In conversation with

Benjamin Cooper

Strategy Director at eatbigfish

Ben Cooper eatbigfish

Introduction

Introduction

A decade ago, it was feasible for a start-up to challenge ‘big’ by repurposing the classic underdog story and get away it. But these days so many brands are lining up to be ‘challengers’ in their field, there exists a disconnect between those with something to say and those who just want the ‘optics’ of disrupting the status quo. Which is where an agency like eatbigfish comes in.

As global leaders in strategy, growth, culture and innovation, they help businesses define and then tap into their own challenger mindset.

Enter Strategy Director, Benjamin Cooper. Having worked in communications for over a decade, he knows what makes brands tick and how to set them apart from the competition.

We sat down with Benjamin to discuss what it really means to be a challenger, the importance of maintaining a scrappy mindset as you grow, and why a big tone of voice needs to be backed up with bold behaviour.

Question and Answer

What is your background and how did you arrive at eatbigfish? 

I came to eatbigfish four years ago having worked for eight years as a planner in a couple of different media agencies. I was at a point in my career where working for big agencies wasn’t very fulfilling – I was being asked to prioritise profit for the agency over and above doing the best possible work for my clients and that just felt wrong. One dark November evening in 2015, a friend sent me a text to ask if I would be up for having a coffee with someone at eatbigfish to be a strategist and I jumped at the chance. We are a unique little company with a great culture, a clear idea of what we stand for and luckily, a lot of clients who want to work with us. It’s by far the best role and company I could have hoped to work for.

What does it really mean to be a ‘challenger brand’?

Most people think a challenger brand is defined by the market position or size of a brand but that is fundamentally not true. It sounds obvious, I know – but to truly be a challenger brand, you have to challenge something. It used to be that brands would set out to challenge a competitor in the same category, but that is becoming less common. It’s much more interesting to challenge some aspect of the category, the customer experience or societal norm in the world that needs changing.

The second important thing about being a challenger brand is that you have to recognise that because there is a gap between your ambitions and your resources, you are going to need a challenger mindset. Challenger brands are prepared to do bold and innovative things in ways that engage people emotionally to bridge that disparity. That often means having a strong belief at the heart of your brand and letting your actions, as well as your words, do the talking.

As an agency that specialises in tone of voice, we naturally think words are essential to building a brand. What is your approach to brand writing? 

At eatbigfish, we would totally agree. You always need to be clear, consistent and engaging in your tone of voice, not just in your advertising and marketing but across all your touch points – all your packaging, every email, across the website, when someone calls customers services, even the Ts&Cs – they should all be helping to build your brand.

For challenger brands it’s not just your tone of voice, more broadly it’s your behaviour as a brand that needs to grab people’s attention. Our approach helps our clients define how they want to behave and help them identify unexpected moments where they can inject their brand’s personality. I always find it amazing how often brands forget that their tone of voice needs to come to life beyond just the marketing and the product.

Ben Cooper
eatbigfish

Who are the brands you think are really aligning their challenger narrative with their communications? 

There are lots to choose from… Brands that I think are doing this really well are Tony’s Chocolonely, who are delivering their mission driven narrative in a way that balances a hard hitting message in a slightly bombastic way; Mailchimp – they inject a sense of humour into what is essentially a B2B email marketing tool; Lemonade Insurance do a great job of dragging the insurance category forwards in a completely unapologetic way; and Oatly continue to nail it with their advertising and their tone of voice in general.

I think what is common across all of these is that they deliberately choose not to follow the category norms of tone of voice or behaviour. They give customers more than just a product to buy into and that is essential for a challenger brand.

What’s an example of where a brand has tried and failed to be a “challenger brand”? 

Where brands often go wrong or get lost is when they lose sight of what they really stand for and then end up looking like the rest of the category. Reluctantly, I would say Pepsi are an example of a brand that has struggled to fulfil their challenger potential. They were one of the original challengers – Coke vs. Pepsi was one of the original challenger stories in marketing – but as they have grown, their marketing and practices are of yet another massive global brand.

One of the emerging themes we are seeing at the moment is that when a number of brands launched 5-10 years ago they brought something fresh to their category, but the rest of the competition have rapidly caught up, and what made them interesting or unique is now a category norm. I think there are lots of brands, especially in the FMCG world that are losing relevance as they have scaled. It goes to demonstrate how important maintaining a challenger mindset is as you grow.

“You always need to be clear, consistent and engaging in your tone of voice, not just in your advertising and marketing but across all your touch points – all your packaging, every email, across the website, when someone calls customers services, even the Ts&Cs – they should all be helping to build your brand.”

How important is brand culture when thinking about being a challenger in your field?

It all starts with culture. You can have all the sexy design and expertly crafted words in the world but at the end of the day, brands are built by people. Your brand needs a strong culture behind it to thrive and we believe that starts with a challenger mindset. Being a challenger is really hard – you have bigger ambitions and fewer resources than everyone else, so you need to be prepared to do more with less. Having a strong culture enables you to better navigate this difficult path, deal with ‘no’ better and be more innovative with how you use the resources you do have. Once you have embedded a challenger culture, you then need to maintain it. This usually means having to sacrifice some of the things that made you successful in the first place. It’s not easy, but it is a lot more interesting than settling for indifference.

What are the ingredients for a good brand strategy? 

Big question – for the long version, read Eating the Big Fish.

For a challenger brand strategy, you have to first identify what you are challenging and develop a corresponding belief. The easiest way to think of this is that you should be able to complete the sentence: ‘in a world of… we believe in…’. This belief should be the filter through which you see all aspects of brand and the business – not just the marketing, but your brand’s behaviour, the types of product or service you deliver, your culture and HR policy. Having this clarity on what you stand for and against enables brands to make choices as to what they will and, just as important, what they won’t pursue.

The other ingredient you need is a team who shares this vision to have a challenger mindset to deliver your brand’s ambition.

Finally, you need to have a realistic plan. You need to have a sense of what is going to be required across your brand and business to deliver on your ambition.

eatbigfish challenger book
"For a challenger brand strategy, you must first identify what you are challenging and develop a corresponding belief."

What are three pieces of advice/questions you would pose to a new brand who is looking to carve out their challenger status? 

Be clear on what the brand is challenging: identify what it is in the category or in the world that is broken and needs challenging and thus what the brand believes in.

Adopt a challenger mindset: build a team of people who have the mindset to overcome the comparatively fewer resources and who are willing and capable to do more with less.

Sacrifice and overcommit: identify what you’re going to sacrifice and leave behind in order to overcommit to the areas of the brand that are going to disproportionately contribute to your ambition.

The Storylist

Books

  1. Eating Big Fish by eatbigfish
  2. Overthrow 2 by eatbigfish
  3. A Beautiful Constraint by Adam Morgan & Mark Barden
  4. How Not To Plan by Les Binet & Sarah Carter
  5. Grit by Angela Duckworth

Magazines

  1. Courier
  2. Wired
  3. The Times Business

Newsletters

  1. Quartz Dailey
  2. McKinsey's Insights
  3. That Explains Things

Podcasts

  1. How I Built This
  2. How To Fail
  3. Pivot

Websites

  1. Inc
  2. Sifted
  3. It's Nice That
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