Embracing a Challenger Brand Strategy

Never heard of the Challenger Brand Strategy? No problem.

There's a good chance you haven't heard of the challenger brand strategy, but I'm positive you've seen it at work. Time for a quick test to see which of these brands you recognize:

  • Pepsi (instead of Coke)
  • Ben & Jerry's (instead of Haagen-Daz)
  • Apple (instead of Microsoft)

It's hard to believe it, but Pepsi, Ben & Jerry's and Apple were, at one point, the little guys. They were the David to the Goliaths of Coke, Haagen-Daz and Microsoft.

Today you might think about these folks:

  • Airbnb
  • Allbirds
  • Warby Parker

What is the challenger brand strategy?

What you notice from the Airbnb, Allbirds and Warby Parker examples is that they have more in common than just being the little guy. Like the Challenger Project is says below, they want to push the boundaries of “business as usual” – in the favor of the customer.

They want to change the game. They have aspirations. Big ones.

According to The Challenger Project, these brands are “less about business enmity, and more about an often mission-driven desire to progress the category in some way in the customer’s favour.” (emphasis mine)

The Challenger Brand Strategy in WordPress

I'm going to start with a personal example.

When I joined Liquid Web (four years ago), there were already a lot of managed WordPress companies. How do you compete when there is already a market leader.

The challenger brand strategy presumed you're NOT the market leader.

But it also requires that you're telling a different story. One that suggests things could be better. And when it came to WordPress hosting, when you asked, what does “managed” mean – you heard the same things from everyone.

But did customers love the answer? We didn't think so.

Imagine getting an email telling you a plugin had been corrupted. The email would tell you to update it if you were using it. That's “managed?” Who would know if you're using better than your host?

So we went to work, creating something different.

  • No overage fees.
  • Plugin updates with visual comparison so that an update didn't break your site.
  • Automatic security updates when the plugins you use need it
  • Image compression included for everyone.
  • No reliance on cache as a way to speed up sites.

Four years later, we continue to see triple digit growth – even as the market leaders continue to grow. They don't have to lose for us to win.

Building a challenger brand is about culture

In How to Win as a Challenger Brand, Kleber says,

With compelling storytelling, out-of-the-box-thinking, innovative market strategies, these challengers boldly nibble at the market share of industry giants, often achieving great success.

Kleber and Associates

Compelling storytelling. Out of the box thinking. Innovative market strategies. The only thing I would add is a culture that galvanizes its teams around these items as their rallying cry.

I once worked with a boutique digital agency that was losing business to a much larger agency. With one little tweak, they started winning a good share of the pitches they made.

The tweak? They would say, “We can start as early as next week.”

They knew for certain that their competitor was scheduling projects out a few months. And that one little tweak was just the start, as they started embracing all the different ways they could tell their own story – without ever mentioning a competitor – and leaving land mines in their wake.

Every win pushed them further to think about how they could change how they worked, to make things better for the customer.

Another tweak?

They would make all of their code available to the customer throughout the duration of the project. “We never hold your code hostage,” was a particularly strong way to challenge the space they are in.

Choosing your Challenge Brand Type

The Ten Challenger Brands - Source: https://thechallengerproject.com/blog/what-is-a-challenger-brand

The Challenger Project defines Ten Challenger Brands, as you can see in the image above.

Fabrik names five “types” of them using slightly different terms.

  • Irrelevant Maverick
  • The Human Being
  • The People's Champion
  • The Game Changer
  • The Equalizer

And phd Media flushes out the other five (and even has a quiz to help you figure out your type):

  • Enlightened Zagger
  • Feisty Underdog
  • Missionary
  • Local Hero
  • Next Generation

As Fabrik describes challenger brands, I can't help but thinking (fondly) of one famous challenger in the WordPress hosting space,

Challenger brands are unique. They adopt a tone of voice and message that’s new to the market, and that means that they don’t struggle as much to be heard by their target market.

Although you might face some problems with reputation management, controversy, and even cash flow during your challenger brand strategy, you’ll also have some specific advantages over leadership brands. For instance, you can afford to be more polarizing with your company decisions and stand for something more “unique”.


But once you know who you are, it's an all-out execution game.

Why is this so critical in the WordPress space?

Let's be honest about three dynamics:

  1. It really doesn't matter what main category you look at, competition exists
  2. If you define your niche too small, you'll struggle for growth
  3. When you're small, maybe you get acquired, but maybe you just get ignored

So instead of irrelevance, choose to fight. But knowing who to fight, and how to fight, is critical.

That's why I think it's worth knowing this strategy even exists, and then digging deeper to figure out which type makes sense for you. From there, you need to master three disciplines.

  1. Learn to tell your story – You and your team have to be able to articulate more than features and benefits. They have to be able to explain your “why” and why it matters to them.
  2. Do it with authenticity – Every touchpoint is an opportunity to connect a customer's experience with the larger narrative that you're sharing as part of your challenger brand. If you want to get rid of complexity, but a support ticket takes 19 clicks, no one will believe you.
  3. Engage your community – One thing about challenger brands is that they are often the champion of the little guy / gal. In order to be that for them, it really helps that you know them. That you're engaged with them. That you know their name. Without that, your challenger brand story won't match their experience.

Actions are words.

Not everyone needs this. I know that. Some of you are market leaders. That's great. But more of you are challengers with no strategy for how you plan to grow. Those are the folks that may want to dig into this more.