How challenger brands can use design to build longevity

It’s a challenge, being a challenger brand today. The relative ease and speed with which you can bring a company or product to market means the volume of brands in any given space is huge, so conveying genuine differentiation is hard. And staying the course, building a challenger that lasts, is even harder.

Being a challenger, by definition, pushes against conventions – and that doesn’t happen overnight. It needs to be done through the constant articulation of a brand’s vision and intent to help drive the behaviour change and set new conventions for a given category.

So, by definition, setting yourself up for longevity should be number one priority among challengers.

Design isn’t just about looking good

A well-designed offering can help you to stand out and be distinctive, but when done well it also helps to tell people your brand story in a compelling and tactile way. Especially important if you are taking on established players or ingrained behaviours.

A well-designed brand can make a company feel more established and bigger than it is to consumers as well as investors and employees. And at its best, design can be used to create a sense of belonging and community, like with Monzo’s ‘Coral’ card which, when first launched, was not only an object of desire, but also a signifier of your membership to a new way of managing money.

Be surprisingly consistent

Once a brand story is defined, businesses can use design to tell that narrative again and again and again across all touchpoints, but in a way that is engaging and fun.

This is possible through building brand worlds that have fixed and consistent elements (e.g. values, behaviours, distinctive assets, tone of voice) that can be applied in flexible and creative ways to maintain a feeling of relevance and freshness whilst tapping into current consumer and cultural trends.

Not a startup, nor a challenger anymore, but arguably one of the most iconic brands globally, McDonald’s golden arches achieve this state of surprising consistency. They are an immediate shorthand for the brand but can still turn up in surprising ways as we saw in their campaign during lockdown, which featured just one half of the golden arches – still instantly recognisable.

Do things differently

According to the Eat Big Fish Challenger Project definition, “a challenger brand is defined, primarily, by a mindset – it has business ambitions bigger than its conventional resources, and is prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through”.

Shaving brand Billie is set up around a challenger mindset of questioning conventions around body hair and femininity, captured in its distinctive art direction.

Likewise, Oatly’s 2015 provocative repositioning introduced the strapline ‘it’s like milk, but for humans,’ appealing to the mindset and growing cultural conversation around the consumption of animal products. Even prior to 2015, Oatly used the design of its packaging to break through and push against conventions, when the cartons behaved like walking billboards, telling key messages in engaging and attention-grabbing ways through the brand’s graphic language and tone of voice.

Know the codes you are breaking

However, becoming a successful and enduring challenger brand isn’t just about breaking all conventions. Tony Chocolonely is a brilliant example of this; launched in 2005 with the mission to make chocolate manufacturing 100% slave free, it is now one of The Netherland’s largest chocolate manufacturers.

The branding is distinctive and bold in its colours, typography, materiality (which goes against the smooth glossy wrapper of most chocolate brands) and even the way you snap the chocolate into pieces (which reflects injustice, rather than the neat and regular squares of competitors) feels different from the rest of the category.

However, they didn’t throw out all the confectionary category codes with the branding bath water. Its design, although distinct, simultaneously plays into the wonder and excitement associated with chocolate in its nod to Willy Wonka and superior taste.

As a challenger brand, you need to be aware of the existing codes and semiotics in a category so that you know which ones you are – or are not – breaking. You must understand what the codes help communicate, and what they are not communicating, to identify whether there is a better way of speaking to consumers.

For example, for plastic-free chewing gum brand NUUD, Mother Design created an identity that conveyed the brand’s mission of ridding the world of single-use plastic gum, but in a playful way. It was bold and distinctive, but nonetheless stuck to the category standard green and blue associated with freshness and taste.

Flexing for the future

Having a focused point of view of what you’re fighting against – whether that’s modern slavery or single-use plastic – with a confident understanding of the category, and resulting fixed distinctive assets, allows a challenger brand to flex and grow, to pivot but within the guiderails of its brand world.

It allows a brand to keep turning up in new and exciting ways with its core assets. It means Virgin leveraging its consumer champion mindset to branch out from its challenger airline beginnings into banking and media. It means Ikea bringing its ‘The wonderful everyday’ to everything it does.

If you do it right, it makes being a challenger brand that bit less of a challenge.