4 Lessons From Challenger Brands Bumble, Flipboard and More on How They Usurped a Market

These leaders are all upstarts for a reason

Alexandra Williamson, chief brand officer, explaining what's led to Bumble's success in the online dating space. Sean T. Smith for Adweek

Shoes, news, dating and shaving: these are just a few of the industries that disruptive brands like Bumble, Flipboard and M. Gemi are turning inside out.

At Brandweek in Palm Springs, Calif. last week, eight brands and their leaders took to the stage to explain how they found a space in the industry to deliver consumer-centric experiences that are making legacy companies rethink brand strategy.

Find the true value of a product

Flipboard faced a series of interlinked challenges: finding the value of the company’s product, connecting with its audience and understanding how (and what) resonates with them, according to CMO Marci McCue. In today’s world, it also meant cutting through the noise of notifications consumers receive on their phones.

“The question is: How do you bring people along?” McCue said. “We started talking to folks. Listening to the words they were using, listening to people on the different parts of the spectrum and different parts of the journey.”

Flipboard took a lot of that feedback and turned it into a campaign called “It’s Your Time” to inform readers that “this is your time to get involved.” Taking this feedback and finding out the brand’s value has energized Flipboard—and its user base.

“Once you connect with brand values, once you can find that meaning and communicate that to all of them, all of the people who use your products, you will inspire the support of the audience and the crowd when you need it and win their love,” McCue said.

At M. Gemi, a luxury Italian shoe ecommerce company, the company found its brand value through its supply chain, data capabilities and retail. Cheryl Kaplan, president and co-founder of M. Gemi, said the key to starting a new business is having an “unfair advantage,” which for M. Gemi was a head start in its supply chain.

The fast supply chain is vital for M. Gemi, considering the company launches new shoes every Monday. Kaplan said with every new launch, the company can determine within a few hours if the shoe is going to do well and whether it’s worth ordering more because they have access to customer data.

“We’re working in real time—30 to 60 days, for the most part—in terms of our production. So, when our customers are asking for things, we can act, and that creates a true brand loyalty.”
-Cheryl Kaplan, president and co-founder of M. Gemi

“We’re working in real time—30 to 60 days, for the most part—in terms of our production,” Kaplan said. “So, when our customers are asking for things, we can act, and that creates a true brand loyalty.”

However, the company always knew it had to expand into the physical retail space—no matter how great the online experience was. The bricks and clicks strategy led to M. Gemi creating a “super consumer,” with customers spending 26 percent more in store, Kaplan said. With the store, customers are more likely to shop online and and vice versa; consumers who were only shopping online are now coming into the store. It’s also led to a retention rate of consumers shopping four times a year, a data point that, according to Kaplan, is “unheard of” in the luxury industry.

Recognizing users as a community

For a long time, Nicholas Horbaczewski, founder and CEO of Drone Racing League (DRL), was busy finding “the road to cultural relevance” as he grew the company. However, Horbaczewski realized that “relevance” actually meant finding moments where consumers connect with the brand—and not necessarily milestones like receiving fan mail.

“We have created a sport for those people, and for those people, DRL is incredibly relevant,” Horbaczewski said. “There was a survey last year of sports fans, and it turned out that DRL fans are vastly more likely to recommend the sport than even other popular racing sports.”

Looking forward, Horbaczewski wants to keep the company relevant pushing towards future developments, like creating an AI robotic racing circuit, because he believes “AI is going to profoundly impact the way all of us live our lives.”

“What’s important to realize is we’re much more than users of the internet. We’re the products of the internet. We’re the internet’s employees.”
-Matt Sorum, head of communications at ARTBIT

Building this type of community and listening to their needs is one aspect of today’s world that Matt Sorum, head of communications at ARTBIT, believes more marketers need to pay attention to more. Instead of solely seeking insight and takeaways from social media companies that are built on other people’s content and their definitions of communities, Sorum said marketers need to talk to the people creating that content.

“What’s important to realize is we’re much more than users of the internet,” Sorum said. “We’re the products of the internet. We’re the internet’s employees.”

Focus on empathy to connect with people  

Connecting with customers is, naturally, a key way to build a loyal following and find success as a company, but for Accenture Interactive, empathy plays a key role in every experience the brand creates for clients. “Empathy is about understanding somebody’s needs in the moment, in real time,” Accenture Interactive’s head of North America, Glen Hartman, said.

Marketing, he said, needs to go beyond just targeting the right person at the right time with the right product. It needs to go beyond personalization.

Customers, Hartman argued, don’t care about your company or your brand: “They care that you want to help them do something that is meaningful to them, and the more you do that, the more it makes sense for them to be aligned with you.”

For Carnival Cruise, Accenture Interactive helped create an “ocean medallion,” a free wearable device for guests traveling on the cruise ships. It gets guests on the ship and into their rooms; guests can also load credit card information on it for a seamless shopping experience. At the end of the day, it was all about making vacation and travel hassle-free.

"You can do the coolest activations in the world, but all of that doesn’t work if your users aren’t having a good experience on your platform."
-Alexandra Williamson, chief brand officer, Bumble

Bumble’s chief brand officer, Alexandra Williamson, takes a similar stance on building empathy into a business to engage with users. For Bumble, though, it’s about sticking up for users and maintaining the brand’s mission to end misogyny.

“Our users come first before anything, before any of our marketing activations, because we feel like you can do the coolest activations in the world, but all of that doesn’t work if your users aren’t having a good experience on your platform,” Williamson said.

When a Bumble user has a negative experience on the platform (like a bad date or encounter) the company will send flowers or an apology note. In extreme cases, it will publish open letters on Bumble’s blog calling out particularly bad behavior. “We have our users’ backs, and these are opportunities that we take to help people think differently,” she added.

Look for unique ways to talk with customers 

For companies like Casper and Dollar Shave Club, building a brand online can be a huge hit, but without a brick and mortar presence, it can be tricky to develop that oh-so-desired brand love early on. Both Casper and DSC agreed that a key to their success as challenger brands was finding ways to engage consumers outside of the online shopping experience.

Casper CMO Jeff Brooks shared that while the brand has a strong in-house marketing team and agency partners that it works with to focus on marketing to the many, it also has a dedicated team of people in-house who focus on one-to-one interactions with customers. One shopper said he would buy a Casper product if the company sent him a cake, so Casper did just that, complete with a playful message written on top.

“This is the kind of stuff that really, really matters when you think again about how this category basically treated customers like numbers. We think about how do you get to them on a human level,” Brooks said.

Dollar Shave Club, on the other hand, focused on how the brand could play a bigger role in consumer’s lives outside of the bathroom. The brand launched DSC Original Content, a website filled with stories and tips focused on health, style and grooming. DSC also launched an unbranded men’s magazine, MEL, that is doing about 2.7 million uniques a month, according to DSC founder and CEO Michael Dubin.

“I think brands that want to be successful today need to think about different ways to tell their story,” Dubin said. “We’ve purposely decided to invest millions of dollars in our content and content ecosystem, because it’s not enough to just have a branded content shop. You can’t just have advertisements that sell your products.”

@itstheannmarie annmarie.alcantara@adweek.com Ann-Marie Alcántara is a tech reporter for Adweek, focusing on direct-to-consumer brands and ecommerce.
@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.