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David vs. Goliath: How “challenger brands” spur disruption

I was recently asked to list my favourite books on marketing. I think they asked for 10, which was a challenge. The easy bit was putting them in rank order and the two that came out on top for me were Jean-Marie Dru’s book “Disruption” and Adam Morgan’s “Eating The Big Fish”.

If you have not read either, I highly recommend them.

I found Adam Morgan’s work particularly inspiring, mainly because it was just so brilliant in its simplicity. Adam is probably the world’s leading expert on “Challenger Brands”, a particularly fascinating area of marketing, and his thinking and writing has become increasingly relevant in recent years.

The original theory of the challenger brand is the story of Avis vs. Hertz, Pepsi vs. Coke, Apple vs. IBM. The original version was probably David vs. Goliath. The narrative is that through being fleeter of foot, more innovative and creative, possibly by being an out-and-out maverick, a small business can take share from a larger one.  But the key is to have a blindingly clear proposition that the consumer can grasp immediately and a larger competitor that you are clearly not. They are slow, uncaring, inflexible and corporate; while you are the people’s champion, offering something innovative, provocative, compelling, helpful and fun.

Brands such as Dyson, Ryanair, Jet Blue, Method, Skoda and Iron Bru have taken this approach, often with spectacular results.

In the world of media and publishing, one thinks of challengers such as The Huffington Post, Spotify, Al Jazeera, and both The Economist‘s and The Guardian’s recent penetration into the United States market through providing a more global and balanced, but definitely alternative, perspective on world events. 

Part of Adam’s work suggests that even large, multi-national businesses can benefit from challenger thinking. Powerful recent examples include Unilever’s Dove brand. You may be big, but you maintain your appeal by displaying challenger characteristics and being utterly clear in what you stand for and, as importantly, who you are not.

As more businesses have adopted challenger thinking, the narrative has evolved and become more important. Hence, when we at PHD were looking for a guest speaker at Cannes this year, Adam was the person we wanted most.

Adam has produced a new piece on the new generation of challenger brands that have emerged over the last 10 years. What he discovered is that these new challengers, from all across the globe, are taking diverse approaches to the challenger positioning. It’s not as simple as David vs Goliath any more.

In developing this, he’s looked at the approaches taken by companies such as Al Jazeera, King Of Shaves, Paddy Power and One Laptop Per Child, and sought to group them into the “10 most common challenger approaches” they represent. He has also interviewed an example of each.  PHD’s input was to examine the media planning implications for each challenger brand type.

The presentation is called “Overthrow: 10 Ways To Tell A Challenger Story”, and Adam has produced a book and app with PHD of the same title. It’s available through Amazon, with all profits being passed on to UNICEF.

It’s an exciting next step in the challenger story and the book, just like Adam’s last work, is an outstanding read.