Challenging the Challengers: How can established brands fight back against challenger brands?

Nowadays, when looking at the brand make up of most sectors, you can easily identify the challenger(s) amongst them. This proves that although the challenger brand phenomenon isn’t new, it is definitely ever present.

“Structural changes in media and retail have played a part in this expansion, making it easier for challengers to make a splash” says Jamie Matthews CEO & Co-Founder at Initials Creative Agency. However, this doesn’t explain precisely why consumers are so openly welcoming to challengers.

Author of the seminal ‘Eating The Big Fish’, Adam Morgan, describes challenger brands perfectly: “A challenger brand is defined, primarily, by a mindset – it has business ambitions bigger than its conventional resources, and is prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes  of the category, to break through.”

A challenger brand’s success draws its lifeblood from this mindset and ambition. Successful challengers believe that by going against the status quo of their sector, they’ll be able to upend it. Values and personality, product design, channel strategy, service delivery and customer experience must all demonstrate commitment to coherent differentiation.

However, the question is, how can established brands fight back? They need to challenge the challengers effectively and beat them at their own game. It’s time for them to go back to the drawing board, re-discover what drives them and re assess their goals and conviction. They then need to turn these ideas into fresh behaviours that reflect the same positivity and energy of the challengers.

Changes need to be made at the product level; either by purchasing challenger brands to shake up their portfolio, such as Diageo buying Seedlip, or through NPD which is often the most realistic for smaller brands. Changes also need to be made on an emotional level; by finding a guiding conviction of their own and re-organising themselves around it.  In order to present themselves with real conviction, stories should be opened up for audiences to play with and shape. Re-invention is possible if you take into account the changing needs of consumers and how they prefer to engage with brands and use this to influence your brand messaging.


It doesn’t matter if you are the most well-known FMCG brand, the pressure to compete is constantly building. The rules of the game have changed. While these established brands have sat comfortably, playing a part in consumers’ everyday lives for some time, balancing advertising, distribution and globalisation perfectly, the landscape has evolved. The masters of traditional marketing are having to make room for the next generation of brands.


Resource restrictions are still a hurdle for challenger brands to overcome. They lack the power of established brands regarding infrastructure and manufacturing capacity, in order to scale up quickly and find funds for ongoing, mass-market promotion.

However, even though the challengers might lack capital, they compensate for this with conviction. They are able to demonstrate their beliefs and translate these into positive behaviours due to intrinsic benefits.

  1. They are starting afresh, and don’t hold the sometimes questionable heritage of established brands. They can adapt to consumer needs right from the get-go
  2. Product development can be super specific, so it addresses the needs of consumers head on
  3. They can build the customer experience from the first encounter to the last interaction, which helps support their core value proposition
  4. They can adapt their distribution strategy to reflect their model and proposition, without being trapped in traditional working relationships
  5. When challenger brands start out, they have to make a big splash on a smaller audience, but this also means they can afford to take risks and be more creative with their communication
  6. They can adapt to the evolving environment with speed and efficiency, as they don’t have the pressure of decision-making hierarchies

Challenger brands have the ability to break the norms through their values and behaviours. With constant shifts in consumer priorities and demands, they have the chance to break the mould and meet these needs creatively and powerfully.


To really get to grips with the issue, we commissioned quantitative research of over 1,000 people who have moved away from interacting with an established brand, to a challenger brand equivalent. The research focussed on eight FMCG categories, including household products, beauty and food, and the results were clear. Challengers are disrupting every category we investigated.

If established brands want to compete, they need to embody and channel the challenger behaviours, and mindset. This requires taking risks or they risk being left on the shelf.