I’m knee deep (even waist deep) in a search for a new job. That whole experience will form another blog post dear reader. What the search has afforded me is a wonderful opportunity to meet some fantastic people, do a truckload of introspection and even, shock, horror, some reading.

Which brings me back to this blog title.

You can’t be in this industry if you don’t have your favourite ad campaigns (TAG “Success is a mind game”, early Absolut work),  your favourite brands (Virgin Atlantic, Southwest, TAG Heuer, Jack Daniels) and a few brand icons that you admire slavishly.

I was incredibly lucky recently to meet Adam Morgan, the renowned author of “Eating the Big Fish” and the founder of the marketing consultancy of the same name. Adam has long been the champion or world expert on Challenger Brands, a term I believe he coined himself. Over the course of a delightful lunch and some very candid insights on his business, he said something which I really took to heart. “In the current climate, any brand that doesn’t think like a challenger brand is doomed.”  Of course, I’d hardly expect him to say “challenger brands are so passé” but I did think he was on the money.

So on my train ride home, between fits of uncontrollable sobbing (Adam didn’t have a job for me), I started thinking about Challenger Brands and the one I most admire.

Quick stage setting. Challenger Brands, in Adam’s first edition, are guided by a number of credos which differentiate them from those boring market or category leaders, the explanations are my interpretation;

  1. Break with your immediate Past : Category traditions lead to blinkered thinking, break those conventions.
  2. Build a Lighthouse identity : Develop a very clear sense of your business/brand and why – then project that with intensity and consistency.
  3. Assume Thought Leadership : Be the brand that people talk about in the category, the brand with momentum not just size.
  4. Create Symbols of Reevaluation : Shatter category illusions, be impactful, get consumers to sit up and lean forward
  5. Sacrifice : Classic strategy 101 – what you choose not to do is as important as what you do. Be prepared to sacrifice.
  6. Overcommit : Having sacrificed Challengers need to do more than commit to a market, they need to throw themselves headlong into it and overcommit.
  7. Use Advertising/PR as a High-Leverage Asset : Wallpaper communications are too expensive so you need to box clever and create comms that disproportionately magnify your efforts.
  8. Become Idea-Centred, Not Consumer-Centred : Success can lead to complacency, never lose sight of the core idea which you started with. Constantly check that you’re remaining true to that.


Right, enough pissing about…my vote for best Challenger Brand and, subsequently branding book, goes to my idol, my lighthouse, my thought leader…Kenneth Cole and his quasi-autobiography “Footnotes: What You Stand For is More Important Than What You Stand In

Granted the title – abbreviated to “Footnotes” on the cover – doesn’t slide off the tongue but, OMG, the Challenger ethos is right there in big shiny letters!

Kenneth, as I call him, is probably more of a North American phenomenon than a European one. Started in 1980 as a shoe company Kenneth Cole says that his big idea was that fashion and social responsibility were not mutually exclusive but, rather, totally interdependent. As such the company had to be about more than just selling shoes, footwear, clothing and accessories; it had to have a real social purpose. Credo 8

Since that time Kenneth Cole, through spectacular events and some incredibly famous advertising (credo 7) , has championed AIDS awareness, homelessness in America, the right and responsibility of citizens to vote in a democracy, the Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice debate and numerous others (credo 4). Numerous are featured in the book but a particular favourite of mine ran following September 11th. In a world turned upside overnight, Kenneth Cole advertising reminded us “On September 12 Drivers waved to other Drivers with all Five Fingers”, “On September 12th, 14,000 People still contracted HIV” – a very poignant way to remind us that in a world changed forever, there were still existing problems we needed to solve (credo 2 and credo 3).

In the midst of this heightened social awareness, Kenneth Cole Productions (classic name) still manages to put out some absolutely breathtaking clothes. Their retail experience is stellar and my wife (and several business colleagues) has had to physically drag me out of his stores numerous times in New York. Kenneth Cole gets the “whole brand experience” junket and has been delivering it in spades for years.

Kenneth aint ALL about lofty ideals and is never scared of poking a little fun at topical subjects too  

There you go folks, my choice for Challenger Brand and Marketing Book of the Century. Granted my objectivity is slightly tarnished but, for gods sakes, GREAT brands are supposed to generate a visceral reaction, nurture advocates or zealots, create a sense of belief and purpose, turn conventions on their heads. I’m sure Adam would applaud my decision.

Got a branding book you rate or an issue with Kenneth Cole, punt them into the comment section. Kenneth detractors will feel my wrath.

(BTW, I seriously rate Adam’s book  “Eating the Big Fish” and that’s not just because he is a wonderfully charming English gentleman (which he is) but because its brimful of advice ALL brand custodians should take to heart)

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