Dan Salkey is the Co-Founder of °Small World and a Brand Strategist focused on challenger brand theory. He’s guided the brands of famous companies like Adidas and Nissan but set up °Small World to help startups & scaleups challenge the big incumbents. Here’s his guide on becoming a Challenger Brand.

Are you outgunned by your Market Leader? If so, then you need to generate talked about communications that enter popular culture. 

But the truth is most marketing communications are poor. The vast majority of brands aren’t inherently newsworthy and they rarely permeate into popular culture. 

This guide will help you develop brave ideas that give you the profile and visibility. It’s a key quality of the most successful Challenger Brands.

What makes an idea newsworthy? 

Newsworthy ideas can come in many forms. It could be a viral video that shows surfers in Copenhagen creating their own waves, quite literally, with dynamite (Quicksilver). But newsworthy ideas don’t always need to be sexy, exciting and daring. Sometimes it can be as simple as an extraordinary piece of customer service. Lexus achieved this by going above and beyond replacing a customer’s garage when one of their cars leaked oil on the floor. 

They do, however, have a few things in common:

  • They’re always authentically rooted in the brand – only Quicksilver, known for ‘Original Thinking’, could pull off such an idea. 
  • They fulfil people’s social need for sharing, interacting and engaging – more on this in a moment.
  • They’re cost-effective, rough and delivered with relative speed. Often these ideas will start as concepts that test the waters with consumers before becoming full-blown campaigns.

When we talk about fulfilling people’s social needs let’s qualify what we mean even further. There are 5 social needs ideas can typically fulfil for our target consumer:

Bragging Rights – People love being on the pulse. They have the sense that they have discovered something valuable, something that makes them feel, and seem to their peers, slightly ahead of the pack. 

Product Amazement – There are very few products that perform ten times better than anything on the market. If you do have one of those rare products, you should dramatise that in your marketing. People love to share products that change lives.

Aspirational Identity – People will share your brand by using it, wearing it or talking about it if they feel it says something aspirational about themselves. Veja is a perfect example. They famously spend little on promotional advertising but their brand is viral because of its distinct strong identity that resonates with wearers. 

Attention Grab – If an idea is unbelievable, shocking or downright weird it will grab someone’s attention and cause them to debate it with friends. Quicksilver’s dynamite waves, CALM’s Project 84 and Cadbury’s drumming Gorilla are a few examples. 

Invite Creativity – No I don’t mean asking them to add a brand # while holding your product. Genuinely invite people to co-create with your brand. Depop, adidas and Lego have always been brilliant at this and it’s built into their brand DNA.

Leaning into risks 

Bold ideas that solicit headlines free of charge will always be risky. More specifically they may be subjective – you can’t please everyone, offensive – we’re shocking people out of apathy and banned – as a result of being offensive or brave. 

If your idea doesn’t do at least the first of these three things it’s probably not going to steal headlines and enter popular culture, sorry. 

The best challengers will actively lean into risky situations whether they manufacture those situations or those situations are thrust open to them. 

For instance, when KFC ran out of chicken they didn’t hide, they owned the mistake, reacted with speed and did it in a tongue in cheek way rooted in their brand.

Sniffing out headlines 

Now that we’re aware of what makes an idea newsworthy and we’re aware of the risks associated, let’s put a structure in place for hunting out headlines. 

Most brands aren’t genuinely culturally relevant or very newsworthy. You’ll need to be on the hunt for moments that are culturally relevant which you can have a unique brand POV on. 

This will be split between smaller more reactive moments throughout the year that are basically your creative twists on the news. Think Brewdog poking fun at Dominic Cummings. 

The rest will be key tentpole moments throughout the year where you’re the one creating a genuinely newsworthy story. Like Quicksilver with their viral video. You might do 4 of these a year and should be planned in advance. 

The latter is much like a traditional marketing campaign in strategy but a challenger in execution. 

The former, smaller reactive moments, demand that you set your team up like a newsroom. Someone is the editor who organises weekly, bi-weekly or monthly meetings – the rest of the team are like reporters sniffing out moments that you can attach to the brand too. Google Alerts, newsletters and good old fashioned papers are your best friend here.

Ryanair have always been masters at this reactive form of news-jacking. It was claimed that at their peak they released 3 new press releases a day. Lots of them leant into a dark art of challenger brand theory – The Art of ‘Beef’.

The Art of ‘Beef’

This isn’t for the fainthearted. Taking the Market Leader head-on with a direct challenge is definitely jumping headfirst into some of those risks we spoke about earlier.

Equally, the greater the risk the greater the reward and some challengers thrive on that. 

There are 5 benefits to picking a fight with the Market Leader:

Choice Awareness – By picking a fight with the Market Leader it snaps people out of their brand mind control. It’s very hard to get people to swap their purchasing habits. So the first job is to make them aware that they do have a choice. 

Binary Choice – There are hundreds of choices a consumer can make. Framing it in their mind as our brand or the Market Leader’s, you’ve instantly narrowed that choice down to two. A much fairer fight. 

Choice Definition – By taking the fight to them you get to define what your roles are. who’s David and who’s Goliath? Paypal did this brilliantly with their New Money campaign. They instantly defined traditional banking as old and outdated whilst they were new, exciting and future-facing.

Residual Marketing – If you can goad the Market Leader into responding, you’ve now also got residual marketing as they spend their hard-earned marketing bucks on mentioning your brand. 

Category Interest – If you’re in a new or low-interest category, starting a publicly facing fight drives interest in the category as a whole. Oatly championed this when they suddenly transformed Oat Milk from a mundane category into a divisive and interesting one. 

But don’t pick a fight for the sake of it. Only assume the risk if you’re going to be witty in your tone, you’ll offer consumers a positive solution to the failings of the Market Leader and you can back that solution up as a brand. 

Making the unmeasurable measurable 

Lastly, but most importantly, we need to make sure that we’re setting ourselves up for success. We do this by ensuring our supposedly ‘unmeasurable’ ideas are totally measurable. 

At high growth startups, money can be bountiful but every penny must be accounted for. If a certain activity doesn’t move the needle, it isn’t being funded. 

There are a few things you can do measurement wise to both convince and prove to your manager, CEO or board that stealing headlines won’t just make you famous but actually drive business results. 

First of all, refer to Binet & Field’s seminal work on fame driving campaigns (see below). It’s the greatest tool you have in signing off ‘unmeasurable’ ideas. Fame led campaigns are not only great awareness drivers but are actually better at increasing penetration, loyalty and ultimately profit.  

Secondly, reframe and translate the metrics you do have to be a fairer comparison with traditional figures from performance marketing (reach, engagement etc.). Someone sharing your brand with friends online should be worth 5 to 10 times more than somebody being reached by a Paid Social ad. 

The ultimate benefit of ideas that enter popular culture is that consumers are willing to share them of their own free will. 

Your goal should be to get people talking at the pub, in the barbers and in their group chats. Unfortunately, those are some metrics we’re yet to be able to track, but god knows someone is trying.

To wrap up

So there you have it. A simple guide on getting headlines for your brand in true challenger fashion. Now it’s time to get going, start small with reactive ideas and build up to bigger stunts. 

Feel free to ask us any questions and send us your ideas – we’d love to see them! Hit us up at [email protected] or give me a DM on LinkedIn

°Small World is a proud Seedrs partner. Together it’s our mission to create the next generation of challenger brands making an impact on the world. Learn more about them here.

Relevant articles:

Challenger Brand with °Small World

8 steps to putting Challenger Brand thinking into practice