Capturing a demographic isn’t all about representing what they stand for | Challenger brands get this

More often than not, when brands say, “We love a challenge,” with regards to competition in the market, what they really mean is, “We have accepted the card we have been dealt, so help us God.” The immutable truth that is difficult to admit by anyone who understands the value of competition as a principle driving a capitalist free market economy remains that, “What’s better than a competition is no competition at all.”

Yet because the absence of competition breeds complacency and is likely to lead to decay in due course, the next best thing for focused brands is to carve out a platform for themselves in the thick of the competition that exists, and stay  there competing only on terms they set while connecting with their target market and growing steadily. There is a term for this kind of brand – challenger brand, and some of Nigeria’s challenger brands are the custodians of everything exciting in the country’s marketplace.

A flair of standing out

Challenger brands are not a new concept. This is self-evident by their definition.

Simply put, challenger brands are brands that although they are not a market leader in their particular line of business they stand out by setting themselves apart with a driven mindset.

This mindset could be anything from taking on the dream of a better country shared by millions of young Nigerians and making it the message that defines your brand to your target market – the way Sterling is currently doing – to offering to solve a problem like affordability like Bolt (formerly Taxify) did.

Bolt offered a cheaper hail-cab alternative to the competition in a market that was back then dominated by Uber to huge success – standing currently as the number one hail-cab company by number of active users at over 2 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Sterling is trying a similarly disruptive – if completely unrelated – approach that could lead to similar success if they stick to their strategy.

That strategy is one message, one mindset. In a market like Nigeria’s, where brands shy away from taking a public stand on social issues to avoid the ire of regulatory bodies, being a challenger brand may mean finding the best way to disrupt the status quo while staying above troubled waters. Like a campaign inviting Nigerians to join the exciting work of building the future of Nigeria.

Being a brand that stands out with a singular mindset can be risky not only by potentially attracting the ire of regulators, but also that of competitors who will find it increasingly harder to compete with a standout strategy. But because this is a long-term strategy, the risks are usually worth it.

Marketing consultant, Peter Fields, puts it best when he said that CEOs nowadays need to be prepared to say, “I’m going to take a few risks, they’re going to cost me; they’re going to get me in trouble with a few of my investors who aren’t going to like this much money [put] in this quarter, or these two or three quarters, but, because I know it is going to pay back long-term, I’m going to hold my nerve and make the argument.”

Risks that pay off

To take off as a challenger brand you need to define the mindset that will set your brand apart. While in the past being the underdog was the go-to mindset for challenger brands, nowadays, with myriad issues to contend with in a global market and community that is saturated with issues that need fixing, and concerns that need addressing, challenger brands are more focused on the what.

What are you challenging?

In Bolt’s case, it was the competitor’s steep pricing via subsidized passenger-facing promotions for free and discounted rides, but it didn’t stop there. The competition went beyond pricing with Taxify (now Bolt) attracting drivers by taking a lower commission on driver revenues (10-20%  for Bolt versus 25% on Uber.)

It is a pain point many drivers and riders were delighted to see a competitor take on and the result is that Bolt has attained enough success now to be considered by new entrants into the market, like In-Driver and Rida, as a leader. This outlook, of a once challenger brand as a market dealer, is apparent in both new entrants’ marketing strategy of slashed prices radically sold to customers as prices set by them, on their own terms.

For Sterling, whose brand is about exclusively paying attention to the need of each customer, its #LetsDoSomething campaign feels like a natural next step. Inviting its target audience to join in building a future for their nation that befits their dream for a better country. In a sea of brands in the traditional banking sector that stick to the numbers and steer clear of the chatter all around, the move can be seen as daring. The payoff will however be worth it.

A quick swipe through the comment sections of the brand’s independence message on their Instagram page shows a glimpse of the excitement with which this message is received by existing and potential customers. A visit to the landing page of the campaign shows the same thing.

When it works

A good measure of the solidity of a challenger strategy is how it moves people.

How it moves them to action – app installation and active usage in Bolt’s case and sign up in Sterling’s.

If you are addressing the right what, your audience will be moved to action.

Your brand’s growth won’t be tied to the state of the market the way competitors’ might. Consumers tend to be drawn to companies that demonstrate similar values to their own, and little else draws consumers like an earnest engagement of issues and values that are dear to them. Because challenger brands take these things and make them the center of their brand identity there is an authenticity about it that draws consumers the way few ad campaigns will.

You set the tone

There is a concern about business enmity that comes to mind when it comes to the notion of challenger brands. According to The Challenger Project, however, challenger 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.”

They are not out to take over and become market leaders through new or unique product offerings in the style of Disruptor Brands, they are simply there to challenge the status quo and rise high enough to be able to compete with even seasoned players in the industry.

This could be done with something as simple as engaging customers via their favourite platforms the way some of the top challenger brands from this report by FourthCanvas – a Lagos-based brands and design agency – on Africa’s top 20 challenger brands. Cowrywise, Flutterwave, Helium Health and Eden Life topped FourthCanvas’ list because they choose to focus on transforming communication in the sectors they operate in, which span across the financial, healthcare and hospitality sector.

The market in Nigeria is ripe for challenger brands across industries and emerging ones will benefit from this strategy as much as established ones. The trick is to stick to your guns, whatever the tone you set.

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