Working smarter

Challenger brands:
how to win in a
post-COVID world

There’s no denying that COVID-19 has put the world into flux – constantly changing rules and regulations, new daily routines and yo-yoing consumer needs, it’s been hard to keep up. 

While we all know we need to adapt, knowing how to achieve this is much trickier. Brands that identified opportunities to flex and respond to changing consumer needs throughout 2020 will inevitably continue to do this as we come out the other side.

These are the challenger brands of tomorrow. You could soon be one of them. Businesses of all shapes, sizes and origins are beginning to see the value in adopting a challenger mindset and embracing the opportunity to learn from other challenger brands.  Afterall, the world is evolving, shouldn’t your brand too?

As the experts in challenger brand thinking (we quite literally wrote the book on it), PHD can help you discover your inner challenger and propel your brand to the next level.


Any brand – big or small, new or old, traditional or new age, has the potential to be a challenger brand. You simply need to work out what you’re challenging.

We used to think of challenger brands as a simple David vs Goliath story – the new little brand vs the big established brand. It’s no longer that straightforward. There are many different challenger brand narratives. Each challenges something different – from a competitor, to a category or a cultural norm.

Whether you’re a Missionary like Nike, challenging social conventions and injustice by featuring Colin Kaepernick. Or perhaps an Irreverent Maverick like Budgie Smugglers, challenging idealised views of the male form by searching for Australia’s most ordinary rig, challenging something is your point of difference.

Being a challenger is about how you think and how you behave – not who you are or how big you are.

Now’s the time for challenger brands

In 2020, the global pandemic brought about a new world order and a new battleground for brands was formed in which old-world brands struggled to keep up, and challenger brands triumphed.

In times of uncertainty challenger brands seize the opportunity to think outside the square and emphasise their point of difference. We’ve seen it happen when some of the biggest household names grew off the back of the GFC: WhatsApp, Groupon, Instagram, Uber, Kickstarter and Airbnb, to name a few.

With some brands busy tackling COVID-19 by creating socially distanced logos and generic messages of togetherness, challenger brands did things differently.

Challenger mindsets have helped Australian brands navigate the pandemic crisis

It was local hero challengers that won the hearts and minds of Australians throughout COVID-19. This was achieved by showing a true understanding and empathising with people during this hard time.

Two distinct challenger brand archetypes prevailed – The Peoples’ Champion and The Real and Human Challenger. Brands with these archetypes outperformed throughout the crisis as people turned to brands they felt were on their side and offered a human touch.

The peoples’ champion challenges the motives, self-interest, and consumer distance of the market leader. They stand up for a group of people who have been short-served or exploited by the establishment for too long.

For example, the toilet paper company, Who Gives a Crap, donated $5.85 million to charity, following bumper panic-buying profits and a 1,000% increase in sales since the start of COVID-19. Or Telstra who suspended late payment fees and disconnections for small businesses and gave 20,000 students and teachers across the country internet access for educational content to support online learning. Or Coles who added a community shopping hour to help the elderly and vulnerable.

The real and human challenger challenges the impersonality and face-less service of the market leader or category. Real and human brands position themselves as a group of real people who genuinely care about what they’re making and how they are servicing consumers.

For example, Woolworths’ CEO provided regular updates in the form of open letters to the public addressing important issues including toilet paper shortages and home delivery delays.

As we move through the stages of a K shaped recovery in Australia, we will see some areas of the economy bouncing right back to normal, and others experiencing slower growth or possibly a decline. Challenger brands of all shapes and sizes will have the opportunity to speak up and succeed. The key to success will be in understanding the cultural climate and consumer sentiment towards a category, in order to know when and how to act.

How to adopt a challenger mindset

There are three steps to take when it comes to embracing your inner challenger:

1. Determine exactly what you are challenging

This may sound easy but when put into practice, understanding and defining your single-minded challenger point of view can be quite a tough task. What is it that you are challenging? Is it a specific competitor or the market leader head-on, your category and the typical way things are done, or are you challenging a cultural or societal norm? 

Assigning a challenger archetype is a great way to add structure to challenger thinking. Once you add some clarity and direction around what exactly you’re challenging, you’re halfway there. 

2. Bring your challenger archetype to life in a way that’s true to your brand

Adopting a challenger mindset doesn’t mean losing your brand identity. People don’t want cookie cutter brands – they want unique brands with a strong identity and understanding of who they are. Make sure your archetype is applied and brought to life in a way that is true to your brand identity and is right for your consumers. 

3. Challenge with conviction

Challenger brands have confidence in their actions. Once you understand what you’re challenging and how that comes to life for your brand, it’s time to live and breathe your challenger ethos through all you do. This includes what you say – your advertising and marketing, and what you do – your business processes, company structure and PR story. 

If you would like to explore your challenger brand archetype, PHD provides challenger brand workshops for small and medium businesses. To find out more, simply email or access the PHD On Demand webinar on challenger brands. 

PHD is a global communications agency, specialising in media planning and buying and is part of Omnicom Media Group. PHD On Demand is a project-based offering allowing businesses easy, on demand access to services.  

The views expressed in this article are those of PHD and do not necessarily represent the views of Business Australia.

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