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Learn from challenger brands

Apple. Virgin. Southwest. JetBlue. Crunch. Snapple. Groupon. BlueFly. Zappos. The Motley Fool – what do these brands have in common? They’re challengers, and successful ones at that.

They’ve mastered the art of zagging where others tend to zig. They’ve taken on the goliaths in their industries and have come out on top. The truth is, it’s a tough world out there, and every marketer these days needs to be a successful challenger or go down trying.

Market leadership doesn’t create an exception. Look at Citibank and IBM. By becoming their own best competition, they look like ready challengers, reinventing their businesses and continuing to grow.

Here’s what challengers do differently:
The top dog is INVOLVED – intimately.

Some folks think the reason they got degrees and big titles was to independently run their own empire. Some of these people are actually pretty smart; but nine times out of ten, this attitude does them in.

A boss is not a meddler to be avoided. If you were playing chess, you wouldn’t leave your queen in the background and try to fight it out endlessly with your lesser pieces. Or would you?

Forget the org chart. Every player on the board is on your team. Use them!

If you want to make things happen @speed, you must leave the least distance between you and your boss. And you will want to access the power your boss has to smooth over situations and parlay good tactical decisions into great strategic initiatives. Plus, you want the power to change things you’re not personally responsible for, as this will make all the difference in your ability to create success. So, you bring the boss in as a collaborator and ally. As much as possible, you lead together hand in hand. It’s the challenger’s way to use every last person available.

The advertising conversation and the business conversation are THE SAME CONVERSATION.

Don’t separate what you’re doing from why you’re doing it, even for a moment. You never want to be the one saying, “we failed with work that was the strategy we were given!” This entails a level of responsibility, but it’s the wrong level.

You want to be responsible for the success of the enterprise. You want the brand and business to reach its full potential. You want to use not just your authority, but your influence because nothing beats being part of something great—and you don’t want to leave it to chance.

In this context, great advertising is one that works for the business and the brand. It brings a business strategy to life; it creates the connection that reflects the intentions of the business while simultaneously suggesting and fulfilling its promise.

This is the point where experience meets selling meets branding.

The work is seen as the ultimate weapon for conquering the competition.

Where is the unfair advantage to be found? You are not in a position to outspend. You’re not going to break the law–or try to change it to your favor. But you can pack more power into the product, packaging, service, story, and propaganda. You can be smarter about technology and the testing strategy, and more ingenious and industrious about the optimizations.

You can win in the marketplace of ideas. So, do it!

The brand is seen as a precious asset and the ultimate defensive fortification against copycats and commoditisers.

Challengers build unique brands and value them above all else. Customers are intensely loved, but they come and go. Employees are highly prized but the sort attracted to a challenger business can only be held by a great brand. A unique culture and point of view are often the only way to hold onto assets in the perfect storm of growth.

A brand is like armor and a full tank of gas. A brand is everything and you only need a business to build one!

The VISION of the top dog drives the advertising.

Steve Jobs met every other week for intensive sessions with Lee Clow, the creative chairman of his advertising agency. In the most successful challenger businesses, the vision for the brand and advertising comes from the top. No question about it.

This kind of courage and purity of vision can’t be bought; it can’t be outsourced. No committee can sustain it. The vision must be owned and driven from the top.

The vision of the agency and the vision of the client are complementary and synergistic.

The mutual inspiration society should include the client and agency, vigorous discussions, sharing of ideas, lots of choices, and plenty of
going back to the well.

The most sophisticated team wins.

Decisions get made in meetings, not just in between.

In big, bloated bureaucracies, meetings only ratify decisions that are made elsewhere, which is why most people in these places feel time is wasted in meetings–because it is.

You don’t have time to waste. So you’re not going to protect your own ego or anyone else’s by pretending for a second to agree with something you don’t. You’re want real conversations in front of whoever is there. When some people complain and try to negotiate with you to stop the open, inclusive, challenging, passionate dialogue, you are going to say, “I understand how you feel, and no, absolutely not. This would be replacing occasional discomfort with the endless pain of mediocrity and failure, which you wouldn’t tolerate for long–you’d be gone. So, no! Let’s just agree to be respectful of each other, put the good of the work first, and say exactly what is on our minds.”