I love September. Maybe it’s the burst of energy as clients come back from their holidays and start thinking about new projects; it might be the change in season heralded by the freezing mornings and sweltering afternoons; or perhaps it’s just the legacy of a childhood spent being bored, bored, bored all summer and looking forward to a new term (yes, really!).

Whatever the reason, I’m feeling all ‘back to school’ this week. After a busy summer, I’m finally picking up my blog again, and I’m also feeding my brain with lots of intriguing-looking workshops.

The brain-feeding started yesterday, with a Marketing Academy session on Challenger Brands, run by PHD and eatbigfish. I arrived in a great mood thanks to the lovely security staff on the door (I’m not being sarcastic – Emirates Stadium is staffed by some of the friendliest and most efficient people I’ve ever encountered), ready to find out whether this particular topic was relevant to sustainability communications. I wasn’t disappointed.

What’s a challenger brand?

For the uninitiated, challenger brands are those that aren’t the biggest and most successful in their category: number two and below. In many cases, the market-leading brand enjoys the privilege of being the ‘default’ option – and that means it can’t be challenged by the same narrative that put it there.

Does this sound familiar, sustainability geeks? The more I listened, the more I was convinced that understanding successful challenger brands can yield huge insights for the big sustainability challenges: from encouraging people to take small actions to moving our economy towards renewable energy.

You already know about some of the classic challenger brands: take Virgin, which has positioned itself as the people’s champion in every market it’s entered; or Ikea, which seeks to make stylish furniture available “to the many”. These brands know that if they’re not the market leader, they need to be the thought leader.

Sustainable behaviours as challenger brands

We’re all well versed in the principles of making the sustainable choice the default choice – depending on the activity and our target audience, we might want it to be seen as easy, fun, desirable, aspirational or normal. But how do we choose which one – and what works?

The PHD and eatbigfish teams have identified 10 ‘challenger types’ – from the Feisty Underdog to the Irreverent Maverick. Each challenger type takes a different approach to its brand communications, depending on what it wants to challenge: a specific brand, a whole category, or even part of the prevailing culture.

Two of the models in particular stood out to me as having clear and immediate parallels with sustainability actions.

1. The Next Generation Challenger

“The Next Generation Challenger is challenging the appropriateness of the Market Leader for the new times we live in. It can be an elegant way to deposition a number one brand, positioning the incumbent as certainly perfect for a time gone by, while now being clear that the world has moved on, and so should our choice of brand. That was then, Ladies and Gentlemen, but this is now.”

Many sustainability activities require a ‘next generation’ mindset. Those of us who work in the field are ready for this change, and we’re sometimes surprised when others are not.

For me, the key insight from this challenger type is that it’s crucial to be respectful of the ‘old order’ even while you change hearts and minds to be ready for the new one. This type of communication is laid-back even while it’s excited about the future: we believe this activity is no longer appropriate for the world we live in, it says, but we recognise that the old way of thinking was once leading edge. If you still want to think that way, it’s fine with us; we’re moving ahead anyway.

Fossil fuels, for example, are the very backbone of modern life, fuelling the industrial revolution and allowing an increase in quality of life beyond our wildest dreams. We didn’t know, of course, that coal and oil were releasing carbon dioxide into our atmosphere; and now that renewables technology is maturing, it’s time to say thanks, fossil fuels, but you’re no longer the fuel of the future. Just don’t forget the ‘thanks’.

It works well for smaller behaviours, too. Audi executed a great Next Generation campaign in the US in 2010. Watch the advert for the Audi A4 and ask yourself: what happens if the next generation of car isn’t a new car, but a bicycle – or even a car you don’t own?

2. The Enlightened Zagger

“The Enlightened Zagger is deliberately swimming against a prevailing current not in the category, but in the culture. They challenge ‘conventional wisdom’ (rather than the status quo) around the way we live: I know the world buys into this as an acceptable way to live, they say, but I am calling it out for the BS it really is.”

This type also has some clear applications for sustainability. Campaigns that challenge our culture of fast, throwaway fashion, for example, or the need to travel to international business meetings when videoconference can get us there faster, cheaper and with much less hassle.

Crucially, again, is this notion of respect for individuals and their choices. Instead of challenging the category and people who use it (e.g. the people who follow fashion, to whom it’s an important part of their identity), the brands challenge the culture that demands the unsustainable behaviour (e.g. the increasing speed of changes in fashion). It’s a less direct but much more effective route to changing specific behaviours.

The Camper shoe company’s Walk, Don’t Run campaign epitomises the Enlightened Zagger approach, taking aim at the speed of modern society and asking the consumer to think about what really matters: taking time.

What can we do?

These are by no means the only two challenger types with valuable insights for sustainability – I’m sure there are sustainable products and behaviours that sit in all 10 types. (With names like the Visionary, the Missionary, and the Game Changer, there pretty much have to be!)

But for now I’m going to sit back, look at my current work, see if I can reframe the communications goals as ‘challenger behaviours’, and glean some insights from brands that have challenged the status quo… and won.

Image: Never Fear, Underdog Is Here! by Bart is licensed under CC BY 2.0