The Challenger Credo

Business is about competition.  It is therefore often compared to sport.

Take the Premier League in football.  You have leaders, teams which year after year compete for the English title.  These are teams like Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.  If they do not win the league, they usually obtain the qualification spots for European competitions.

Also in the league, you have ‘Strivers’.  These are teams who are competing not to get relegated.  Their goal is survival.  Some succeed and stay in the league another year: Others fail and exit the league.

There is a third category of team in the league.  These are teams who look to challenge the established order by becoming one of the league leadership group.  In recent years such teams include Watford, Leicester and Bournemouth.  Often these are teams previously seen as unfashionable but which have received significant financial power through a new billionaire owner.

In business the term challenger is often used to describe businesses ‘in the middle of the league’.  Such a general description is an incorrect definition of the concept of a challenger firm.  There is more to being a challenger than being ‘of the middling sort’. Being a market challenger is as much a state of mind as it is a statement of intent.

I can think of sport’s clubs who are happy to maintain a mid-league position.  Owners want a club which breaks even financially and meets its role as a form of entertainment but who do not want to incur the significant costs associated with being in a leadership position.

Similarly there are businesses who do not want market leadership as being a leader costs in terms of defending that position.  Being a market leader is often not a position in which profits can be maximised. It costs to be a leader.

To be a market challenger, is to have ambitions which exceed your conventional marketing resources.  This means being strategically and tactically bold to overcome the resource gap.

So what are the core challenger characteristics?

  1.  Challengers embrace intelligent naivety.  They do not accept the historical norms of a market or its traditional process models.  The rules written by others aren’t the challenger’s rules.
  2. Challengers build a ‘lighthouse identity’.  They take and communicate their own position and they are clear where they stand on issues affecting the market.  They project that sense to target consumers like the beam of a lighthouse.
  3. Challengers take thought leadership of their category.  Apple isn’t the leader in the mobile phone market; Dyson aren’t the leader in the vacuum cleaner market; but both these companies lead their sectors in terms of design and thought.
  4. Challengers create symbols of re-evaluation.  They seek to continually shake up the consumer’s view of the market or brand category.  So Apple and Dyson continually add functionality and features to their products which alter the consumer’s expectations of the category.
  5. Challengers are willing to sacrifice.  Rejection isn’t the fear of challengers.  They fear indifference.  Be willing to sacrifice that which does not present a strong position to your target audience.
  6. Challengers are willing to over-commit to build a market position.  This over-commitment could be in the form of guerrilla marketing or to go a step further than your competitors to gain a market foothold.
  7. Challengers use PR and social networks to enter social culture.  the use of communications is strategic.
  8. Challengers become ideas-centred.  they need to continually come up with new ideas to keep their presence fresh.  They don’t do the same thing over and over again.

Research has shown ten potential challenger narratives.  These are:

  1.  The Feisty Underdog:  This is the classic challenger narrative.  It’s David versus Goliath.  It is often the position of the initial market disruptor.
  2. The Peoples’ Champion:  Challengers can develop a market position where they are seen as fighting to make the consumer the real winner.  They fight against the market’s ‘cynical fat cats’.  Take the mobile phone network Giff Gaff as an example.
  3. The Missionary:  These challengers want to bring a new way of thinking to a market category.  An example is The Body Shop which promoted natural and environmentally sound cosmetics manufacturer.
  4. The Democratiser:  This is the Robin Hood challenger wanting to take from the few to give to the many.  For example, H & M, the fashion retailer looks to give high fashion looks usually only available to those who can afford designer prices, to the mass market.
  5. The Enlightened Zagger:  These are challengers who divert from the cultural current in a market.  When competitors ‘zig’, they ‘zag’.  This is a brand by opposition to expected norms not matching the propositions of others.
  6. The Real and Human Challenger:  These challengers are clear to show that there are people behind the brand, not just AI and algorithms.  They promote human to human communication.  They aim to make a human and emotional connection.  There is personal commitment to quality and service.
  7. The Visionary:  These challengers aim to transcend the category.  An example is Whole Foods, the American grocery chain which uses the vision statement “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet”.  This statement reflects the triple bottom line of People, Planet, Profit. That business is more than the aggregation of wealth.
  8. The Next Generation:  These challengers look to get consumers to re-evaluate the market.  Tesla are an example as it gives an image of the future through alternative energy production and electric vehicles.
  9. The Game-Changer: These challengers offer a significantly different proposition that changes the market.  Such challengers have included Airbnb, and budget airlines such as Ryanair.

As challengers often lack the resources to compete against market leaders head on, they have a duty to be flexible, fleet-of-foot and imaginative.  As the  nuclear physicist Sir Ernest Rutherford said or UK scientific research, “We have no money, therefore we are obliged to think”.


Brand Placement

Advertisers are always looking for ways to provide difference and to cut through the noise created by competing brands.  To do this, they look for methods of promotion which provide additional resources and which are communications which can be integrated with the wider marketing mix.  They also want to ensure that brands are in the consumers field of vision right up to the point where they are ready to make decisions.

One such method is product (or more accurately, brand) placement.

Placement is the seeding of films and television programmes with branded goods.  One of the earliest forms of product placement was to provide branded goods as prizes on game shows.  Today, most major cinema blockbusters are filled with branded goods from cars and computers to drinks brands and clothes.

Brand placement is a highly competitive field and there are several specialist agencies who approach film producers to obtain contracts for brand placement.

Product placement provides income for the film or television programmes producers whilst brand owners gain increased prominence for their products.  Product placement is a commercial agreement and it is rare for goods to be placed in a film or show without commercial payment.

Placement can provide brand authenticity and it gives viewers relief from the strict formatting of traditional advertising.

