You don’t need to be a challenger brand to adopt challenger thinking.

You don’t need to be a challenger brand to adopt challenger thinking.

24 April 2019 · 3 min read 

Challenger thinking is more than your position in the market. It’s taking an approach to marketing that prioritises impact over sameness. When you have an ambition for your brand that is significantly higher than your resources and are prepared to do something bold and imaginative to close the gap, your only option is to adopt challenger thinking. Simply, if you’re not the market leader, you can’t afford not to.

I have spent the past few years researching to understand the important attributes of challenger thinking for brands and have summarised them in the following 7 key points:

1. Find your monster.

All great stories have a villain. Challenger thinking involves finding yours. Your monster is the enemy your business and brand is going to fight. Fight is a key word here; marketing is war – it’s not for the faint-hearted.

Your monster could be a way of doing business, something deeply wrong in your industry, an unmet consumer need or a social cause worth putting all your weight behind. The trick though is your monster must be something your market also considers to be a monster and has a desire to see it addressed. The bigger your monster, the bigger the effort needed to fight and the longer you’ll have to commit.

2. Avoid the stupidity of sameness.

Brands within a certain industry operate and market in the same way. Why? Because marketers look to the industry leader to see what they’re doing and then do the same, albeit in a slightly different way. But, they do the same thing, offering the consumer no real stand out presence. Page through the first 10 pages of an inflight magazine and you’ll see several competing jewellery ads. Financial services companies, airlines, car ads, beer ads, mobile operators, watch brands, sports brands, banks, investment firms. No matter the industry, brands within a category operate in a sea of sameness. And as Einstein said…

3. Every category is your competition.

A consumer doesn’t neatly compartmentalise industries and then judge advertising or marketing efforts against competitors. They consume everything, all the time. It’s up to you to ensure you get noticed. That Nike ad featuring Venus Williams? That’s your competition. The Red Bull event happening at a venue near you? Competition. The latest documentary on Netflix? Competitor. Sleep, mobile games, sports news. All your competition. If you’re vying for consumers’ attention, every medium is your competition and you better do something worthy to fight for it. The only way to do that is forget about what your industry competitor is doing and focus on what the consumer is interested in.

4. Build distinctive assets, not positioning.

Think of your last crush. Come on, everyone has one. What stood out? Was it a hairstyle, a mannerism, the way they dressed or something they said? Or was it their positioning in the market? Consumers respond very similarly to the laws of attraction. And no one is out there on first dates pitching USPs, mission statements or their purpose in life. Create and focus on the stuff that makes your brand stand out. The stuff that makes it distinct. Differentiating isn’t even enough anymore. The differences within an industry are far too subtle. Human beings are hard wired to notice things that stand out. When dating, you endeavour to make yourself stand out intuitively. But when you’re in a room with your exco trying to pick an idea, you overthink the market’s reaction to the work and gravitate towards the safest option. Safe is not distinct. Stick to your gut.

5. Activate on emotion.

What are your brand’s emotional activators? Have you even thought about them before? Without emotion, you have awareness. And consumers do not buy on awareness. Consumers are deeply irrational beings and studies (thanks Byron Sharp and Richard Shotton) prove that what consumers think they’ll do and what they actually do are 2 different things. Consumers buy what they want, not what they need. They buy first and ask why later. That’s when post rationalisation comes in. Or, conversely, buyer’s remorse. Rationalisation is the after-thought. Emotion creates the desire. And memory. And action.

6. Be strategically dramatic.

A drama is best thought of as a play, an opera, a ballet or a movie. All of which are desirable pieces of entertainment and deeply emotional – well the good ones anyway. Ensure the acts of your brand are dramatic but part of a consistent, long-term strategic path.

To be strategically dramatic means going big or going home. Do more, less often. Spend more time thinking and less time doing until you know that when you do, you do big. As a woodsman once said, “If I had 8 hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first 6 hours sharpening my axe.”

