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Influx interview- adam morgan- eat big fish- part 2

February 25, 2009

Part 2 of the interview with Adam Morgan author of Eating the Big Fish (2nd edition.)

3. How many of the challenger brands you first wrote about have survived- what have been the notable failures and do you have any reasons why?

A number of the challengers I wrote about in the first edition have plateaued – Saturn, most famously – and some have simply dropped away (Goldfish, Tango). Others, interestingly, have faded and now resprung, like the Cooperative bank in the UK.
There are a number of reasons challengers can fade, but it is usually to do with one of four things. First, they fail to recognize that they need to change to stay the same.  The book I want to write after the next one (about Innovation) is about The Trajectory of Desire: why it is that we love something or someone, and that sometimes that love, that desire is maintained, and sometimes it falls away. In most brands cases, unless they are aligned to a higher cause or ideal in some way, our initial attraction fades quite quickly to complacent acceptance. We like new. And if we don’t get it from that brand, we’ll get it from something  or someone else. We have to change to keep the same meaning and strength of affinity. Keep to our core beliefs and values, but change the way we express and engage people with them.

Second, People: the people change (and of course it is people and teams that create great brands, above all), and the people that follow  those that made the brand great understand how to maintain what they have been given, but not how to refresh and renew. Which brings us back to the first reason for fading again.
Third, the support from the top changes (if they are part of a large organization). This was a key part of the issue with Saturn by all accounts, and one of the reasons there was an absence of new  products to deliver the kind of news and excitement the brand needed to maintain momentum.  Look at what has happened to Orange now. It is not just that they have failed to understand Orange as a brand – they just don’t appear to understand how to build a brand at all, let alone a challenger.
Fourth, they lose Thought Leadership to a newer challenger themselves. They allow someone else, a newer challenger, to start to redefine the category agenda against them. Financial people come in and question why they are doing some of the pieces of Thought Leadership they have been doing, when the formal financial justification for it doesn’t seem to be there, and they start to cut away those aspects of the way the brand used to behave that created the word of mouth and perceived momentum they enjoyed on the way up.

4. A lot has changed in the marketing landscape in 10 years, has this made it easier or harder to be a challenger brand?
This is one of the tensions in the second edition. On the one hand, it is tempting to say that everything has changed. Certainly, we are not short of key figures who have said that ‘the old marketing model is dead’ – without anyone having the ability to put a new one in its place, of course. Conversely, what I think people haven’t spent enough time on is how much stays the same. If you look at a new generation of challenger brands, the principles outlined in the book ten years ago still very much hold. The ways in which those brands choose to express them have evolved, but if it is a journey without maps, we do at least have some principles we should still be following.  Different, but the same.
The glib answer to the question about whether it is easier or harder is that Web 2.0 should of course in principle make it easier to create publicity and ripples of conversation (Quiksilver Dynamite Surfer), find and build communities around you, and deepen relationships quickly with those that are drawn to what you stand for. And clearly we have a whole new toolbox in terms of the value we can offer customers.
On the other hand, it is going to be harder than ever to be just another brand in the middle tier- what Wal-Mart calls ‘the mush in the middle’.  And I am very interested in some of the stuff that has been written recently about ecosystems- how once a brand has become market leader in a category and created a Kindle/ Amazon, iPod/iTunes it is very hard for a challenger to break into that  taking on a brand or a product is one thing. Trying to replace an established, Market Leading, self reinforcing  ecosystem with another is an entirely different scale of challenger problem,

5. How much do the rise of new demographics have to do with the rise of challengers? (people want brands to reflect them vs. their parents)

It is more interesting to explore being a little contrarian about this, I think. One of the myths about challengers is that they are automatically connected with rebellion. That in archetypal terms they are always ‘the Outlaw’. One of the areas I have tried to explore a little in the book is whether this is in fact true – there was a whole chapter on this which ended up being cut for space reasons, but is available as a download from the site. In it, I look at 12 types of challenger brands – which includes, of course, brands that are self consciously Irreverent Maverick (Red Bull) or Next Generation Brands (Virgin initially, Pepsi at its best) but also other kinds of challengers, whose appeal does not lie in this at all. Game Changers, like method.  Missionaries, like Dove. Enlightened Zaggers, like Unilever’s ‘Dirt is Good’ brand. Small and Human challengers, like innocent, or Stoneyfield Farms. These challengers are not about generation against generation. They are challenging different kinds of qualities about the world and the existing category. That is the exciting thing about the new group of challengers – they illustrate the breadth of options that a would-be challenger does in fact have open to them.

6. Do you feel given that now much more importance placed on product performance that getting the product right matters more than the communication?

My old boss, Claude Bonnange (the B of TBWA) used to say ‘The Brand Promises, the Product Delivers’.
All marketing thinking tends to have something of a pendulum swing from one side to another over time. When I was researching the first edition of the book at the back end of the 90s, everyone on the agency side, and a lot of packaged goods marketers, told me ‘product is dead’. All product was the same, they said – now it’s all about the emotional connection with the brand.
Over the last ten years there is clearly a resurgence of ‘product’. It has evolved of course – it is not just about ‘working better’ any more; it is as likely to be about being beautiful (Apple), being startlingly useful (Google), being true to what you say you are and believe in (Patagonia), or giving you a platform of participation to express yourself with other people like you (Scion). And clearly there is an emphasis on getting the product right first. Yet I think that this has always actually been true for real challengers. In 1997 Jim Jannard of Oakley said in my interview with him ‘Product Obsession is Primary’. He might not have been changing his algorithm 400 times a year, but he genuinely was obsessed with a better quality, better designed product than anyone had ever seen before. And I also think that while there are brands whose product strength is such that they don’t need to communicate in mass market terms to be successful (Zara, Costco, Google), there are plenty of examples which show that brilliant communication has as great a power as ever it has before. Look at Mini, for example. Or Burger King. Brilliant examples of the power of communications to build more powerful relationships with a good product.

7. What has happened to The Challenger Project?

The Challenger Project is the research study into challengers that all of us in eatbigfish have been doing for the last 10 years – the interviews for the second book were shared among us. One of the things that frustrated me about Agency life was that agencies never committed to R&D. And you could argue that they paid the price for it as other kinds of business partner like Management Consultants usurped their authority with clients. So we are very committed to the time and expense of our own kind of R&D.  But there are a number of exciting developments to The Challenger Project that we are only just really leaning into.

For the second edition of ETBF, we filmed about 35 of the interviews, so have some really good quality, in depth material there – we are creating a whole e-learning (terrible word, but there isn’t a better one) capability there, with tools and exercises, which looks wonderful . We are turning East a little more (and not before bloody time) in the project, and doing some fascinating interviews there. And I am very excited by the possibility of a quantitative analysis of challengers and how they succeed. Peter Field, who helped us start eatbigfish, and recently has written two very important books (Marketing in the Era of Accountability with Les Binet, and Brand Immortality with Hamish Pringle) on the basis of his work analyzing the IPA databank, and now the Effies, thinks it would be possible to analyse the same data in terms of challengers as a sub sample, and then compare them to Market Leaders. That would be fascinating. It is just a very expensive piece of work to do, because of the time involved in reworking and analyzing the data. We’d better start saving up.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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