Navigating Critical Change: Mind the Challenger Gap

I was reading something recently about semantic satiation, a term for when a word or phrase is repeated so often it loses all sense of meaning.

That’s something we see in advertising copy all the time. The ridiculous overuse of language hyperbole was illustrated wonderfully by Buddy Elf’s reaction to seeing a sign outside a coffee shop: “You did it! Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job everybody!”

In my particular specialism, there’s a term I’d like to nominate for being one of the most overused, while also drawing attention to the inflated, convoluted and confusing meanings attributed to it. And that is the phrase ‘Challenger Brand’.

Ask 10 people on the street what they think this means, and then ask 10 people in the business world what it means, and you’re likely to get an array of different answers.

A quick Google and you’ll see a tight connection between the use of ‘Challenger’ and ‘Mindset’, as well as descriptions such as ‘dream beyond their means’. There are also those that vehemently believe that a ‘challenger brand’ is different to a ‘disrupter brand’ - and more fool you for not knowing that.

There is a definite camp that describes a Challenger brand as being categorised by its size compared to the leader in the market implying that a leader, or indeed the brand in third place, isn’t a challenger.

I also found descriptions of 12 or more different ‘challenger brand’ archetypes, all with very cool sounding names ranging from The Missionary, The People’s Champion, The Equaliser, and the Enlightened Zagger.

I could go on, but it’s all got a bit ridiculous.

Let’s reset. You’re a startup, you don’t have time for this.

Would knowing which of the 12 or more archetypes of challenger brand brackets you fall into really help you make critical decisions for growth, and does ‘dreaming beyond your means’ really help you reach your growth KPIs, achieve the aspirations of what you want your business to become and keep any other stakeholders off your back? Probably not.

When we cut the BS and remove all the marketing blurb, if you’re a high-growth startup – funded or not – you'll likely have growth ambitions that are beyond your current resource. Resource in terms of cash flow, team, product, tech and a long list of other means within your war chest, or lack thereof. In its most simplistic form, there is a gap between what you can do, and what you want to do. The bigger the aspirations and business objectives, the smaller the resource, the bigger the gap. And I call this The Challenger Gap.

Unfortunately, dreaming doesn’t help you close that gap. There must be the mindset to not only acknowledge and understand the gap, but for all other key stakeholders to define and align upon it too. And you then need pragmatic approaches to bridge it and get more from the resource you have.

Think of The Challenger Gap as an ocean you need to cross. Having bravery is not enough; yes you need it to leave the shore, but you also need to be prepared, have the right crew, have some small islands to aim towards, have a plan for a leaky boat and the storms that will hamper the crossing, decide the metrics that will determine whether how you’re tracking is a success or not. If you don’t have these things in place it’s not brave but foolhardy.

At Wake the Bear we always hear positive feedback on our name, but for us it represents not only a mindset, but an actionable way of doing things. Waking a bear, by definition, is high risk. By waking it, something will happen and it’s something that you’re instigating. The outcome will likely be unpredictable, but we need to have a game plan for all the likely outcomes and a way of making quick and adaptable decisions when the outcomes are totally unexpected. Yes, it’s about bravery but it’s also about cunningness of strategy and deftness in execution. If you don’t walk into that cave prepared for any number of outcomes, or if you don’t know where the nearest tree is (some bears climb trees) you are being foolhardy.

When working with startups we believe in completing State Analysis. A process of defining and aligning upon what the current state of your business is, from your  brand, to team, to product and everything else in between. You then define your future state, what you want the business to be, to have done, how and by when. You can then start to map out what your gaps are in achieving those future ambitions. They can then be prioritised and action plans devised to bridge them. Suddenly that Challenger Gap, although never less daunting, has a plan of action to cross.