Adweek Challenger Brand Takeaways

Spool’s Hot Takes from Adweek’s Challenger Brands Summit

Last month, Spool sent three members of our team to attend Adweek’s Challenger Brands Summit 2022. Spool is very much a challenger brand within the marketing space and we felt right at home among other inspiring companies and brands who embrace a challenger mindset. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing key insights and takeaways from the conference from the brands and companies highlighted.

Be Bold and Unafraid

The best challenger brands have a bold and authentic point of view, and they are unwavering from the top down.

Having a strong and clear point of view can be a key differentiator for brands. The best brands out there – challenger or not – have a clear mission and they commit to it. In today’s world where brands have to engage more with consumers online, it gives an opportunity for consumers to really understand the brand POV and tone of voice, allowing them to connect with the personalities of the brands that they are consuming and engaging with. 

Liquid Death, a canned water brand that sells its beverages out of “tallboy” cans, is perhaps the best example of a challenger brand that has relentlessly committed to its position. Andy Pearson, their VP of creative, noted that many brands fail at this because they want to be loved by as many consumer groups as possible. Liquid Death is proudly not for everyone and they lean into the discomfort of being hated by some. For example, the brand’s marketing strategy is ironically “anti-marketing.” They ask themselves what any logical marketing approach would be and do the opposite. A few ways this comes to life for them is that they promote hate messages from consumers as their actual advertisements. Or they had a child draw their t-shirt merch and sold it to consumers, complete with the fact that the name of the actual brand was misspelled. 

Brands should be capitalizing on the fact that every single consumer touch point can be a way to demonstrate your point of view. Here is where creativity can really come into play. For Liquid Death, which some may describe as being a water brand with a gutter punk, heavy metal point of view, they bring their brand persona in every. single. touchpoint. From the CEO getting a tattoo of a loyal consumer’s face, to serving drinks out of a coffin at tradeshows, to turning hate comments online into song lyrics and to putting “rad pieces of art” of the bottom of every case of water, the entire company from the top down is authentically committed to their point of view, and not afraid to alienate those who don’t agree. This has made them successfully disrupt the crowded water category, and has brought in a new target group of consumers who traditionally haven’t been water brand loyalists.

Authentic or Bust

Authenticity is king. For those who win, authentically building the brand is the focus and not ROI. 

It’s no surprise that authenticity was the resounding theme throughout the three-day summit. Consumers are more savvy than ever when it comes to detecting “marketing speak” or “PR spin.” The brands who maintain cult status as opposed to fad status stay true to who they are,  and understand how they authentically fit into the lives of their consumers and what they care about. 

Yeti was perhaps one of the best examples of a brand that is rooted in authenticity, and prioritizing brand building against that above all things. Yeti is not concerned with a quick growth gimmick or jumping on a celebrity endorsement. They aren’t even concerned with the competition, and its VP of Marketing noted that Yeti doesn’t even see themselves as a challenger brand, as they make a point to not talk or care about the competition. Yeti is focused on Yeti, and on being authentic to what makes them and their community tick. The brand anchors in the consumer truth that the outdoors connects everyone. Their approach to building the brand is through those authentic outdoor connections, and they believe that best approach is “slow and low” – doing handshakes and supporting a community over sponsoring one (more on that later). Yeti marketing is thousands of micro connections out in the wild – at small fishing lodges, in local surf shops and very grassroots. This approach keeps them honest and authentic, and they often see what is happening on the ground before the mass market. 

The biggest takeaway for brands when you walk the walk and talk the talk with authenticity at a grassroots level, is that ROI isn’t the focus. As the VP of Marketing at Yeti said, you have to be part of a brand that believes in the brand, and you need a great CEO and leadership team who trusts that. 

Lean into Change

In the wake of the pandemic, adjust to the new-reality-induced paradigm shifts 

As we are in the midst/on the heels/or coming off of (who knows anymore?) the pandemic, there have been massive changes to society that we are all well aware of by now. But what changes will stick, and what is most relevant for marketers and brands? 

The biggest is that it’s really forced us all to have to shake things up, and the opportunity is around having to be more creative to problem solve. For challenger brands like Breeze Airways – an airline company who launched heading into the pandemic of all times – that meant having to find solutions for moving their company forward despite issues like travel restrictions and staffing. As they moved forward and through the pandemic, they used the characteristics of “nice” and “easy” – things all consumers want when it comes to travel – to help guide their approach to barriers and a path forward. From everything from hiring practices, to small touches they included on flights, if it wasn’t “nice” and “easy”, it didn’t get pushed through, and the pandemic really forced them to have to be more creative to find ways to deliver on that promise.

