There is no doubt that Adam Morgan’s book “Eating The Big Fish”, first published in 1999, has had a profound impact on how we perceive the relationship between the underdog and the brand leaders. This seminal book was dramatic in its honesty about how precarious life is for the little fish in an environment utterly dominated by big fish. As a solution Morgan offered eight credos that were intended to be a compass with which these challenger brands could navigate and set new rules of engagement to disrupt the status quo and “eat the big fish.”
In 2009 the second edition of “Eating The Big Fish” has evolved the term “challenger brand” into twelve different challenger stances from “The Irreverent Maverick” to “The People’s Champion.” Indeed the archetypal David vs. Goliath challenger stance, whereby a brand launches a directly positioned attack on the market leader with the intention of replacing it, is problematic as many brands today are adopting alternative routes to earn their challenger status. In addition, often when the little fish become the market leaders they gradually shed the values and ethics that propelled them into that position in the first place.
Dollar Shave Club demonstrates the evolution of the challenger model perfectly and falls into the category of the “Value Changer” - offering a proposition focused on superior value for money.
Despite being a tiny contender, Dollar Shave Club succeeded in muddying the clear waters of the shaving market when it launched its unconventional and entertaining YouTube video, which has achieved over six million views.
Although it is essentially challenging the shaving giant Gillette, at the heart of this company is a product that is sincerely valued. The brand achieves a distinct visual identity through the use of wooden imagery and a heritage-style seal to compliment its clubhouse theme, which differentiates it from the sleek and ultramodern razors produced by the rest of the category. As a result this is primarily a brand-led challenge that offers quality razors at a cheaper price and not simply a David vs. Goliath scenario.
Often successful challenger brands begin to face an identity crisis after they become leading players in their market and thereby outgrow their challenger positioning. Virgin Atlantic certainly demonstrated its challenger credentials when it dared to take on British Airways using its unconventional brand personality to agitate its conservative counterpart. Having earned a place as one of the best long-haul airlines, can Virgin still be considered a challenger brand? Virgin’s marketing trends certainly suggest that the brand has been loyal to its mischievous personality that propelled it into the position it is in today.
Virgin’s 2009 “Still red hot” advert, which celebrated the business’ 25th birthday, was launched during an economic downturn. At a time when the airline industry saw passenger numbers falling, Virgin deliberately swam against the prevailing cultural tide and increased its marketing spend. This gives credence to the argument that Virgin is still a challenger at heart, as it continues to adhere to its core values – that flying should be a pleasure, not a chore – even during a recession.
Apple is an exemplary challenger brand that dramatically ate the big fish, Microsoft. Yet it is arguably beginning to act like the very brand it set out to defeat. Recently Apple won a lawsuit against their rivals, Samsung, which saw a jury order the latter to pay the former $1 billion for patent infringement. This is not the behaviour of a challenger brand and is perhaps more symptomatic of a market leader wielding a club to protect its position.
The shift in the challenger brand paradigm is evident as brands seek new and innovative ways to disrupt the marketplace. In particular, brands are actively avoiding the formulaic David vs. Goliath scenario of a direct challenge to the market leader and are forging alternative routes instead. Moreover, if a challenger brand does become the market leader it must reconcile its new position with the core values that define it, or else it becomes an adaptation of the brand it set out to crush and ironically may suffer the same fate.