7. Creativity is (still) your weapon of choice.

It’s odd for me. In this day and age, still fighting for the merits of creativity. But nothing I’ve said above can be achieved without fully embracing creativity. It’s the one part of our industry that hasn’t changed for 60 years. Despite what analytics, digital and data companies have you believe, technology hasn’t miraculously replaced the effects of creativity. It’s simply enabled new avenues of expression.

Think about DDB’s famous Think Small ad for the VW Beetle from 1959. It was challenger thinking at its finest. Run that past the first 6 points of this post. Not a single attribute missed. At its core, 60 years ago, creativity changed the game and pushed advertising into the future. Yet for some reason, here we are in the future, and we’ve forgotten that.

Dean Oelschig

Want to chat further about challenger thinking and how to adopt it for your brand, please get in contact with us.

The truth of relativity.

The truth of relativity.

Here’s a test. Be honest now. Think of your favourite weekly/daily magazine, newspaper or publication. If we said to you, you could subscribe to it but you had the following options:


Option 1: The online version only for R49 a month

Option 2: The print version for R99 a month

Option 3: The print and online version for R99 a month


Which would you choose? Answer before you carry on reading.


However, what if we said you could subscribe to just the following 2 options:

Option 1: Online version for R49 a month

Option 2: The print and online version for R99 a month


Now which would you choose?


Does your answer change? It’s likely, unless you’re the exception, you originally choose the double threat of print & online or the cheaper online version. And the main reason is because the power of relativity. If you have 3 options, it’s easier to compare “like for like” so we immediately, and irrationally, pick between option 2 and 3 as they’re similar ballpark options. Our brain considers it the best deal in the circumstance because option 1 has nothing to compare to. But when there are only 2 options, we think logically about each, compare one against the other and pick the one that makes more sense, namely the digital version.


This is one such example from the book Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. It’s a brilliant book on behavioural economics (we HIGHLY recommend it) and how there are real hidden forces that shape ours (and consumers’) decisions.

You don’t need to find inspiration to create a great idea. It’s the great ideas that give us inspiration.

You don’t need to find inspiration to create a great idea. It’s the great ideas that give us inspiration.

Great ideas take hold of us. They consume us. We WANT to be part of the execution and craft. And it doesn’t feel like work. It’s the average ideas that feel like effort and work.

Think about your favourite idea or project you’ve worked on. I bet the one that stands out never felt like work. And busy never felt like busy. That’s the reward for spending the time finding the great idea.

So when you’re feeling uninspired, know that inspiration is the reward at the end of the tunnel. Inspiration isn’t what you’re looking for to create better ideas. The best ideas create inspiration.

And, well, you won’t find that on the internet.

The best brands solve the simplest problems

The best brands solve the simplest problems

The best ideas are not actually big ideas that solve big problems. They’re more often, simple, brilliant ideas that solve the simplest problems at scale. Big ideas are too difficult for the average consumer to grasp. Simple, brilliant ideas like Uber, AirBnB and Netflix, executed at scale are what really work. The real challenge brands have is identifying the problem their consumers have. For that, brands need to be outward focused, not inward. But remember, asking the consumer what they want they will just result in a faster horse. The real skill is to ask different questions that lead to more questions and then draw insights from the answers. Always spend as much time as you can on the problem and the simple, brilliant ideas will begin to emerge.

We overestimate what we can do in a month and underestimate what we can do in a year.

We overestimate what we can do in a month and underestimate what we can do in a year.

A month is a short time. In the average month, there are only 21 working days. Too often we overestimate what can really be achieved, meaningfully, in a month. You will struggle to lose 5kgs, train for an event, learn a new skill, grow your hair, conceptualise and create a meaningful campaign or write a book, in just one month. But while 12 months is also a short time that flies by, we underestimate what we can do in a year. In a year, you can build a house, start a company, write 2 books, lose 15kg, train for Ironman, learn to play the guitar -or win 10 Cannes Lions.

The trick is to set goals and keep moving towards what you want to achieve. Keep marking yourself today against yesterday and make sure that you’re growing, moving, creating, learning and producing. Make sure you come back to your goals each week and back yourself to achieve what you want to in a year.

Comfort is a slow death.

Comfort is a slow death.