We’ve also all grown more accustomed to virtual ways of working, and with the hoopla around web 3.0 and immersing our lives even more into the digital depths, aka the metaverse, the virtual aspect is here to stay. That said, we know the immense benefits of connecting IRL – especially as marketers who have really felt the void from in-person media/consumer events, trade shows, conferences and even client and team facetime. According to Convene, an innovative company that helps transform workspaces to be more collaborative and experiential, the future is hybrid. Meaning, as we think through consumer/media/key stakeholder experiences, we need to be thinking about the offline and online opportunities and experience. This gives us more ways to amplify and engage with our audiences at an in-market activation, while giving it legs across the country. This paradigm shift has enabled folks to be more open and accepting to have the choice for how they experience an event. 

The Power of Custom

The age of personalization – an art and a science

One of the biggest shifts in the current marketing landscape is that we are no longer of the age of pushing mass volume. Now it is all about getting the right product at the right moment for the right consumer. We are in the age of personalization, and consumers are also demanding better and more personalized experiences. This is true both online and offline. The more consumers have been spending time online – which is traditionally able to be more customized – the more consumers are expecting that same experience offline. 

In order to do personalized marketing well, you need art (insights) and science (data) to come together. No matter how deep the data, meaningful personalization requires a balance between technology, data and human expertise. Beauty brand, BFA Industries, knows that beauty is a very personal experience for their consumers, so delivering in this area was key. Thus, they created IPSY, a monthly beauty subscription service, to deliver on their mission of a personalized beauty experience. With IPSY, the team leverages data through a tool they use called IPSY Match, which combs through billions of data points to personalize products received for each member based on the brands they like, skin tone, beauty needs, etc. IPSY then asks customers to review the products they receive, providing a database of over 200M product reviews, which allows the brand to receive constant feedback to improve on their personalization and offerings. The team leverages the art and science of data to then create content driven by facts and insights from their consumer. For IPSY, that means providing an educational and curated experience to empower their users to confidently express themselves. IPSY is a great example of how brands can win when they have a strong personalized marketing strategy that is rooted in sound data and human insights. 

Community is King

Foster a strong community relative to your brand

Having a strong community needs to be a conscious effort and doesn’t happen overnight; it also needs to be one that focuses on both internal and external progress. This is something that brands should work to build over time, and largely starts internally. Encouraging employees to share what they’re excited about as it relates to the products, brand and company can be a first step in creating this community. When companies have strong internal communities, external communities form more easily.

When engaging with external communities, brands should also be a natural fit within these groups, embracing communities they align with as opposed to chasing idealistic communities where a relationship would be forced. Paulie Dery, Vice President of Marketing at YETI, emphasized the importance of supporting a community versus just sponsoring a community, and refers to the brand’s marketing strategy as ‘depth and breadth’. For example, Paulie shared that the brand puts advertising dollars behind smaller fishing publications with less return on investment instead of partnering with major celebrities who would reach a wider audience. Paulie believes that in order for a brand to stick around, it should not stray far from its original mission and intention. This also ensures the brand continues to engage with its core target audience of outdoor enthusiasts, putting its money where its mouth is in supporting this group.

Staying true to the company’s value has helped Yeti remain a cult brand instead of just a fad brand.

Nikki Neuburger, Chief Brand Officer of Lululemon, and Colleen Quinley, American Olympic Athlete and Lululemon brand ambassador, discussed the authentic nature of their partnership and how it helps foster a large community. Rather than sponsoring a large number of athletes, Lululemon has developed deep relationships with just a few ambassadors, supporting them in all aspects of their life. These natural ties between athlete sponsors and the brand help build a true community of like-minded individuals who believe in the brand and its cause. 

Companies shouldn’t be talking to consumers but rather listening to, engaging with and eventually becoming part of their communities organically. Changing your mindset as a communicator will change the way you interact with your customers, and how they in turn interact with you, and how they talk about your brand with others. As put by Erin Bailey, Senior Director of Community Marketing at Hydrow, “having a strong community serves as a moat for your brand – they will always be your biggest champions, defenders and cheerleaders through thick and thin.”

Data at the Center of Everything

Data-driven insights must touch and inform all channels, especially creative 

Larisa Summers, Chief Marketing Officer for Convene, shared on Day 3 of Challenger Brands that “things that don’t get measured don’t get done”. While it’s one thing to ensure we’re measuring and analyzing data, it’s another to do so at the right time. We can’t just be looking at KPIs at the beginning and end of a campaign; Data needs to be integrated into every aspect of a campaign. Firstly, we need to move from guess and learn to test and learn. Feedback in the form of metrics and data needs to inform how a campaign continues or pivots.

