What does it take for a challenger to become a disruptor?

For a challenger, the seed of disruption must exist in the business plan. From the start, the challenger must go against the norm, vigorously and intelligently

Updated: Apr 1, 2021 06:52:31 PM UTC
Disruption
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The world is not moved forward by the establishment. Those in-charge naturally get invested in the status quo. But organic growth is insufficient to fire the furnace of the global economy. Moreover, technical progress also spurs economic progress. Therefore, it is the 'disruptors' and ‘challengers’ who create value by initiating—often disruptive—change.

Netflix, Uber, Tesla, Apple, Airbnb, and Amazon are all examples of what category disruptors can achieve. They all qualify as challengers even though they eventually became leaders.

The most acknowledged guru on the subject, Adam Morgan (author of ‘Eating the Big Fish’) defines challenger brands based on their size and relative share. But in a world where the enablers of disruption—technology, market access, and capital—are superabundant, the definitional criteria itself deserves a relook.

Firstly, disruption is not a chance outcome. It is the intended fruit. For a challenger, the seed of disruption must exist in the business plan. From the start, the challenger must go against the norm, vigorously and intelligently. It must address a massive barrier and bridge a gap. In an earlier era, Avis could position itself as "We Try Harder." The tagline was penned by DDB's Paula Green in 1962 to explain why anyone would choose the runner-up brand over Hertz, the leader. The world has changed since then. Trying harder is merely a competitive effort, not a challenger-style disruption. The very real reason for a brand to exist should be its challenge. All business ideas ought to further the disruption mission. Unless the change cuts through, a challenger will not gain salience in a world of almost infinite choice.

Secondly, successful challengers set new codes, conventions, and designs into place. The most relevant and fruitful way to challenge is to reset expectations of brand-consumer interactions. Therefore, technology-enabled startups have flourished as challenger brands.

Amazon rewrote the rules of shopping. Google radically altered the mode for accessing information. Apple made sublime design commercially viable for itself yet affordable for the customer. Airbnb made folks think about boarding and lodging like never before. In each case, someone imagined differently and made it a brand promise and a business plan. Only rarely do we see a business retooling every part of the disruption spectrum. Southwest Airlines is an example. It serviced second-tier markets, used only a single type of plane, spiked up servicing efficiencies, ensured the 30-minute turnaround, and cut services to the bare minimum getting to a price point never witnessed before. This brought in passengers who had previously not thought of flying as an option. That’s classic disruption.

Southwest was led by maverick Herb Kelleher, who built a culture of positively outrageous service to further differentiate the experience beyond price. I was on their LA/ Burbank – Phoenix /San Jose flights almost every month during 2001-2004 and I have experienced it first-hand.

Lastly, I would like to mention the importance of ambition. Challengers take a bigger view of the pie. They have a fluid boundary to their business footprint. They welcome iterative change in the “always-on” mode. Amazon is also in the logistics business. Apple could soon build a car. When big companies with established brands move into new categories, they would do well to learn from challenger brands. They need to zoom into how they are serving consumers and creating value. Talk of purpose and saving the world is very welcome but consumers pay for need fulfillment.

Consider Tesla, one of disruption theory's lead examples at present. Their disruptive model will be eventually copied and bested. Established brands at affordable prices will become catch up competitors. Will they embrace innovative new business models and new sales channels? How will Tesla decide its core values to drive their business and keep leading in this space? How will it inspire and guide innovation through the next 50 years?

This begs the question that if challenging is now much easier why don’t more of the challengers survive and thrive? This can only be answered by remembering that the first-mover advantage is a huge inherent advantage. Early successes set the standard. And everyone has access to example, advice, and acquisition opportunities. A challenger will fail if the incumbent has clarity of thinking, is vigilant about solving customer issues, and reaches consumers through every means possible. This is why user experience is the crack through which challengers see light. The one who can invert the customer engagement process creates a winning impact.  If it can make a substantially better experience scalable, it starts to win.

This is not about incremental gains or dabblers who tinker with pop tech. This is about laying “all in” bets on customer experience and making technology work in ways never done before. Challenger brands must ruthlessly cut any idea that doesn't drive their core identity and commit fully to those that do.

Thinking fast but acting thoughtfully, is the true challenge for any challenger.

The writer is Global Head, Marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, social trends, history, technology, and politics. Views expressed are personal

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