With 12 million ecommerce sites out on the wild web, small businesses are finding ways to break new ground and rise above the competition.
That’s, in part, thanks to the challenger brand. 💪
Whether you’re new to the ecommerce industry or you want to pivot your strategy, we’ll delve into 12 examples of small businesses that have successfully carved out a niche and made a splash in their respective industries.
By the end, you’ll have actional tips you can use to help grow your brand and stand above the competition.
What is a challenger brand?
Challenger brands have one goal in mind: to bring change to their industry. Sure, they might be punching above their weight - but their drive can take them from new kid on the block to category leader (whilst ruffling a few feathers along the way). 📈
Think of the challenger brand as a plucky young upstart. They're not (yet) a market leader in their industry. Instead, they offer an alternative way of thinking, challenge the status quo and use innovative business models that disrupt established markets and larger competitors.
What's the criteria for a challenger brand?
Being able to define yourself as a challenger brand is more than just switching up your marketing efforts. It's about challenging a mindset.
We recently spoke with Yang Liu, the founder of Just Wears, a challenger brand that disrupts the traditional underwear industry. For her, a challenger brand embraces the underdog mentality and disrupts the status quo. They also push their product creativity and innovation.
🎧 You can learn more about Just Wears and how Yang built a successful challenger brand over on our podcast, Ecommerce Marketing 101.
Furthermore, The Challenger Project breaks a challenger brand down into three criteria:
1. State of market: This is not about being number one in your niche market. Successful challenger brands are determined to create new, innovative approaches to established traditions within their industry.
2. State of mind: Challenger brands have a bold mindset. They question the usual way of doing things and are not afraid to be different. This fearless approach is woven into their culture and becomes the norm for their audience.
3. Rate of success: For challenger brands, success isn’t just about being popular. It's about being quick on their feet, adapting to changes, and shaking up the industry. It's not just about short-term wins but building lasting connections with customers, keeping them loyal, and staying ahead in a busy market.
Why should small brands consider being a challenger?
It might feel all too easy to copy what the big brands are doing in your industry. After all, they're a popular choice amongst consumers and something has clearly worked for them, right?
But it's going to be near-impossible to follow the exact same path and get the same results. For a start, the likes of Apple and Heniz have huge investor-backed budgets behind them. They've been established in the market for years and they're household brands that are very difficult to compete with.
But here's the thing: 76% of consumers actually trust small businesses more than corporations. As Yang told us, this could be your opportunity to “connect with consumers who are looking for something different.”
So, setting yourself up as a brand that challenges the big corporations is going to work in your favour by setting you apart from your competition. 💪
(And if you want to become a challenger brand, it might be time to consider a rebranding strategy.)
12 types of challenger brands
Let's get into the 12 challenger brand types, along with the growing businesses that are smashing their categories.
1. The game changer brand
These folks are true innovators and are changing the game for consumers who purchase within their industry. Just look at Just Wears.
This brand was founded by Yang Liu who’s business ambition was to change the underwear fashion industry for good. When shopping for her husband, all she could find was underwear made from uncomfortable materials. And the marketing was often made up of serious messaging along with black and white shots of chiselled torsos.
Just Wears is a game-changer brand for three reasons:
- Their products are designed to be more ergonomic for your intimate areas. This means the design is totally different from traditional underwear.
- Just Wears pushes sustainability as one of their core values. As Yang told us in our podcast, Ecommerce Marketing 101, most men’s underwear is made from uncomfortable, synthetic materials. She wanted to create something that made less impact on the environment without sacrificing comfort.
- They ditch the serious messaging and use colour images and playful copy to capture your attention. I mean… their ‘phallus palace’ is guaranteed to turn heads. 👀
2. The missionary brand
These brands wear their purpose on their sleeves. The business is the mission and the mission is the objective.
Think of Tony’s Chocolonely and its goal of ridding modern slavery from the chocolate industry.
They're not only making sure that farmers and cocoa suppliers are paid what they deserve, but they're educating consumers too. It's a cause that you just can't argue with and one their customers don't mind paying a little extra for. It also shines a light on traditional industry leaders still benefiting from the system. 👀
3. The next-generation brand
These brands challenge the market leaders and ask us if our current solutions are really fit for the next generation. Fussy, for example, are here to shake up personal hygiene with their plant-based deodorants.
They question the sustainability and ethics behind one of our staple bodycare products and feed into the eco-conscious values of their target audience.
4. The feisty underdog brand
These brands pit themselves pretty aggressively against the industry leaders. They deliberately go against the big guns, and it's this clear distinction that they use to their advantage. Just look at the cat food brand, KatKin, for inspo. This brand has been making waves in the pet food industry which is an already crowded market. They lean into the fact that they're a much healthier choice for your cat compared with most of the industry giants you find in the supermarkets.
Though they don't call out any brands by name, any cat parent will know the culprit's KatKin are pitting themselves against in their marketing copy.
5. The dramatic disruptor brand
This archetype is similar to the next generation because it tries to force a change in consumer behaviour. Picture the rebellious ice cream brand, Halo. They make ‘lighter’, low-calorie ice cream and were the first of its kind when they first hit supermarket shelves. They have lots of non-dairy ice cream, too, making consumers challenge their ideas of traditional dairy-based dessert.
