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09 March 2018

The Challenger Mentality

08 Electricink Boxtop

When we’re younger, our parents tell us that boredom is just a lack of imagination. Now big retailers are echoing the sentiment. Brands are in trouble (it’s no secret) and names like ‘Project Renewal’ and ‘Reset’ don’t mask the gauntlet that’s been thrown down by every new ‘differentiation strategy.’

‘Give our customers something to get excited about or lose the shelf space.’ I’m paraphrasing - but really, why shouldn’t you? This is branding 101. What good is your brand if it can easily be mistaken for or replaced by another?

The big retailers had to up their game to compete with the discounters who, seemingly overnight, grabbed the attention and weekly shops of savvy customers. Fast forward through the mass realisation that price doesn’t always equate to quality, and now own-label is beating out brand with a host of NPD more attune to modern consumer needs and demands (see ‘Gary’ Vegan Cheese).

When innovation is being used to win hearts, it’s safe to assume that complacency is the cause of decline for many brands. Reading about Sainsbury’s so-called ‘war on brands’, it was surprising how unsurprising it was that the challenger brands were excited by the retailer’s new strategy while more established brands felt attacked.

“If shoppers love a brand, they should pay full price for it. Those that stay will have to offer a real underlying value, and will have to be distinctive” says one Sainsbury’s supplier - not paraphrasing.

The retail landscape has shifted dramatically, with health concerns, social consciousness and alternative lifestyles heavily influencing the trends emerging in food, drink and beyond. Add the sugar tax and recent supplier scandals to the mix and suddenly you see a plethora of well-placed start-ups set to take significant market share from the big players.

Take Fever Tree, who capitalised on the growing popularity and appreciation for gin and positioned their tonic so that it was seen as equally - if not more - important than the gin itself. Not only was this a blow to the category leader, Schweppes (who, coincidentally, have now rebranded, repositioned and invested massively in comms) it reinvented the category, forcing consumer reappraisal and inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

Dollar Shave Club did it, Ella’s Kitchen did it and we did it with Electric Ink. Turning an internal exercise auditing the gaps of the skincare market into a cult social following and a specialist, premium product range now available in both national and global retailers, and through most major online beauty stockists.

When you think about it, you begin to wonder how this happens. With all of the market data, people, resources, scale and finance behind someone like Coca Cola, why do they end up playing catch up to relative newbies? Is it that brands like Fever Tree have more to prove or is it that the culture within larger companies isn’t to nurture new ideas, but instead to stick to ‘the norm’ and what they know?

Before it gets to the point of no return, weighty, slow-moving brands need to realise what they have at their disposal. A ‘turtle-in-the-shell’ approach may be tempting but remaining insular will only delay the inevitable. As will only going for the short-term wins.

This is no time to play catch up, so adopt a challenger mentality and set the pace. Forget year on year incremental growth and create game-changing products that people actually want. Trust your instincts rather than relying on focus groups to deliver solutions. And listen. Someone somewhere will have the fire, the knowledge and the ideas that you’re missing, so find them, embrace them and give them freedom.

Don’t be scared to invest in your future. Empower by example and lead your category.