This simple sentence says so much already. It’s the internal philosophy of one of the world’s greatest agencies, Wieden+Kennedy in Portland (AdAge’s 2018 agency of the year). It’s brilliant. Comfort is the antithesis of creativity. Discomfort is what we should strive for. It requires real balls to knowingly put yourself in uncomfortable positions but without doing so, you will be dying a slow death. Whether it’s the work we do, the conversations we need to have, the effort we need to put in, the subjects we have to face or the parts of our life we put off because they’re too uncomfortable. Get out of the comfort zone and find success.

Moments that matter.

Moments that matter.

This is a very average hotel (motel?) in Los Angeles called the Magic Castle hotel. It’s neither magic nor is it a castle. It’s a crappy old apartment type block converted into a hotel. And it’s in Hollywood which is home to the Ritz-Carlton, the Four Seasons, and the Bel-Air, to name a few.

Well, the Magic Castle Hotel is the number 2 rated hotel in all of Los Angeles. Out of 357 hotels. And the reason is because they totally understand the concepts of moments. Brands often talk about creating experiences. Experiences are nice but they do not always result in memories. Moments that matter do. Think about the meaningful moments over your life you recall.

Brands need try harder to create more moments that matter. The Magic Castle does this. One such moment is a Big Red Phone at the pool called the Popsicle Hotline. You pick up the phone, call the popsicle hotline and a butler comes out with free popsicles in flavours of your choice on a silver tray. There are 3157 reviews on the hotel on TripAdvisor and every single review has been personally replied by the staff. We can learn from this in the way we treat each other, our clients and our clients’ customers through campaigns and the work we create. The Magic Castle Hotel is an example of not trying to be the best, but making sure you’re the favourite.

Have to vs want to.

Have to vs want to.

Everyone wants and loves the glory. The glory of finishing a race, the glory of standing on stage winning a Gold Lion at Cannes or the glory of cooking a superb meal that floors your dinner guests. But what people don’t want is the training, the pain, the hard work and the practise that goes into it behind the scenes; the stuff that people don’t get to see. Because that’s the hard part.

The challenge is to reframe the context. And realise, for the meaningful things you want, you need to want the hard parts too. It’s the language and context of your thought process that counts. If you want the glory, you HAVE TO LEARN to want the pain, the blood, sweat and tears that goes into that thing.

Instead of saying “I have to work late”, “I have to do this brief”, “I have to go train for an hour” or “I have to start again and think harder about this problem”, try saying, “I want to work late”, “I want to do this brief”, “I want to go train for an hour” or “I want to start again and think harder about this problem” because, well, I want that glory!

If you want the real glory at the end of the day, you have to reframe the pain that goes with it.

The difference between money and time.

The difference between money and time.

Another gem from Seth Godin that made a big impact on me. Often people talk about money and time being the same thing. They are definitely related, but there is a key difference. Money not spent is money saved. Money can be put away, invested, saved for a rainy day. Time on the other hand, is much more valuable because the time we have is never going to be had again. Either you’re spending your time, or wasting it.

On culture

On culture.

You hear stories from Google, Netflix, R/GA and the like on their “culture”. It invariably looks a lot like fun and consists of swings, slides, pool tables, table tennis, bean bags, beer and coffee. But those are to culture what a billboard is to creativity. Culture is none of that stuff. Culture is performance. Go back and assess the places, the sports teams and companies that have been accredited with a great culture and the one thing they all have in common is, they win. In fact, all of them worked damn hard to get to that win. They held each other accountable. They pushed. They dug deep. The focused on the big picture and let it drive them. They put in the big, hard hours because they wanted to, not because they had to. In fact, we would argue at the time, some of their experiences were quite tough. But, at the end of the day, they won and keep on winning. And why this matters is that people, teams, colleagues, staff, creatives, clients etc, find way more satisfaction looking back at sacrifices made to win than looking back on a time spent with table tennis, bean bags, beer and coffee with little to show for it. We are not saying it can’t exist together, but at the end of the day, the most influential and memorable part of culture is performance, not environment. You will never forget your first Cannes Award but the memory of the hard work that got you it will fade.