Being a Challenger Brand

I’m a really big fan of Adam Morgan. I was happy to be asked to review his last book for Market Leader some while back. I described him as the thinking man’s Seth Godin but less good at marketing himself which explains why he coined not just the phrase but the idea of Challenger Brands yet does not get the full international acknowledgment he deserves for this, while everyone the world over knows Seth likes Purple Cows. I also gave Adam and his team the credit for Challenger Brand being an on-going project rather than a once off big bang theory. His books and his work with clients are just the latest explanation of what they have learned so far about being a Challenger Brand. That may sound like a subtle point but I think it is really cool because it recognizes that business is hard with a multitude of variables and a constantly changing landscape. You can’t just give people a 10 point plan to follow to create the perfect brand, you have to work with them to inspire them to want to keep trying and learn a little more with every attempt, every success and every set back.

I was lucky enough to be in a workshop given by one of Adam’s colleagues, Mark Barden, for a client we both work with. They have embraced the idea of Challenger Brand and the workshop was all about working with the team to surface and confront the real challenges (pun intended) in putting this into practice. I was able to sit at the back and just listen to the structured debate (Mark is a very good facilitator) and make notes for the session I was due to give the following day on the same subject. My piece built on the Challenger Workshop since as I explained that I had grown up in sort of a Challenger Brand environment long before we knew that is what it was (Lever versus Procter), had spent many years trying to help businesses be Challengers but using different techniques and in all honesty less specific focus than Adam et al (Added Value) and then trying to lead a global marketing team to raise their game in marketing (SABMiller). This has not made me the oracle but it has certainly given me some different perspectives, one of which is to see it as a journey with no ultimate destination just curious endeavour. Another is that it is a bloody hard journey.

So I thought I’d pass on a couple of my ‘crispies’ (lovely expression for ‘key take-outs’ I picked up from an American). One is quite philosophical, the other is down and dirty.

One of the reasons that Challenger thinking is so hard is precisely because business is geared towards replicating best practice, protocols and procedures. Cost efficiency is driven, and shareholder value created, by aligning a business to streamlined, proven systems. Challenger thinking can feel like driving increasingly fast down the road with your head under the bonnet. One delegate pointed out that Bosses don’t like to be challenged. I don’t agree – I think most do but they are trained to give you a good hard push back. You better have some good reasons to lift the bonnet and suggest some engine readjustment. And we would not respect leaders who constantly accepted challenges to accepted best practice without some hard questioning. I once had a boss like that – he agreed, very enthusiastically with whoever was last in his office and their latest idea. You earn the right to be a challenger thinker if you can present your arguments well and/or can display some real personal risk and passion for your ideas. It is not meant to be easy – if it was easy there would be chaos because for every visionary challenger thinker there are many more ill informed, opinionated twits.

My down and dirty piece of advice – and the one that struck home hardest in my session – is that if you want to change an organization or brand then change what you measure and reward so as to force different behaviours. The emphasis on behaviours and not attitudes is deliberate. As well as being a fan of Adam’s I am also a big fan of Mark Earls – behaviour and copying is what is important, not so much attitudes and their adoption.

To be a Challenger Brand you have to change what you measure as success. And according to Adam, in order to manage the senior politics, you need a “Smoke Jumper” but he can explain that himself.

Do You Learn More From Winning or Losing?

I was with a very successful former sportsman and national team captain the other day. Someone asked him whether you learnt more from winning or losing. Without hesitation he replied “Winning”. I thought it was a good question especially since in business we have always been told it is OK to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. We’ve even been told that if you are not making mistakes you are not trying hard enough. Business expects mistakes or at least disappointments. Like sportsmen or women and sports teams, eventually you will lose to a better player/team. Along the way there will be setbacks so it makes sense to learn from them and no sense that you necessarily learn more from winning than losing. In business the desire to question and evaluate is probably sharpened by losing. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is often trotted out as a reason not to meddle with a winning formula.

It is fair to say that in business, if things are going well you just keep going. Only if things fail do you go through the discipline of understanding why they failed. So I figured he was wrong, certainly in business. You learn more from losing than winning.

Business is not like sport and too often sport is used too simplistically as an analogy for business. In business there is no finishing line or full time whistle, you don’t get to drop under-performing players for the next game. In sport there is often no next match – you lose, you’re out. In business, barring disaster, there is always a next game – next years plan. Decision-making and accountability is clearer in sport – in business it is more consensual, more about collective accountability.

The problem is that this sportsman is also a successful businessman and he was quite clear in his mind that learning more from winning applied just as much to business as it does to sport. So I gave it some more thought. I know this guy well and know that he is highly competitive – yes I know all sportsmen are highly competitive but this guy is really competitive, in everything he does. He hates losing, even a friendly game of golf. “I don’t do losing” is one of his favourite phrases. And that is the clue to what he really means. Obviously in theory you can learn as much from losing as from winning. In theory you would learn the most from winning and losing so you can draw comparisons (scientists would support this – they need some experiments to fail). But that is not the point.

Winning and losing are infectious. The more you win the more you learn to win and the more you lose the more you learn to accept losing. What you learn is only as important as your ability to apply what you learn and get the rest of your team to apply it as well. Who wants to learn from losers? Everyone wants to follow winners. And what attitude is most likely to help you win? “Let’s give this a go – it’s OK if we fail because we’ll learn lots” or “We play to win at all costs – I don’t care what we learn only that we win, after we’ve won we’ll think about improving on the mistakes we made”.

Winners learn more from winning – losers learn more from losing, but they don’t learn to be winners.

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