and ways of working.

You are not a challenger to ‘the big boys’ or ‘just’ an underdog; you are taking a genuinely new approach to consumer problems and needs, and delivering value to them in innovative fashion.

It’s no coincidence that brands such as Under Armour, say, or even Virgin, which were once the small-cap upstarts but are now global behemoths, are still considered to be somehow irreverent and different in the minds of consumers, regardless of their share price; it’s about their constant focus on delivering improved customer experience and not resting on their laurels or accepting that they could become the status quo.

It’s about being always in beta. It’s about, to quote Jeff Bezos, always being a Day 1 company.

Most of all, though, it’s about remembering that you should challenge the established ideas rather than the established companies – and that only by doing that can you keep challenging from the front.

Katy Ringsdore is head of PR and internal comms at Atom Bank

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