Mould is Gold and other Challenger stories

As a newly minted MBA I joined the Ogilvy team that helped sell Unilever tea. We had quite a set of rules on what was ok – how should the product be shown, which are ‘good’ colours for food packaging and so on. Burger King’s latest campaign – the mouldy Whopper-doesn’t follow any of those rules. In order to showcase that there are no longer additives or preservatives in their signature product, they made a commercial showing how it decays over a period of time, and in the end it looks, well, green. While certainly it may gross you out if you were to watch it while eating one, it makes a point that differentiates it from its peer set. Despite its size, Burger King is considerably smaller than McDonald’s and has to think like a challenger. It has to identify a market niche – people who want that oxymoron – healthier fast food, and put a stake in the ground. Burger King’s ad spend is less than half of McDonald’s so it has to create provocative ads to match reach. Now that my daughter has (almost) outgrown the Happy Meal I may even be allowed to set foot in Burger King!

As I work on the second avatar of my book, No Money Marketing, I’ve been asked if only small brands are challengers and whether frugal marketing is applicable only to them. No. Challenger can be anyone taking on a competitor double – or more-  their size. Challenger is a mindset, and helps keep companies youthful. Richard Branson’s Virgin group is often a challenger in their categories and succeeds by identifying a niche not addressed sufficiently by the incumbent. His tips are to simplify the message, make people smile, and not to be afraid to make a fool of yourself.

I’ve been buying stuff in the bazaars of Commercial Street, Bangalore for over 20 years. During this time my size has fluctuated wildly, but that is of no concern to the pushy salesmen. Clothes are always labelled ‘free size’ and you must decide if that’s your fit. Or not. In the era of mass production most winning ideas were ‘Free size” – designed to somewhat fit the biggest possible majority. Today, accessibility and technology ensure that in many industries, particularly customer facing ones and services, there is a long tail. If you’re not the biggest gorilla (or the richest) you are better off targeting a viable niche and using that as a base.

This week I participated in the jury discussions for ET Edge’s Most Promising Tech Marketer. Going through the application forms – so nice to see so many of your names there, dear readers – I could see that the best campaigns were often the ones that were the most tightly defined. They were able to focus their resources on their chosen segment and address each personally. Even really large tech players did best when they subdivided their target audience into smaller segments of less than 500. Small is indeed beautiful. There’s a conference on March 4th in Mumbai if you want to check out the winners.

If you have a success story of challenger marketing and would like to be considered for inclusion in my book, please comment on this post.


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