Being a Challenger Brand

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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.

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