What is a Challenger Brand?

Challengers and Icons are the most loved types of brands. Challengers change the future with big ideas that drive culture and categories forward. Icons are experts at nurturing their specialness and meaning.

The level of radical creative change in the personal care sector overall is probably at an all-time high, and it’s change that we need, welcome and want to drive. In a sector so governed by established codes and cues – particularly for the established brands – it’s impossible to totally ignore the category conventions and compete to produce the ‘new new’. But rather than fight this paradox, we can future-proof our personal care and beauty brands by understanding whether they are Challengers or Icons and designing their future expression accordingly.

Traditionally with beauty, we expect to create brands for the needs and desires of an increasingly polarized marketplace. But Challenger and Iconic brands are equally important. They represent culture at two different ends of the spectrum and complement as much as polarize each other. Most icons were once Challengers, and it’s probably fair to say that the future vision for every brand owner includes creating the next all-important iconic brand. And today’s Challengers can become tomorrow’s icons by putting brand identity and design at the heart of their communication.

The different types of challenger brand

Let’s look at the different types of challenger brand that were identified by Adam Morgan and Malcolm Devoy:

  • Missionary: these are brands looking to change something that they see as unjust or wrong, e.g. Patagonia
  • Real & Human: these are people who are genuinely invested in their product and their relationship with you – think Mailchimp and Zappos
  • Next Generation: these guys challenge the appropriateness of the established bra Impossible Foods is one such example.
  • People’s Champion: brands that see themselves as standing up for people who have been short-served and marginalised by the market leaders, e.g. T-Mobile US
  • Enlightened Zagger: these guys swim against the prevailing cultural tide, e.g. Vitsoe, Slow Journalism
  • Democratiser: a challenger that makes products that were previously only available to the elite accessible to the masses, e.g. Fenty Beauty
  • Irreverent Maverick: brands that seek to provoke, entertain and engage, e.g. Dollar Shave Club
  • Feisty Underdog: challengers that aim to reduce a crowded competitive world to a simple choice between two brands – Bumble is a great example of such a brand
  • Dramatic Disruptor: a brand that represents a significant difference in quality, e.g. Tesla
  • Local Hero: these are challengers that champion the importance of local culture and the needs of local people, e.g. Shake Shack

How can challenger brands be successful?

Challenger brand breakthrough and success stems from originality as they redefine, propagate and revolutionize to express a vision of change and disseminate this vision as quickly and effectively as possible – with every element of a Challenger’s expression a creative canvas from which to create a powerful and imaginative expression of their inspirational vision.

The ergonomic NYX The Curve Liquid Eyeliner, launched in 2013, continues to make waves. A powerful and truly ground-breaking new idea, boldly and consciously disrupting what has come before to showcase a new vision of the future. And although only at concept stage, the Naked line of intimate care products works as a living embodiment of change, introducing a new visual language and aiming to establish new codes, symbols and equities. With oddly shaped forms and flesh-coloured surfaces resembling the naked body, the range is inspired by the trend of interactive design and uses thermochromic paint to allow the ‘naked’ container to timidly glow where touched.

Technology has, of course, advanced the pace of recent change in this sector (as in every other) with new launches such as L’Oreal’s ‘Make-up Genius’ App driving the uptake of new technology that also embraces our new need for increasing personalisation. But we need to remember that the success of this, and other tech innovations, is driven by an optimized user experience expressed through new, intuitive and desirable design languages.

Revlon and L’Oreal are interesting brands to note. Both launched new challenger products on to the market last year and both are iconic brand giants. And this is the crux. Yes, Challengers are potentially new Icons because they bring about change to create the future but, in our opinion, a truly iconic brand never stops challenging.

An iconic brand is loved because of what it stands for. It doesn’t attach itself to fashionable ‘issues’, it doesn’t challenge to look edgy – it challenges because it believes something very strongly and strongly represents this through its brand identity and a big idea that can be constantly reinforced, explored, magnified and evolved.

For brands today, this iconic journey is probably the most interesting focus. It’s about knowing why people love you and nurturing it. And design should sit at the heart of that expression, feeding communication and innovation.
Aesop and Urban Decay are two inimitable modern day icons. From product to store, Aesop has always been a design-led brand, its signature and timeless style and unmistakeable authenticity giving depth, meaning and a sense of specialness to a brand that has now been popular for 26 years.
Urban Decay has recently joined the ranks of established beauty Icons Chanel, Dior and Burberry with the opening of a store in London’s Covent Garden. In a recent new infographic from FeelUnique.com, the brand’s eponymous Naked Palette was cited as one of the bestselling beauty icons of all time alongside hallowed names such as Clarin’s Beauty Flash Balm and YSL’s Touche Eclat. The new limited edition Naked On The Run palette heightens, enriches, embellishes and elevates the true spirit and authenticity of the core offer but creatively meets the needs of its changing, modal consumer with the ultimate Naked travel kit.
Today’s beauty and personal care market is unbelievably creative but complex, dynamic but disparate. Together Challengers and Icons paint a complete picture, showing us where we’ve come from and where we are going. By adopting a new mindset and aligning with Challenger and Icon design principles, brands can fully challenge and realize the future market opportunity and their own potential within it.

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