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Challenging misperceptions of challenger branding.

T-Mobile's new campaign is a promising example of challenger branding in action.

A common misperception of challenger branding is that it is simply a case of the #2 or #3 brand tweaking the category leader.  However, challenger branding is more nuanced than that.  There is a range of challenger branding models:

  • "The higher cause" – challenge consumers to lift their sights and opt for something more meaningful than what's offered by the status quo.  Dove has championed this approach in its "real beauty" campaign through its opposition to the falsehood of media-defined beauty.
  • "For all of us" – a democratization strategy in which a brand liberates and makes available to the masses what has heretofore been exclusive or out of reach.  Target democratized chic design, starting years ago with the Michael Graves toasters.
  • "Change of the guard" – the classic storm-the-palace strategy in which the leader is repositioned as out of touch and out of date.  Apple epitomized this with its famous 1984 commercial.  Years later, it seems Samsung is using this very same strategy against Apple to market its Galaxy smartphones.
  • "Counter culture" – an approach that enlists bands of co-conspirators to zig when the category leader demands that we zag.  Miracle Whip has employed this successfully in its underground war against mayonnaise.  Apple played in this area for years with its exhortation to "think different."
  • "The common man" – an empathic strategy that challenges the category elite by siding with the common sense point of view of the average person (if there is such a person).  Miller High Life's "delivery guy" rants are a text book example of this in action.
  • "Total rethink" – a moment in time in which a marketer draws a line in the sand and declares that "there's got to be a better way."  The new T-Mobile campaign is the latest example of this approach.


One final and important point about challenger branding:  never confuse challenger branding with competitive advertising.  Challenger branding should feel like a movement; a moment in time in which things will be different from this point forward.  Consider Bing's effort to challenge Google.  They conduct product comparisons that show that people prefer Bing over the category leader.  But it doesn't feel like a call to arms or an invitation to rethink all you've known to date.  It simply offers up the facts and invites us to try Bing.  Perfectly effective comparison advertising, but not challenger branding.

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