The Power of Being a Challenger Brand

The beginning of the year is the usual time to talk about challenges – especially for retailers. And while I respect the instinct, what I don’t like is the implication that challenges are external burdens a business has to overcome. Faced with tough times, companies are expected to assume a defensive, crouching position. Hold on and hope for the best.

Let’s reject that mindset. Facing a challenge means being a challenger, yes, but I would argue that is not a weak position at all. In fact, I think it’s a very strong one. It may actually be the best position of all.

Because being a challenger means being willing to take big risks – to take on the establishment, ignore conventional wisdom, see opportunity where others don’t. To break the rules and make bold moves.

And the rewards are huge. Just look at the start-up world. Airbnb has become a global phenomenon, with more than two million listings and over $1B in revenue last quarter. The co-working company WeWork is the sixth most valuable start-up in the world, worth $20B. Then, of course, there’s Uber. Whether you like them or not, they’ve achieved a $600B valuation in just six years.

So what does it mean for retailers?

Conventional wisdom says the game is over. Amazon won and it’s just a matter of time before they kill off everybody else. The news media loves to report the body count: Toys R Us, Aerosoles, True Religion, Gymboree, Payless, The Limited, etc. just in the last year.

That’s a compelling story, but it’s not the whole story. Not by a long shot. Why? Because it ignores those retailers who are actually winning. Companies like Home Depot, Pandora, Tractor Supply, and Best Buy are seeing record growth. First, by combining unique in-store experiences with innovative e-commerce platforms that complement, rather than compete with, their brick and mortar. It’s not either-or for them, it’s both.

But also by infusing their brand with real attitude, a specific point of view, something unusual that maybe not everyone will understand but those that do will love. I’m reminded of this quote from Seth Godin’s book Tribes: “Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow.”

Innovative start-ups like Italy’s YOOX Net-A-Porter – just two years old – have challenged the conventional wisdom that top fashion brands would never allow online discounts. YOOX buys overstocked items from the previous seasons of Gucci, Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and others and resells them via an innovative online-only global marketplace that’s now grown to $1.8B in revenue – without cannibalizing in-store sales. As Steve Jobs said, “Think different.”

Because being a challenger is a mindset more than anything else. I found it amusing that – after the $52B sale of its entertainment division to Disney – the chairman of Fox said his company was “returning to its roots as a challenger brand.” That’s a stretch, but I get the point. Stay hungry and you stay alive.

That’s been the mantra of the company I work for, CoreMedia. They’re 21 years old but still operate like a startup, with agile approaches and constant innovation. They were one of the first companies to think about managing content in a multichannel world and they’re still lauded as visionary by Gartner today. Conventional wisdom says the all-in-one software giants should’ve eaten their lunch by now. But they haven’t. In fact, CoreMedia just had one of its best years ever. (And so did many of their clients.). They’re still a challenger and that’s exactly how they like it.

Let’s come full circle: It’s the beginning of a new year. What are you going to do differently? Will you accept the conventional wisdom that Amazon won, you lost, and it’s time to head for the exits? Or will you return to your roots as a challenger brand, become a startup all over again, and try something bold and unexpected?

The only thing you have to lose is everything.


About the Author

Don Hoffman is CoreMedia’s chief wordsmith, brand storyteller, voiceover talent and overall content guru. A native of New Orleans and graduate of Amherst College, he has more than 20 years of experience shaping marcom strategy for global publishers, eCommerce businesses, advertising agencies and enterprise software companies. He is based in San Francisco and is also a songwriter and opera singer.