• Transform magazine
  • September 26, 2018

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Opinion: The challenger mentality

Natalie Redford.jpg

Shifts in the retail landscape see former category-leading retailers stagnate in the face of vibrant, disruptive brands. How can established brands learn from this challenger mentality and deliver something new to the market? Natalie Redford writes

When children are young, their parents tell them that boredom is just a lack of imagination. Now big retailers are echoing the sentiment. It’s no secret that brands are in trouble, and names like ‘Project Renewal’ and ‘Reset’ don’t mask the gauntlet that’s been thrown down by every new differentiation strategy.

Britain’s ‘big four’ supermarkets had to up their game to compete with discounters like Lidl and Aldi, who, seemingly overnight, grabbed the attention and weekly shops of savvy customers. Fast-forward through the mass realisation that price doesn’t always equate to quality, and now own-label is beating out brand with a host of new products more attune to modern consumer needs and demands. Sainsbury’s new and extensive range of vegan cheese is just one example.

So when innovation is being used to win hearts, it’s safe to assume that complacency is the cause of decline for many brands. Reading about Sainsbury’s so-called ‘war on brands,’ it was surprising how unsurprising it was that the challenger brands were excited by the retailer’s new strategy, while more established brands felt attacked. “If shoppers love a brand, they should pay full price for it. Those that stay will have to offer a real underlying value, and will have to be distinctive,” says one Sainsbury’s supplier.

The retail landscape has shifted dramatically, with health concerns, social consciousness and alternative lifestyles heavily influencing the trends emerging in food, drink and beyond. Add the sugar tax and recent supplier scandals to the mix and suddenly there is a plethora of well-placed start-ups set to take significant market share from the big players.

Take Irish tonic brand Fever Tree. It capitalised on the growing popularity and appreciation for gin and positioned its tonic so that it was perceived as equally, if not more, important than the gin itself. Not only was this a blow to the category leader, Schweppes, that coincidentally has now rebranded, repositioned and invested massively in comms – it reinvented the category. This forced consumer reappraisal and inspired other brands to follow in its footsteps.

California-based razor delivery company Dollar Shave Club did it, organic baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen did it and Robot Food did it with tattooed skin care brand, Electric Ink. This saw our agency turn an internal exercise auditing the gaps of the skincare market, into a cult social following and a specialist, premium product range stocked in global, national and online retailers.

But despite the market data, people, resources, scale and finance behind a brand like Coca Cola, it ends up playing catch up to relative newbies. Perhaps it’s that brands like Fever Tree have more to prove. Or perhaps it’s that the culture within larger companies isn’t to nurture new ideas, but instead to stick to ‘the norm’ and what they know.

Before it gets to the point of no return, weighty, slow-moving brands need to realise what they have at their disposal. A ‘turtle-in-the-shell’ approach may be tempting but remaining insular will only delay the inevitable, as will only going for the short-term wins.

This is no time to play catch up, so brands should adopt a challenger mentality and set the pace. Forget year-on-year incremental growth and create game-changing products that people actually want. Trust your instincts rather than relying on focus groups to deliver solutions. And listen. Someone, somewhere will have the fire, the knowledge and the ideas that are missing, so find them, embrace them and give them freedom.

Don’t be scared to invest in the future. Empower by example and become a category leader.

Natalie Redford is planner and copywriter at Leeds-based independent branding agency Robot Food

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