I have a real emotional attachment to Challenger brands. The brands that look squarely in the eyes of the incumbents, the Goliaths of a category, and say “There is a better way and here it is”.

I just love that focus, that chutzpah, that sense of purpose.

While Challenger brands can manifest their purpose in many ways – like Red Bull dropping people from outer space or Zara having a very clear view on their business practices – they sometimes use good old advertising to thumb their nose at the establishment.

Sometimes that advertising is a straight call-out highlighting a weakness in the incumbent. Often it is more subtle and let’s the reader connect the dots – which invariably leads to them saying “you’re right, the incumbent isn’t as wonderful as I thought”

Ultimately you might be surprised by my definition of the “challenger” but, like all brilliant Challengers, you can’t deny that they’re taking on a prevailing attitude or brand position and highlighting why they are a better alternative.

Here are my favourites;

Coca-Cola vs Starbucks Warned you that I might not always chose traditional Challengers. In this great execution – or is it a great media buy? – Diet Coke are tackling the societal norm of standing in line for a coffee when you could get just a great a boost – and no lineup – from a Diet Coke and a vending machine.


Lesson: Pick your battles. What behavior or attitude does the incumbent have that you can exploit? What new, and better, behavior does your brand personify?




Pepsi vs Coca-Cola This is one of my favourite Challenger ads from the famous “Cola Wars” of the 80’s. As a piece of advertising, it is perhaps one of the most brilliant interpretations of the line “The Choice of a New Generation”. In the future there will be no Coca-Cola and, in fact, most people wont even remember who (or what) a Coca-Cola is. Spectacular.

Lesson: Be fearless. You may be taking on an incumbent but you have ambition, purpose and belief on your side. Why not aim for the stars and a brighter future where YOUR beliefs are the accepted norm versus the challenge?

Audi vs BMW vs Audi vs BMW… In the US the three German luxury manufacturers spend a large amount of time, and advertising budget, jostling for the number 1 spot. There is an underlying “superiority” theme to the battle – superiority of engineering, superiority of awards and accolades and

BMW and Audisometimes, just a superiority of wit and attitude.

Merely judging by the number of times this showed up in both my LinkedIn and Facebook feed, I’d say that BMW struck a nerve with this one.

Lesson: Attitude trumps all with your audience. You get Challenger creds for how you show up to the fight. This example shows a very cheeky attitude. An attitude that many BMW drivers would say tickled their sense of intellectual superiority and had them say “Hell yeah, BMW (and its drivers) are smarter and better”.

Apple vs Microsoft You knew this one was coming. A fantastic compilation (yip 30 mins worth) of one of the longest and most humorous Challenger battles in advertising ever. Nothing like advertising in the US market where you can directly call your competition out – we can’t do that in polite Canada – and earn points for it.

Lesson: Everyone and anyone can exhibit a Challenger ethos. You needn’t be the smallest, newest, least known player in the category to be a Challenger. If there is an incumbent whose worldview contradicts yours then you have a Challenge ahead of you. What is YOUR worldview and WHY is yours more enticing and appealing? Convince me.

Here are all the ads for your viewing pleasure

Virgin Atlantic vs BA (and the rest of the airline industry) What sticks out for me in this example is that it proves how strong and timeless the Virgin Atlantic proposition is. This spot celebrating 25 years of Virgin Atlantic shows that sadly very little in the category has changed. The check-in lines with “other airlines” are still as torrid, the “other” flight attendants are just a little less warm, friendly and dare I say attractive, the British still need help with their dentistry. Ok the last was a shot.

Lesson: Being a Challenger doesn’t have an expiry date. Virgin Atlantic began because Sir Richard Branson saw an opportunity for a different kind of airline business. An airline with more emphasis on service, style and panache. As a former Platinum member of Virgin, I can attest to no better trans-Atlantic service from the brand that started as a Challenger and is still Challenging.

DHL vs UPS & FedEx Arguably this is a debatable inclusion. When this story first broke DHL received massive kudos for this very cheeky PR stunt. In reality, this case was done by a German advertising agency as part of a creative exercise. Unfortunately it was NOT work commissioned by DHL themselves. Regardless, part of the attraction of this work is it shows that genuine Challengers have a sense of personality and a unique creative view of the world.

dhl_german trick


The fuller case study makes for interesting viewing and it is a classic.


Lesson: Judo moves are a blessing for Challengers. The size of the incumbent is often your best weapon. Use their strength – in this case the numbers of highly visible delivery guys they have – to your advantage.

And my favourite Challenger advertising of all time??

BMW vs Mercedes-Benz It’s a well-known example from South Africa from the late 1980’s. You need to watch these two ads in order to get the full story – and why its such a great example of Challenger brand chutzpah.

As context, the setting for this story is an area near Cape Town with some of the most treacherous driving conditions in South Africa. What a fantastic setting for a duel between two great brands.

Watch the ads. First Mercedes


And now the incredible response from BMW

C’mon now. How brilliant was that?

Mercedes was so incensed by that one line of voiceover – “Built to beat the Bends” – that they asked for the ad to be pulled from South African TV. The ensuing ruckus portrayed Mercedes as poor sports and bullies while showing BMW to be smart, witty underdogs.

Isn’t that the ultimate compliment for a Challenger brand??

I resisted the urge to highlight “1984” as the quintessential Challenger ad of all time. I certainly admire the execution and like any student of advertising I can’t fault its attitude, its perfect sense of writing, timing and irony. It just seemed too easy an example.

Have I missed any great examples? Other ads that should’ve made the cut? Which one’s and what did you learn from them??

I had a lot of fun pulling this post together. Some friends back in South Africa reminded me of the BMW and Mercedes-Benz case. Thanks guys for the inspiration.

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