“And the Emmy goes to…” Insert dramatic pause as someone opens an envelope. “Some Netflix series.”

It’s mind-boggling to think some thought Netflix would never make it. Who wanted the convenience of a favorite movie arriving in their mailbox when they could get in the car and drive to a local video rental shop that was more interested in selling you candy than in what you wanted to see? Today, Netflix has put most of those video rental locations out of business and has become one of the most prolific producers of original programming, with 700 original series and garnering an impressive number of Emmy nominations this year of any network.

If you look back on the evolution of the company, you’ll find that although they were the underdog for years, they never acted like it. They set out to be the best and the biggest by acting like they already were – with the confidence of a first place brand. You can do the same. Whether you are a new entry into the market or one that has falling behind, you can take some easy steps to act as the market leader.

Never Market for the Competition

Comparing yourself is reflex. It is even part of your strategic planning process – your SWOT. Great brands play up their strengths in their communications rather than comparing themselves to others and giving them free advertising. Naming your competition in your communications can bring pitfalls. It can elevate the competition into the consideration of those who may not have heard of them. With one ad you’ve sent them in the direction of your competition. Consider how Apple went after Microsoft by never mentioning the company’s name but rather by creating a human embodiment of the brand’s ethos in the long-running “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” ad campaign. They took the challenger role and ran with it.

Brands, both large and small, can often find themselves in the challenger role. That’s not a bad thing at all because if you use the position to your advantage, your business can stand alone and maybe move to that first place position. Author and marketer Adam Morgan mapped out how challenger brands can compete with the first place brands in his 2011 book Eating the Big Fish and then later with his follow up The Pirate Inside.

The first step is changing your view from a state of the marketplace to a state of mind, a shift from who we are challenging to WHAT we are challenging. There are many brands we see in our lives that have found success by shifting the view: Walmart, Nike, Apple, Virgin, Target, Dove and more.

Operating with A Challenger Mindset

Get clear on your challenge. Understand what change you’re trying to bring about? For Netflix it wasn’t merely about getting subscribers to rent from them, it was about changing the way people would rent movies. That was a bold ambition indeed.

Your assignment: Ask yourself, “What am I challenging? What bold, ambitions change am I trying to bring about?”

Be Intelligently Naive. Consider the many companies that were launched in someone’s garage. It’s stunning to see how much they didn’t know about the categories they were entering. Innocence is unexpectedly beneficial. Jeff Bezos was a hedge fund manager when he thought perhaps there could be an opportunity in online book retailing. Intelligent naivety has profoundly changed some categories.

Your assignment: Ask yourself, “Can I change the way I ask the central question facing my business?”

Steal with pride. I love looking at other industries to see what they are doing right and how I can use the same idea. Method founder Eric Ryan once said, “All the big ideas I could ever need are already out there. I just have to find it and work out how to apply it to my business.” IKEA is an excellent example of applying an idea from outside the industry. The insight into how to grow their business did not come from a look at other home furnishing retailers, but rather by looking at an entirely different category and then overlaying the rules onto their business.  One result of this process is their Guggenheim-inspired store layout. Whenever I have workshops, I always ask for participants to bring ideas from companies they admire so they can discover how they could apply the concept to improve their marketing.

Your assignment: Have your team bring examples of ideas from other industries and see how you can adapt them to your business. Encourage them to avoid trying to find ideas that easily fit. You want bold out-of-the-box thinking.

Find your religion. Do you know the old saying, “if you don’t stand for something…”? It’s a little similar to finding your brand’s religion. What does your brand stand for that is something deep at the core of the brand? What is it that provides clarity, direction and focus on everything that is done? What is it that will draw others to join you?

Simply put: what matters most? Challenger brands build lighthouse identities – a compelling truth that invites customers to navigate BY them and is projected consistently in everything they do. In essence, they eschew mirroring what another brand is doing. Zappos is a great example. They have created a company that removes the friction from buying shoes by making it easy to shop, easy to return and easy to get assistance. Dove believes the “beauty myth” is robbing women and young girls of their self-esteem. Everything these two companies do is focused on their religion, and by the way, they sell some things.

Your assignment: As yourself these questions. What do you believe in as a business? What do you offer as a consequence? How do you behave in support of your beliefs? What are you trying to change?

Get noticed and be famous. Challenger brands will project their beliefs consistently (and almost insistently) in everything they do. You notice them even if you’re not looking for them. If you think it takes a lot to level the playing field, imagine how much more you need to invest to puncture inertia. The greatest danger for a challenger brand is not rejection. It’s indifference! Most of the readers of this magazine travel at least once or twice a year on business and perhaps few more times for pleasure. For most, it’s not an experience to write home about. When a new player enters the ranks of airlines, we merely look to them to check rates and connections. Richard Branson, however, is not your typical airline mogul. To announce the launch of Virgin’s inaugural flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas, he did more than a ribbon cutting and a flight of VIPs. Dressed in a dinner suit and attached in a harness to a special rappel-like system, he took a running jump off the side of the Palm Casino Hotel in front of a large crowd and television cameras. Unfortunately, no one considered the winds that would blow him twice against the side of the building causing him to rip the seat of his pants. Mishap? Yes. A splash no one would forget? Absolutely.

Your assignment: Consider what your brand could be famous for and pick one idea to implement in your next marketing plan that can make your brand famous. Please do not jump off your building.

Sacrifice. We’ve all heard the famous Steve Jobs quote about being as proud of the things Apple said no to as he was of the things the company said yes to. I will confess I should have made a poster of this quote and put it in my office. I have unfortunately said yes to projects that either didn’t turn a profit or that didn’t advance my ultimate business goals. Even small brands need to learn to say, “no.” After discovering that visitors who enjoyed New Zealand the most were those that explored and experienced the country rather than setting up a base at a hotel or city, Tourism New Zealand chose to forgo marketing to 90% of its potential target market. Instead, they focused on what they called “the interactive traveler,” a group that consisted of only 10-15% of the company’s possible universe. They understood this group would not only engage with the county and enjoy the experience, but they would also go home and tell others (or rather Instagram) their experiences. Additionally, the brand chose to sacrifice what might seem to be important (although secondary) messages and focus on “Pure New Zealand.” Strong brands are single-minded in their communications.

Your assignment: Determine what three things your brand will focus on?  Now, ask what good ideas are going to get a “no.” Focus on the products, experiences, and messages that will indeed break through.

Choose one assignment. Choose them all. Either way, you will be on the road to acting like a first place brand until you are one.


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