We also need to look at more granular levels of data; not just the overall numbers, but which specific aspects of a campaign performed well and how we can improve other areas for next time. One interesting way we can look at these specifics is through the creative. Will Post and Andrea Ward from Vidmob shared how data can be used to tell which specific parts of creative performed well. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ads that were shot outdoors, included women, or showed surprised faces did well. On the flip side, ads with men and ads showing people smiling performed worse. While data shouldn’t automate creative – we still need human ideas and innovation – it can be used to inform how we create the images and assets that go along with our campaigns.

Data can also be used to uncover a broader story that may not meet the eye. Sherina Smith, VP of Marketing at American Family Insurance, discussed how data can be used to create the story we want, and need, to tell. When looking at the nation’s growth from 2010 to 2020, all of this growth can be attributed to people of color, but CEOs and leadership does not reflect this. American Family Insurance is committed to putting DEI in the center of its marketing and advertising efforts, making sure its advertisements are reflective of every viewer. This effort has led to the highest brand recall in years. 

Hold the Line

Stay true to your brand mission, no matter what

No matter what a brand does, everything needs to ladder back to its mission and vision. Even when you need to implement changes, or maybe especially when you need to pivot, that central reasoning cannot be lost. Amanda Baldwin, Chief Executive Officer of Supergoop!, said it best during her session on changing consumer behavior through education: “The definition of pivot is not just change, but the constant upon which that rotation is based”. It’s important to know when we need to change direction. However, change doesn’t mean completely abandoning everything you had worked on. The key brand tenants – the mission, vision, ethics – of the brand, need to stay at the core of the new idea or strategy.

A great example of this can be seen with ClassPass. In the first session of the Challenger Brands summit, Zach Apter, Mindbody Senior Vice President, Consumer Revenue and Growth at ClassPass, walked viewers through the brand’s pricing model and how it has changed and evolved over the years. With each change however, as well as with changes to the company’s branding and offerings, ClassPass has always focused on providing local and accessible health, wellness and fitness experiences to consumers, while helping business owners seamlessly fill their classes. No matter the change, this core tenant was not lost.

Competition is Everywhere

Your competition is no longer confined to your industry, it’s everyone

As marketers, we’ve always thought about our activations, story angles, and work as it relates to our clients’ competitors. How can my alcohol brand tell our story louder than another alcohol brand? How can our social content showing our new notebook be more engaging than that showing our competitor’s notebook?

However, our current definition of competitor isn’t quite cutting it anymore. We need to rethink who we consider our brands’ competitors to be ALL brands, including those outside of our clients’ immediate category. When my client markets to a consumer through an influencer, for example, that consumer isn’t just seeing influencer content from my clients’ glasses company and another glasses company; they are seeing influencer content from my glasses company and a clothing brand and their friend who isn’t being paid but is promoting their favorite restaurant by posting a selfie at their table. Consumers are being inundated with content from all brands (and all of their connections) on all channels at all times, and we as marketers need to think about how we can break through ALL of this noise, not just that coming from our own category.

For example, Knix, a female-founded intimates brand was launched over ten years ago to disrupt the intimates category. Knix focuses on inclusivity, promoting comfortability in one’s own skin to combat harmful body image messaging that women receive. However, Knix isn’t just competing to share its message, and its products, with similar companies such as Victoria’s Secret and ThirdLove. Knix also needs to break through the conversation supplement companies are having about dieting and random users are having about female attractiveness. Thinking about all of the messaging consumers are receiving when they scroll through social media allows Knix to position themselves as a challenger to not only other brands, but to an ideal and industry as a whole.

Lean into what you are good at and be great at it

Find your brand’s strength and run with it

It is vital for brands to recognize what they are strong at and lean into it. When deciding on new services, offerings, or products, companies should evaluate where they’ve seen success (as defined both internally and externally) and where they have a runway to improve on previous wins. This doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t venture into new categories or push their own boundaries. Instead, they should challenge and continue to innovate in areas where they are strong. At the end of the day, these decisions should be authentic, not forced, and they should help brands stay true to who they are and continue to build on what they’re good at.

As put by Erin Mcpherson, Head of Consumer Content and Partnerships at Verizon, companies and individuals need to find their superpower and use it to the benefit of the mission they are on. When Erin joined Verizon, the company was discussing acquiring a content company. The brand ultimately decided against it as it didn’t align with Verizon’s strength, providing the best network. Instead, Verizon partnered with Disney whose strength is content. Overall, this partnership has allowed Verizon to accomplish more in their target field while also partnering with a brand that can help them engage in content on a much higher level than they would have been able to themselves, because that is Disney’s strength..

Brands shouldn’t try to be good at everything, or even do everything. Rather, brands should focus on their unique strengths, take advantage of and innovate on these strengths to grow in these areas and become a leader.

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