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?

And while Blockbuster scoffed at the idea that people sit around and wait to get their movies in the mail, Netflix continued to focus on their vision of being the best resource for home movie entertainment. Today, Netflix has put all but one 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 Emmy AND Oscar nominations.

But, if you look closely at the company, you’ll discover that, although they WERE the underdog for years, they set out and continued to operate with the confidence of a market leader. It’s a lesson for all of us.

Regardless of your position in the market today, you can adopt a brand strategy by focusing on your business and operating with what’s called a “challenger mindset.” 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 – one of our marketing book club selections – and then later with his follow up The Pirate Inside.

Whether you are a new entry into the market or one that has fallen behind, you can take some easy steps to act like the market leader until you ARE the market leader.


First, 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 marketing instead of comparing themselves to others and giving their competition free advertising. Naming your competition in your marketing can elevate them into the consideration of those who may have not previously even heard of them. With one ad you’ve sent them in their direction. Think about how Apple went after Microsoft by never mentioning the company’s name. Instead, they created a human representation of the PC in their “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” ad campaign. They took the challenger role and ran with it for a long time.

Brands, both large and small, can often find themselves in the challenger roles.

And, that’s not a bad thing. If you use your position to your advantage, your business can stand alone and maybe move to that coveted first place.

What you need to do is change your view. Rather than looking at things from a marketplace viewpoint, shift to a state of mind – a shift from who you are challenging to WHAT you are challenging.  Look at how brands like Virgin, Target, and Dove did this.


Then, you have to 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.

Ask yourself, “What am I challenging? What bold, ambitious change am I trying to bring about?”

Eating the Big Fish talks about the concept of Intelligent Naivety.

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. In many ways, being innocent can be unexpectedly beneficial. Jeff Bezos was a hedge fund manager when he thought that maybe there could be an opportunity in online book retailing. And when only big companies and a few lucky executives were working with computers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak thought maybe they could bring computers to the masses.

You have to admit not knowing better has profoundly changed some categories.

I love looking at other industries to see what they are doing right and how I might use the same idea. Did you know that IKEA’s store layout was inspired by the Guggenheim? It’s a great example of applying an approach from outside the industry. When Ikea was thinking through how to grow their business, they didn’t look at other home furnishing retailers. They looked at an entirely different category and then applied it to their business.

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.”

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 and operations. I want you to do that the next time you have a team meeting. 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. And I want to know what those ideas are. So, send me an email or find me on social. Let me know!!!


Adam Morgan also talks about finding your religion.

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 or what my former mentor used to refer to as “your belly?”

But back to your religion. What is it that provides clarity, direction and focus for everything that you do? What is it that will draw others to join you? I once interviewed for a brand manager position. You know that point in the interview when they say, “Do you have any questions?” I did. I asked, “What makes you different?” I still remember the response. It was “nothing really.” That was what she said. “Nothing really.” I knew that was not the place for me.

Challenger brands build what is called lighthouse identities – a compelling truth that invites customers to navigate BY them and is projected consistently in everything they do. In essence, they’re not following their competitors.

Find your religion by asking yourself a few questions. What do you believe in as a business? How do you behave in support of your beliefs? Are you trying to change something? What will you never do?

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.

Confession time. I should make this a point to review every day. I have unfortunately said yes to projects that I shouldn’t have accepted. Either they didn’t turn a profit, or they 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 destination’s possible universe of visitors.

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. The brand chose to sacrifice seemingly important messages and focus on the “Pure New Zealand” message instead.

Strong brands are single-minded in their communications.

You should decide what things your brand will focus on. I recommend three. Then determine what ideas are going to get a “no” even if they seem like good ideas. Look away from the shiny objects. Instead, focus on the products, experiences, and messages that will break through to your ideal customer.

You don’t have to do all of these things to act like a first place brand. Pick one, and you’ll be on your way to acting like the market leader until you are.

There you have it – a very quick look at a challenger strategy. If you haven’t had a chance to read Eating the Big Fish, I highly recommend that you add it to your reading list. I use it as a reference pretty regularly.

Thanks for letting me share these few minutes of your day with you. I love sharing the lessons I’ve learned, and I hope you do too.

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