Challengers Are Filling Gaps and Creating Consumer Countercultures

Legacy brands need to address buyers in these new spaces

a man pushing a red block into a wall of blue blocks
Challenger brands are identifying gaps in various parts of the industry and meeting those niche needs.
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In 2019, Victoria’s Secret closed over 50 stores across North America due to lagging sales performance. Victoria’s Secret marketing campaigns featuring supermodel Angels no longer resonated with women who see themselves and their bodies in a different light.

Consumers react to market offerings according to their needs, values and preferences, as informed by their culture. Consumer countercultures develop in response to market offerings that go against a consumer group’s values. For example, the body positivity movement and the #MeToo campaign reflect the impact objectification has on many women.

These broad cultural experiences and expressions shape consumer reactions, which can vary from brand advocacy to abandonment. Consumer countercultures emerge as consumers abandon brands that no longer resonate with their individual and group values.

Often, a consumer who is a part of the counterculture will start a company as a challenger brand. A challenger brand develops and markets alternatives to mainstream offerings based on a mindset informed by its community’s values.

Purpose-driven and authentic challenger brands have risen to address the needs of emerging consumer counterculture segments.

In response to mainstream lingerie labels, challenger brands like Lively, Naja and ThirdLove offer women products that embrace body positivity and foster a sense of community. These brands market a mindset that resonates with the aspirational values of their consumers by sharing their brand narratives in various forms and formats. For example, Naja’s ethos says, “Naja is a product of our passions and beliefs: a love for beautifully designed things, a bit of rebelliousness and a deep desire to make the world a better place.” Similarly, Lively features its Lively Movement, which is “about a mindset we want to share with women around the world. One that reminds, empowers and enables us all to live life doing what we love, with the people we love.”

Consumer countercultures and challenger brands exist across various industries. Popular social media brands like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are not immune to the development of countercultures. A Google search for “quit social media” returns over 259 million results featuring advice from authors, professors and health advisers on how to limit or even quit social media. Among these results is a popular Ted Talk with over 6.2 million views by Cal Newport, who suggests it is best to quit social media to succeed in the knowledge economy.

In essence, the distraction and fractured attention that results from social media is too high a price to pay for the minimal value they provide. Those who resonate with Newport’s perspective see the adverse effects of social networks and attempt to abstain from using them.

The popularity of specific movements speaks to the growth of countercultures and challenger brands. In 2019, Netflix star Marie Kondo popularized the art of decluttering through her show Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. Her Instagram account includes 3.6 million followers, and her books have sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Upon the launch of her show, thrift stores saw a spike in donations from the decluttering frenzy, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Marie Kondo’s decluttering movement dovetails on minimalism, which “is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom,” according to the minimalist practitioners Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Their podcast, The Minimalist, has been downloaded more than 50 million times. The worldwide adoption of decluttering and minimalism is a response to the byproduct of rampant consumerism: having more stuff.

As Isaac Newton stated in his third law of motion, “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” For brands, the imperative is to understand consumer reactions. Shifts in consumer behavior often highlight opportunities for development and growth. YouTube addressed concerns over binge watching by installing a “take a break” feature on its Android and iPhone apps. Marriott International tapped into the needs and preferences of millennial travelers by creating boutique hotels that provide them with adventure and excitement.

Once-popular brands like Blockbuster, Borders, Kmart, Payless, Shopko and Toys “R” Us lost touch in offering their respective markets a compelling solution. In their wake, purpose-driven and authentic challenger brands have risen to address the needs of emerging consumer counterculture segments. To stay relevant, brands must not only address the current needs of their customers but must also explore countercultures that develop in reaction to their offerings.

This story first appeared in the May 4, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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