How a Challenger Mindset Helps Brands Like DC and Pepsi ‘Strive for the Impossible’

Brandweek speakers urge marketers to 'be real, be fearless, be provocative'

Screenshot from Brandweek 2020
'Adopting the Challenger Brand Mindset,' a Brandweek Masterclass session, was packed with advice about shaking up the status quo, running head-first at competitors and striving for greatness. Adweek
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Contrary to popular belief, failure is an option, even in today’s cutthroat marketing environment. And it may be inevitable, especially if you’re pushing the envelope as a risk-taking challenger brand.

What matters more than the faceplant itself is how you pick yourself up and what you learn from your mistakes.

“If you’re breaking the rules and challenging the existing framework, you will stumble,” Minjae Ormes, CMO of wireless carrier Visible, said during a Brandweek Masterclass session Tuesday. “And it may be scary and paralyzing, but you have to build the muscle and the resilience to make up for your shortcomings. Focus on the recovery.”

That bit of wisdom came from Ormes during an hourlong presentation, “Adopting the Challenger Brand Mindset,” which was packed with advice about shaking up the status quo, running head-first at competitors and striving for greatness. 

Ormes, whose Verizon-owned brand is less than three years old, shared the virtual stage with Daniel Cherry III, general manager and svp at DC Comics, and Todd Kaplan, vp, marketing at PepsiCo.

And while iconic brands like DC and Pepsi would seem to lean more toward legacy than upstart, Kaplan and Cherry described how their challenger mindset works in their favor.

Kaplan, whose brand went toe-to-toe with Coke in Atlanta during the 2019 Super Bowl, said painting its rival’s hometown in Pepsi blue, staging a public “cola truce” and physically infiltrating Coca-Cola headquarters showed its “unwavering confidence” in its position and its willingness to “back brave actions.”

The stunts came as Pepsi rolled out what would become one of its most successful ad campaigns in recent history. The spots—centered around the age-old question, “Is Pepsi OK?”—memorably starred Steve Carell, Cardi B and Lil Jon and flipped that shade-throwing meme on its head.

“We wanted to be self-aware about how the world sees us,” Kaplan said. “People had been apologizing for serving our brand, and we wanted to dig into that and use it.”

His takeaways for fellow marketers: Be real. Be fearless. Be provocative.

Cherry, an avid sports fan who used Miracle on Ice, Babe Ruth and Buster Douglas to help make his points, talked about the difference between “rightness and greatness.” The former is safe, manufactured, easily tested and, ultimately, lazy, he said.

Greatness, on the other hand, is the departure from the norm that “strives for the impossible,” he said. It’s stupid, hard, crafted, risky and almost always fails in testing.

“Right work generates the expected, and it won’t get us where we want to be,” Cherry said. “As challenger brands, we can’t afford to be incrementalists.”

Among his other tips to colleagues in the industry: Always keep score. Purge mediocrity. Value experience over theory, and case studies over white papers. Know your brand’s place in culture.

And though it may sound counterintuitive, Cherry urged marketers to “be stupid in the face of the status quo” which he defined as having an “aggressive curiosity” with attributes that include being “creative not dull, active not sedentary, intelligent not mindless, selfless not selfish, passionate not apathetic, purposeful not random,” he said. “Be stupid, not dumb.”

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.