Editor’s Letter: How Do Challenger Brands Scale and What Do They Want to Be When They Grow Up?

Introducing our inaugural Summit on the topic

Challenger brands are here to stay, and they're armed with a new form of customer-centric narrative marketing. Sources: Allbirds, Casper, Orangetheory
Headshot of James Cooper

Well, it turns out that our hunch was right. As of last count on Friday, our inaugural Challenger Brand Summit, set for this Wednesday and Thursday in New York, has almost 500 registered attendees. For an entirely new franchise that sprung organically from the reintroduction of Brandweek last fall to have drawn so much interest in a market saturated with industry events is nothing short of astounding. It also shows that the challenger brand movement is powerful and a real marketplace phenomenon.

Expertly programmed by Adweek editor and svp of programming Lisa Granatstein, in close partnership with Danny Wright, Adweek’s managing partner, events, awards and honors, and his crack events team, the agenda is packed with execs redefining the meaning of brand marketing and challenging conventions at every turn.

The speaker lineup ranges from tracks with companies like Allbirds and Orangetheory to main stage keynotes from the likes of Skinnygirl founder Bethenny Frankel, who graces our cover. And don’t miss the latest issue of Brandweek, which is out today too and packed with challenger brand features, including the cover story on Casper CMO Jeff Brooks and his eye-opening approach to sleep and wellness.

Thursday, as part of the Challenger Brand Day 2 agenda, we’ll share the findings of Adweek and Brandweek’s Challenger Brand survey, which clearly shows that they are here to stay. They are not burn-rate dot-coms, but rather companies founded in data-informed entrepreneurism. Their data-led insights uncover marketplace white space which these companies then fill with their business plans.

And they are highly adept brand storytellers who natively understand that the technology-empowered customer does not want to be interrupted on their daily, always on journey by traditional product marketing and advertising. They want an emotionally resonant narrative from brands that they want to bond with and then buy from. A great story transforms mundane products like a mattress, razors and luggage into intense passion points for consumers to be surprised and delighted by.

The story economy, our survey shows, is a real and lasting marketplace reality.

Still, our survey revealed some tension around the challenger brand concept. These guys are focused on short-term customer acquisition and care. They want to be loved quickly and pull narrative levers like Instagram, word of mouth and podcasting to make that connection and keep it. They are really, really good at this, and their cultures, processes and capabilities are designed in support of that proposition first and the product later.

Where some anxiety seems to creep in is building long-term value. How do you scale the narrative? They are worried about competition from well-funded, established players and emerging disruptors. They are worried about keeping pace with rapidly shifting and fragmented consumer tastes. And they are worried about a softening economy and the possibility, or not, of being acquired.

So, in summary, challenger brands are here to stay and are armed with a new form of customer-centric narrative marketing, a trend that has our world gripped. The challenge to challenger brands, our survey shows, is how do they scale and what do they want to be when they grow up? We will start to figure that out this week. I hope you’ll challenge yourself and join us.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jcoopernyc james.cooper@adweek.com James Cooper is editorial director of Adweek.