Mumbrella360 Asia session preview: How to apply challenger-brand thinking to your business

Ahead of his session on the topic at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference in Singapore this November (5-7), PHD planning and strategy head Chris Stephenson unpacks the secret sauce of challenger brands – both inside and outside the media and marketing industry

Disruption is so hot right now. A 2017 BCG study demonstrated that US$22 billion of value had moved from bigger brands to smaller challengers in United States packaged goods over a preceding five-year period, with a similar pattern elsewhere in the world. 

Our own industry is no stranger to disruption, with Procter & Gamble’s Mark Pritchard recently observing that the best way for agencies to save themselves is to disrupt themselves. In fact, disruption is everywhere. An age of pervasive challenge and uncertainty seems to be gaining momentum around us from every side. Indeed, the IPA’s 2009 assertion that “change will never be this slow again” seems almost worryingly conservative.

But this we know. Of this, none of us require convincing. If any among us should need to be persuaded of the need to strategise and plan for the disruption encircling us all, then I suspect that it may already be too late. The question, of course, is not one of ‘am I being disrupted?’ but rather one of ‘how do I face, embrace and capitalise on that disruption, before someone else does?’.

That was the question we wanted to answer when we – along with the brand consultancy EatBigFish – studied dozens of the fastest-growing and most successful companies around the world right now. We spoke to insurance provider Lemonade and champion of post-milk Oatly. 

We chatted with smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi, chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely and the business platform MailChimp. And we conversed with furniture maker Vitsœ, self-confessed beer geeks BrewDog and sports brand Under Armour. We explored what they are all doing to not just survive but thrive in an age of disruption.

The answer is that they are resolutely focussed on – and in the business of – challenging something; be it the consumer’s historical relationship with a product or service, the ethics of the category, a lack of inclusivity or innate bias, the accepted wisdom that technology has to be expensive or even whether accepted – and much-loved – cultural norms should have a place in our society and culture as we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century.

What all these successful and growing challengers have in common is a very simple shift in understanding what a challenger is: not a brand that challenges somebody, but a brand that challenges something that they believe needs to change. They identify the grip of the category and work to deconstruct its principles and practices; the very ideologies and the behaviour that underpin it. By doing so, these successful challenger brands are outstanding at standing out.

What also emerged from our study was that different brands go about challenging their category conventions in markedly different, but identifiable, ways. By adhering to and following one of 10 distinct narratives or ‘archetypes’ of challenger behaviour, these brands are harnessing their sense of purpose to provide much-needed strategic clarity and focus.

This strategic clarity not only gives challengers focus, but acts as a critical antidote to the common tendency among agencies and marketers to respond to the disruption that surrounds them by zeroing in on the wrong things. The shiny new technology or capability, the latest buzzword or even a slavish adherence to the all-pervasive brand purpose. This tendency to focus on the latest shiny object is dangerous for a market leader and fatal to a challenger.

Finally, our research identified the media and communications behaviour and principles that are enabling the growth of these challenger brands. They all focus on driving effectiveness over efficiency; on being creative over being relevant; they all hide their technology beneath the surface; they deliver personalised products and services, not personalised advertising messages; they target attitudes over audiences; and yes, they break-rules – but they follow the rule-breakers rule book when they do so.

We will be exploring and debating these archetypes and behaviour with some very awesome marketers at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference in Singapore this November (5-7). In fact, one of the challenger brands that we will be dissecting is Mumbrella itself, with the co-founder and content director Tim Burrowes joining us on stage for the discussion.

If you’re interested to find out how challenger thinking and the brand archetypes can work for you, please also join us at one of the two workshop sessions we will be running at the ‘Speaker’s Corner’ stage of the event.

It’s time to go beyond just talking about disruption. It’s time to fully engage in the creation, invention and making of the ideas and assets that will deliver disproportionate growth. Growth that will come from embracing not just a new generation of challenger thinking; but the identifiable archetypes and communications behaviours that will provide the strategic clarity that enables brands to make the leap and do it right.

Stephenson will map out challenger thinking

Chris Stephenson is Asia-Pacific head of strategy and planning at PHD and is based in Singapore – he will be chairing a panel debate at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference in Singapore on November 5-7 – buy your tickets here 


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