Ahead of the launch of Overthrow II – 10 strategies from the new wave of challengers, PHD was joined on the main stage at Festival of Media Global by a panel of leading disruptor brands to discuss what some have called the new golden age of challenger thinking.
Hugh Cameron (Chairman, PHD UK) moderated the panel, which included Audi’s Head of International Media, Kristin Harder; Oatly’s Creative Director, Michael Lee; and Head of Marketing at Tony’s Chocolonely, Pascal van Ham.
Cameron began the session by painting a picture of the current state of media and marketing – a “world of dramatic disruption and turbulence” which offers a range of opportunities for brands ready to embody a challenger mindset and narrative.
One such brand is the Netherlands-based Tony’s Chocolonely, which has committed to 100% slave-free chocolate. “We’re using our product as a change agent to change the industry from within,” said van Ham.
Founded by three journalists with a mission to eradicate modern slavery and illegal child labour in the chocolate industry, Tony’s has a very clear vision and is looking beyond its own borders to achieve it on a grand scale. Their recipe is open source, in order to mobilise their rivals, not crush them.
“We are definitely a Missionary challenger,” said van Ham. “We want to change the industry. We want to raise the bar, literally, and make 100% slave-free the norm in the industry. We are forming a movement for our competitors to join.”
The Swedish oat milk company Oatly, conversely, feels no sense of unease in admitting they are a David openly challenging a Goliath – in this case, the dairy industry.
“You can call us a Next [Generation] challenger in so far as we’re challenging old world thinking and traditional thinking around plant-based diets,” said Lee, “especially with regards to the climate. We basically get sued by the dairy industry all over the world.”
He added, “You can call it a golden age, but for us it’s just the time that we find ourselves in and the dilemma around climate change, and the changes that most of us in the world think we need to make.”
One of the Next Generation’s defining characteristics is its ambition to position the market leader as ideal for a time gone by – a strategy Oatly leans into and has adapted as an essential part of their marketing identity.
“It’s just putting the message centre stage,” said Lee, “whether it’s complete nonsense or some provocation of the milk industry. Most of the momentum that we gain is actually through PR, through the nature of the issues we’re talking about. We use media as a trigger for that PR – a massive statement on the side of a building; a huge double-page spread in the newspaper.”
Harder, on the other hand, admitted that the narrative has changed for fellow Next Generation-challenger Audi. She explained, “A long time ago in Europe, and about 10 years ago in the US, we had to break into a very established premium car market. Positioning ourselves as … the Next Generation of what’s coming up helped de-position the competition very quickly. If you have this clear, strategic narrative, it helps your teams unite and motivates them. It’s an easy but incredibly strong narrative to play.”
Harder added, however, that at present Audi is “also being challenged in our own category.” But that isn’t to say they have left their challenger mentality behind, continuing, “We always have this challenger mindset embedded in us.”
This mindset is in part fuelled by taking up another Next Generation mantle – the ability to adapt to and lead a changing world. “We are very proud – we recently launched our first electric car,” Harder said. “‘Electric has gone Audi.’ We try to be very confident. We know we are not the first to market, we understand that; but thank you very much, we’re taking it from here.”
Audi isn’t the only brand whose narrative has changed as the company has grown. Tony’s Chocolonely, once a scrappy start-up, is now a market leader in the Netherlands.
To keep their challenger mindset, van Ham said, they ensure Tony’s core values, and therefore their culture, remain intact. “We have a strong culture driven from four key values,” she said. “We check in everything that we do that these core values are in there. “When I joined the company five years ago, it was a completely different ball game,” van Ham said. “As a market leader, the audience views you differently. ‘Whoa, you’re big now, do we still believe you?’”
“It’s so important to have this fearless culture,” she continued. “We even have an award now for the team … for people to do things that are actually different than we have thought of, for people to be a little bit naughty but still very successful.”
Harder also recognised the need for fearlessness. “As you grow, you become afraid because you suddenly have something to lose,” she commented. “You need to know that people are behind you if you dare to do something differently, and if you dare to compare yourself to competitors.” She added that Audi has “never been afraid to be compared.”
“Most people are pretty good, at least consumers, at seeing through bullshit,” Lee said, sharing that Oatly has also had to adapt as they’ve grown. “If a company suddenly takes a U-turn, that’s going to raise red flags.”
He added, “There’s nothing wrong with being a big category leader. It’s about using your influence in ways that feel genuine.”
All brands, from the start-ups to the established industry leaders, have the opportunity to stand out in our increasingly noisy, distracted world by taking on the challenger mindset and the narratives and strategies of the challenger type which resonates most strongly with that brand.
Each of the 10 challenger types and their media behaviours are outlined in Overthrow II, launching at Cannes Lions Festival on 20th June.