Champion of "Challenger Brands"

Kohnstamm Communications has a legacy of representing “challenger brands,” those companies emerging or competing with entrenched category leaders. Public relations, when crafted carefully, has been shown to be highly disruptive, helping to effectively level the playing field for “rising star” brands.

As a self-image, challenger brand companies often see themselves as “category leader lite,” so the communications focus must seek to break with competitors and differentiate themselves in the marketplace. That often means the tough challenge of creating internal consensus around this new direction, complicated by the fact that challenger brands often hire away key staff from category leaders, causing a range of responses and loyalty issues when mounting an aggressive program. Successful external PR teams are skilled at anticipating, identifying and addressing these internal company roadblocks, and with poised leadership, avoid losing crucial momentum and support.

Strategically, external PR teams must have the familiarity and capacity to create and rally around new ideas – those that help disrupt and realign consumer perceptions. These concepts are particularly catered to capitalize on the nimble and enterprising character of challenger brand organizations, and to take advantage of their more bureaucratic larger competitors.

In his book “Eating The Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders,” Adam Morgan stresses the great importance of ideas that help challenger brands depart from their past and the conventions of Big Fish, “who have a tendency to become arrogant, complacent, hence vulnerable.”

Good challenger brand PR firms, like the consumer team at Kohnstamm Communications, have a particular appetite for working with upstarts possessing a collective identity as “hungry” in their determination for results, often with direct experience working with start-ups, family businesses or other enterprises that provide team members with the honed perspective of an outsider. The DNA of Midwestern agencies – often themselves competing against large competitors on both coasts – can also instill this innate challenger characteristic.

The mandate is to create clarity around exactly where the vulnerabilities and opportunities are and how best to craft targeted programs that grab consumers’ attention, challenge the status quo and move brands in categories long dominated by major players.

A great example of this at Kohnstamm is our work for MOM Brands, formerly known as the Malt‐O‐Meal company. Working hand-in-hand with MOM’s internal marketing team, Kohnstamm used sustainability as a differentiator and created a PR program around the company’s distinctive bagged cereals called “Bag The Box.” The program was designed to poke holes at the larger competitors' use of unnecessary packaging. As a result, sales have placed this family-owned company on the threshold of breaking into the top three, along with Kellogg’s, General Mills and POST. The program has created a solid, fresh platform for the CEO and a mission‐driven focus that the company has embraced in the sustainability world offering them a seat at the table at influential gatherings such as the Sustainable Brands Conference in California.

Successful PR programs often tend to use a “book-end” approach toward creating programs for challenger brands. On the high end, creating a “thought leadership” PR program helps to create voice for the CEO and other executives, and a narrative around the mission of the challenger brand. As part of thought leadership programs, it is common to develop topical speeches, presentations, executive hosted videos and trade media opinion pieces and blogs and participate in “idea summits” such as the TED conference and other high-end venues.

The other “book‐end” involves galvanizing consumer sentiment through enhanced Facebook and Twitter outreach and inviting brand ambassadors to weigh in on their love for the challenger brand and all for which it stands. People love a worthy underdog and will go the extra mile if invited to cheer on a good cause in the face of dominant category giants. Superb PR teams are able to seamlessly seek out and enlist the allegiance of brand influencers, partnering with those who carry the strongest following, while neutralizing naysayers along the way.

Challenger brands represented by Kohnstamm have ranged from Honest Tea, Naked Juice and McCormick Company’s Thai Kitchen brand, to the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business and upstart law firm Nilan Johnson Lewis. By disrupting the marketplace and finding vulnerabilities with the market leaders, challenger brands create a fresh new sense of identity, as Morgan explains, that is “self-referential: this is who we are and this is what we stand for.”

The end result is to finally be out of the shadows of the big boys, and ultimately be seen as the respected brand leaders they are on their own terms.

Josh Kohnstamm is president and founder of Kohnstamm Communications

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