Some brand placement becomes iconic.  A prime example is the James Bond film franchise.  If you ask any consumer what car Bond drives their reaction will be instantaneous.  Bond drives an Aston Martin.  This is a direct result of brand placement.

In the Bond novels, Ian Fleming had his super spy drive a Bentley, not an Aston Martin.  In fact the silver Aston Martin seen in several of the Bond films made its debut in the third film of the series, Goldfinger.

In fact Bond has driven a wide range of car models in the films as manufacturers competed to have their cars involved in the films.  For instance, in the late 1970s, Roger Moore’s Bond drove a Lotus Esprit and infamously, for GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies, Eon productions, the company behind the Bond franchise did a deal with BMW to provide Bond’s car.

It has been shown that brand placement is most effective when products are associated with characters who exhibit positive traits.  If you are looking to place your brand within a film, you’re far better to have your products used by the hero as opposed the villain!

Often, Brand placement is tied into a wider advertising campaign featuring both the film and the placed product.  The lead actors in films are also signed up as brand advocates and asked to promote the products at events and in interviews.  Brand placement is often only part of a wider integrated promotional campaign.

There are too levels of brand placement, implicit and explicit.  Implicit placement is where the brand appears as background dressing.  For example on a billboard advertisement or as a product in the lead character’s home.  Explicit brand placement is where the brand plays an integral part in the storyline.  Explicit brand placement is seen as more powerful than implicit brand placement.

James Bond’s car is a clear example of explicit brand placement and it features prominently in the action of the film being driven through the exotic locations visited by 007 or in fast car chases.  However, the Bond films are filled with implicit brand placement, from the holiday locations and hotels bond visits, to the gin in his whisky and the airlines he flies with.  In Quantum of Solace, Virgin Atlantic paid a significant sum to be Bond’s airline (Prior to that he had always flown British Airways).  Richard Branson has a cameo in the film as a tourist being frisked at airport security.

Brand placement can be oral as well as visual.  In the film Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman’s character, and autistic savant, will only fly Qantas as the Australian flag carrier has never had a crash.  This is a critical plot point in the film.  Qantas do not provide internal flights within the USA.  The fact Hoffman’s character won’t fly with any other airline means his gambling brother, played by Tom Cruise, is forced to go on a road trip to Las Vegas and to get to know his brother.  A Qantas plane never appears in the film but the brand is repeatedly mentioned in the first act of the film.  Qantas then used the clip of Hoffman’s character extolling their safety record in their advertising.

Brand placement can build awareness with consumers in a way which improves source credibility.  It can reinforce brand images in the minds of consumers.  Being associated with Bond is to be associated with excitement and luxury.  The audience is assisted to associate itself with the brand through the environment depicted in the film or its association with the film’s star.  Brand placement carries social information and can feed into consumers’ self expression.

Brand placement in cinema has a high level of impact.  The large screen and surround sound of modern cinemas make the experience of viewing a film immersive.  Films are widely distributed over a long time period.  After its cinema run, a film will be widely available for download or for sale by DVD.  It will be shown on cable and satellite TV.  Every TV station also wants a blockbuster to be the highlight of its holiday entertainment.  A film will remain in circulation for years after its first showing.

Brand placement can be an integral part of international marketing campaigns and can lead to a brand gaining traction in new geographic markets.  Films are shown across cultural boundaries.  It is estimated that 80% of the world’s population has seen at least one James Bond film.  However, such use of brand placement ignores cultural differences and in some markets may breach cultural norms.  It is a one size fits all type of campaign and great care must be taken especially if you differentiate your marketing strategy for different international markets.

It is also shown that the majority of audiences approve of brand promotion as a form of advertising.  The feel it to be less intrusive than traditional advertising and that it makes a film’s storyline more realistic.  A natural depiction of a brand reinforces the integrity of fictional storylines and can reflect the real life experiences of the audience.

However, brand placement also has weaknesses.  There is no guarantee that your products will be noticed in a film by the audience, particularly if the placement is during high-tempo action such as a fight or car chase.  Although there is much talk of the subliminal effect of brand placement in entertainment, there is little proof that this has an effect on the buying behaviour of consumers.

Some consumers see brand placement as unethical or they may rail against the placement.  That is what happened when it was announced that Bond would drive a BMW saloon in Tomorrow Never Dies.  How can the quintessential British hero drive a German car?  How dare the film’s producers consider such a move?

As an aside, Tomorrow Never Dies is as film named by typo.  The original title was to be Tomorrow Never Lies (which makes sense as the plot concerns a media mogul who decides to make the news before he publishes it and who sees a nice little war in the South China Sea as a way of selling his newspapers).

The absolute cost of product placement can be high.  Film produces may expect to gain royalties from a brand placed in their movie every time the film is shown or downloaded.  For the latest Bond film, the Aston Martin used was a concept car which had not entered production.  Aston martin had to make a number of cars for the production and several of these were destroyed in the shooting of the film’s car chase.

Brand placement can also be superficial.  It is often impossible to provide product explanation or detailed information about product features in a brand placement.  The situation in Rain Man, where Qantas’s safety record was discussed in some detail, is a very rare occurrence.

The effectiveness of brand placement depends on a number of key variables, from the form of media used to the consumers attitude to the brand placement.  It exists on a spectrum of integration, from the brand as a passive presence to active integration where the brand is woven into the storyline (what is sometimes referred to as ‘branded entertainment’ e.g. the Transformers film franchise of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  In fact those are two examples where the movies are derived directly from the product; in both cases toys; rather than a simple placement of goods in an otherwise unrelated film.

Brand placement will often depend on the products use in a film’s story, which characters use it and the way it is used.  For example, most alcoholic drink manufacturers would prefer their brand to be used by the film’s star in a plush nightclub than it being the favourite tipple of the down and out alcoholic in the alley outside.