6. The local hero brand
These are brands that champion the importance of local needs, local culture and local people. They're all about cultivating a strong sense of community. Ue Coffee Roasters is an independent coffee roaster based in Oxfordshire, UK. As well as their cafe - where they've built a social hub for locals - they also have an online store that they use to give back to the local community.
Whenever you buy from them online, you can round up your purchase to an amount of your choice. Any extra money you pay goes towards the homeless charity, Homeless Oxfordshire. Their humble mission to give back where they can is just one of the reasons people grab a coffee from Ue over other chain coffee shops.
7. The irreverent maverick brand
Maverick brands poke fun at the industry to try and change entrenched ways of thinking. In Overthrow II's words: “The Irreverent Maverick uses wit and humour to challenge complacency and apparent comfort found in the bland.”
Think of the Australian toilet paper brand, Who Gives A Crap.
From their brightly-coloured paper wrappings to their toilet humour, they’re unashamedly irreverent. They also use their profits to build toilets in communities that need them most.
8. The real and human brand
These brands challenge the faceless drones of the corporations. 🤖 They're created by real people, for real people. The founders of Happi, for example, have a compelling narrative from the founders that's integral to their business's mission.
They're a team of parents who wanted to create healthier treats that are good for kids and the planet. By putting people's health first, they're able to promote a clear product vision and gain the trust of their audience. Their colourful, informal branding also reinforces the idea that this kid-friendly brand has your best interests at heart. 🤗
9. The people’s champion brand
These brands make it their mission to stand up for their customers. Take the fitness brand, Soul Cap.
Founders, Michael and Toks, identified a huge problem in the world of swimming: most swimwear wasn't accessible for a lot of people—especially people of colour. So they created a new, extra-large swim cap designed for people with voluminous hair. Their challenger strategy is all about giving people the confidence to get out in the water—the mark of a true people's champion. 🏊
10. The enlightened zagger brand
This one's all about bucking the trends. If there's a chance to create an alternative movement, this challenger will take it.
For example, take a look at the washable rug brand, Ruggable.
This (almost unbelievable) product goes against anything you've ever believed about rugs, which are notoriously tricky to clean and definitely don't sit well with the washing machine. But, low and behold, you really can wash the ones from Ruggable. Sign me up!
11. The democratiser brand
Born to challenge elitism and privilege, the democratiser is all about championing diversity and accessibility.
Take Universal Standard, the brand that makes clothing that ‘f*cking fits.’
They make garments for regular-sized people - i.e not supermodels. Their clothes are size, race, and gender-inclusive. And they use models from all walks of life, body sizes and abilities. It really should be the standard across the industry.
12. The equaliser brand
This is a common type of challenger that bridges the gap between luxury and affordability. Think of Noted Aromas and its tailored approach to cost-effective cosmetics in the beauty industry.
They knew perfumes are being sold for way more than they cost to make, making it an unaffordable luxury for a lot of people. So the company decided to get real about it. Their tag line ‘Designer Inspired Perfume’ gets straight to the point and means you can finally say no to overpaying.
How to build your challenger brand strategy?
Ready to build your own challenger brand strategy? Whether you're already established or you're just starting out, here are some tips to discover your inner rebel and embracing the challenger spirit. 🤘
Find out what your customers are really worried about
Your customers are people, with real worries and stresses they face every day.
For example, 41% of people said they were feeling less financially secure at the end of 2023 than they were the previous year. On top of that, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of where brand’s stand politically, suggesting that businesses that 'play it safe' may be put at a disadvantage.
What's your audience most worried about and how can you help alleviate these fears? Use audience insight tools like SparkToro to find out what they're interested in and what causes are important to them. If you can show how you're helping solve issues they care about, they're much more likely to remain loyal to you.
Scope out your market industry
To be a challenger, you need to be an alternative to the industry leaders - these are the ones with the greatest market share. You'll probably know who these are already. We're talking about industry gorillas L'Oréal in the beauty sector, Ikea in homeware and ASOS in the fashion sector. It's a near-impossible task to take on the entire industry, so start small and identify faults to find out what you can improve on. Whether that's producing affordable makeup, sustainable furniture, or size-inclusive clothing - the market is your oyster. 🦪
Refine your branding
To be a challenger brand, you've got to be unique. From your tone of voice to your assets, make sure your messaging and visuals are consistent and compelling. As you've probably noticed, all the brands we've listed in this post have some killer branding - it's one of the first things that catches your eye. So it's super important you keep all your brand's visual assets in one, searchable location, like Dash! 😇
Making sure your team and agencies have access to all your visuals will make it easier for you to build a consistent, attention-grabbing brand.
It'll also make it easier to see if you need a bit of a refresh. Can you go bolder with your messaging? Maybe your images and graphics can be a little more risqué (if your brand calls for it). 😏
Whatever it is, make sure to keep assessing it against your company's mission. And, if you're after some tips, we've got a post all about branding for small businesses.
Stick to your guns and be brave
Finally, when things aren't kicking off right away, it's tempting to pull a 180 on your strategy. Don't do it. You're trying to change people's minds and disrupt your industry and that doesn't happen overnight. Building a reputation and the loyalty of your customers takes bravery - you got this. 💪
Ready to launch your challenger brand? Make sure to use Dash as the home for your brand's visual. No more endless searching in your shared drives. Instead, quickly find and share images and videos with your teams, agencies and resellers. Want to give it a try? You can take out a free 14-day trial, no strings attached. 👇