How any FMCG business can be a challenger brand

You won’t read much about challenger brands without coming across Avis. Their famous series of We Try Harderadverts made a great show about being the second biggest car rental company in the United States. In 1962 Avis and their ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach chose to make that a selling point, explaining that being number two meant they had to try harder, so customers could expect more from them. 

The campaign took Avis from $3.2 million annual losses to $1.2 million profit, and made it the poster child for what we now call challenger brands. Aside from lessons in marketing and advertising, the campaign tells us something else — challenger brands aren’t all start-ups and new players. Even an established business like Avis (which was 16 years old in 1962) can be a challenger, because it’s not about how big or how old a business is — it’s about how it thinks and acts. 

Here are the traits that can make any business a challenger brand. 


One reason so many challenger brands shake up their sectors is that their founders often come from completely different backgrounds, so they don’t make the typical assumptions of an industry or follow its conventions. When they start a brand, they run the business as they think it should run, not as the industry thinks it should. 

It’s an almost child-like approach — no experience, lots of curiosity. Just like a child who constantly demands, ‘But why?’ the challenger is never satisfied with an answer like, ‘That’s just how it is’. When you don’t inherit ways of thinking, you aren’t limited by them, and you see them from the outside, flaws included. 

Now, you don’t have to be new to a sector to think like that. Anyone can look at the way their business or their industry runs R&D, operations, marketing, or recruitment and ask, ‘But why?’ That’s the first step to becoming a challenger brand, and nothing is stopping you from taking it. 


Challenger brands take risks. Avis did it by highlighting that they weren’t the market leaders. The Athletic did it by putting its articles behind a paywall in an era of free journalism. Dove did it by featuring diverse body types in its skincare ads (incidentally, Dove is of course a Unilever brand, which goes to show you don’t need to be a plucky upstart to be a challenger). 

In FMCG, the dairy category is full of challengers. Or rather, there are lots of challengers in the dairy alternative category — Rude Health, Mylk, Oatly, and Alpro to name a few. Rather than act as challenger brands within a sector, they’re challenging the sector’s existence. You can’t redefine (oppose) a category by playing it safe. If something is safe, that means it’s proven, and if it’s proven then everyone will be doing it. If you want to carve out a new market, or claim territory that nobody else knew was there, you might succeed brilliantly or you might fail in the attempt, and you need to be prepared for either. 


A lot of challenger brands capture people’s imaginations because they’re authentic. Whether that’s warm, witty, irreverent, or sincere, the character of the brand resonates because it feels real, not cautious, sanitised, or taken from a book of brand guidelines. They feel like people are running a business, not like a business is trying to sound like a person. 

Marketing theory sometimes refers to this as a ‘lighthouse identity’. It’s the confident expression of what the brand is and what it stands for — it doesn’t move, it simply broadcasts itself the one way it knows how. 

By definition, challengers don’t fit in. Just as it takes bravery to think and operate differently from your market peers, it takes courage to express an identity that might polarise. Bland and inoffensive is easy, and it won’t make marketing departments nervous, but it probably won’t get much of a public reaction either. 


Many challengers answer a need that nobody else does, or that the customer didn’t know they had. Peloton brought spin classes to people’s homes. Uber made taxi journeys affordable. Apple made computers more user-friendly with their hardware and software design. By thinking about the customer and what they might be missing, challenger brands get to be the first to serve a niche, and that makes them the market leader instantly. 


What all challenger brands have in common is people with commercial vision — they have the creativity to ask the right questions, and the experience to act on the answers. Unsurprisingly, lots of businesses want those people, so bringing them on board involves intense competition. That’s where an FMCG search partner makes the difference. Lime Talent have an industry heritage deeper than any other, and a ‘little black book’ of transformational candidates. Call 020 7042 3800 to speak to the team and start turning your brand into the challenger it deserves to be.