In 1999, Adam Morgan published Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders, a manifesto on winning in the face of superior competition. Big Fish was about taking on the market leader despite limited resources; it was about making your own rules; it was about redefining the terms by which a product category should be judged.
Big Fish offered an alternative path to the top. In every market, Morgan argued, the leader was already entrenched, his inertia impossible to overcome by brute force, and his war chest overflowing with resources. The only path to market share, Morgan warned, was to win the battle for mindshare, and the context of that conflict would be defined in terms of thought leadership – with ideas that truly added value.
Morgan outlined eight “credos” of Challenger Brands. And though he illustrated his work with examples of many companies in many markets, the book was, more than any other, the story of one man – Steve Jobs.
So it seems only fitting, in the context of Jobs’ passing, to revisit Big Fish, reflecting on the life of a gifted competitor. For in the end, the future of Apple will be defined not by Steve Jobs, but by the organization’s ability to sustain his vision, and to continue to redefine their markets through the eight principles explained in Morgan’s book:
- Intelligent Naivety. By deliberately forgetting what they already “know,” Challenger Brands free themselves to see their opportunities anew, to identify the core issues facing their brand or their organization, to redefine their businesses and to choose and shape the criteria by which they will be judged in the marketplace.
- Lighthouse Identity. Challenger Brands have a clear sense of who they are, and they project that identity intensely. Driven by self-confidence, they encourage the world to navigate by them, by their standards. They expend their marketing energies simply to tell us where they stand. They are intrusive, they stand on a brand or truth that is inarguable, they are over-engineered to over-perform, and they build strong emotional relationships with their markets.
- Thought Leadership. Challenger Brands are the brands that everyone is talking about. They gain momentum by portraying themselves differently, by encountering the market in new locations, and by changing the definitions of performance.
- Symbols of Re-evaluation. Challenger Brands move swiftly and powerfully to capture the consumer’s imagination, with dramatic acts that become symbols – icons of change. They communicate emotion with powerful juxtapositions that force consumers to rethink their assumptions about a category.
- Sacrifice. Because Challengers often have fewer resources than the Market Leader, they make tough choices between what to do and what to sacrifice. This improves their focus by eliminating the distractions created by having options.
- Over-commitment. By sacrificing all other options, Challenger Brands force themselves into a posture of desperation. When failure is no longer an option, the only way out is to overcommit.
- Social Culture. Challenger Brands leverage their communications to create a social folklore. They risk offending large segments of the traditional market to establish social prominence. They transcend the normal discussions about consumer preferences by creating a mythology about their brands, motivating consumers to communicate on their behalf.
- Idea-centricity. Challenger Brands do not measure their success through immediate growth in sales and revenues, but on momentum gained for their ideas. Their equity comes from a confidence on the part of the consumer that the brand is making a run in its category. Rather than promising the consumer a sense of belonging to an established community, Challengers offer the ability to be different, to be ahead of the curve.
These eight simple concepts are no more enlightening today than when they were first published – just more poignant in the context of our recent loss. They endure to reassure us of opportunity in overcrowded markets. The real challenge for Apple, and for a generation of competitors, will not be to prevail in the face of competition, but to live up to the example set by Mr. Jobs.