When Should Brands Challenge Foes?

Mark Di SommaSeptember 26, 20164 min

Is there ever a right time to get on the front foot and call out your competitors by name? Motorola seems to think so.

The very first rule I was taught as a junior copywriter was to never give your competitors real estate that you had paid for. Don’t compare with them, don’t criticize them, don’t even mention them … And yet that’s precisely what Motorola did recently when they suggested that smart phone buyers should “skip the sevens” and invest in their new model instead. Apple had lost their way they suggested, using their competitor’s own language to suggest that the company with the “Think different” ethos had been reduced to “incremental improvements”.

As the AdWeek article points out, if this was Motorola’s strategy coming into the launch (or even if it wasn’t) the timing couldn’t be better. Both Apple and Samsung have had underwhelming releases. It got me thinking about what other prompts, if any, challenger brands should be looking for when deciding whether to attack head on.

First though, why be a challenger? Challenger brands have one simple motivation for being the brands they are. They lack the influence to change the market. If you believe in Rule of Three dynamics (the top three brands in any category dominate that category and drive the rules), then any brand below that in the pecking order either needs to grow their way into that top set, or challenge their way in. Challenger brands have the ambition, but they need an effective means. And that means rewriting the dominant narrative by telling a different type of story that redefines their place in the world.

According to The Challenger Project, there are three ways that challenger brands look to do that:

  1. They stand up for the consumer against perceived exploitation.
  2. They bring a rich sense of purpose to a market, actively advocating for change in what they see as ethically or ideologically wrong.
  3. They position themselves as the ones to whom the baton should be passed – the next generation brand that deserves to take over from the old ways of doing things.

Interestingly, Motorola have combined approaches 1 and 3. Their pitch essentially is that consumers are no longer getting the phones they deserve when they upgrade and that, for this upgrade cycle at least, consumers should advocate for greater change by switching.

So when might a brand openly look to name and shame others? Here are four occasions to pull the gloves off:

  • You want to reposition yourselves as a contender – brazen acts generate headlines, and headlines can give an old brand (or an unseen one) new relevance and influence in crowded markets. With this ad, Motorola have looked to step back out of the shadows and reassert their right to be taken seriously. It’s a great approach for brands that really have nothing to lose from taking on the mainstream – and, when done well, it can transform a brand that would have been dismissed into a consideration.
  • The dominant brands have been arrogant or lazy – the incumbent brands have done or said something that has really riled consumers, or they haven’t done enough. This is a classic opportunity for a challenger brand to step up, play the people’s champion and lead the revolt. The message here is: ‘you don’t have to take this anymore’. It requires a very strong and very simple call to action.
  • You want to disrupt an assumption – as noted earlier, most brands work to a predominant narrative, and, alongside that, they encourage look-alike behaviors and processes that work for the brand but can really annoy customers. In this situation, challenger brands can look to feed on people’s indignation at being treated like cattle. The message here is ‘Look what they make you do’. This approach requires not just identifying the behavior but providing an alternative that is simple, brand-specific and that consumers will (hopefully) see as sensible, enjoyable and a way of voicing their displeasure. Motorola is doing that here by challenging the automatic same-brand upgrade cycle.
  • You want to make them look less appealing – one of the most effective strategies that challenger brands can use is to make the more dominant players look joyless. Here, challenger brands use their informality and cheekiness to call out bigger players as lacking humor and/or humanity. This is an effective approach for brands that are personality-driven and that are looking to pressure a monolith. This is all about: ‘We are what you see. Look at them. How can you trust a brand that seems so faceless?’

Having got the attention, the validity of Motorola’s approach will come down to its bottom-line effectiveness. If it works to move the market share dial, good enough. But then how will they capitalize on a shift in sentiment to take loyalty beyond the next upgrade cycle? (Because that was the term they referenced in their own advertising.) And if their approach doesn’t work to change consumer loyalty and behavior, what then? They may have got back into the trade press but where will they take their strategy going forward?

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