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  • Writer's pictureRed Harp Team

Building Challenger Brands: 3 Observations from a Recent Global Amazon Conference

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Our team was recently invited to deliver a thought-leadership presentation on best practices related to brand building for new and emerging brands as part of an Amazon global sellers conference.

For anyone who has worked with challenger brands, you know how... well, challenging, this can be. The essence of the challenge, as I explained in our presentation, is to try to convince people to buy a product (that they may not even know they want or need) from a brand they've likely never heard of before, instead of just as easily buying it from a brand they already know and trust. This initial obstacle of overcoming brand obscurity is a real tough nut to crack, particularly for startups with lean budgets.

Our role in speaking during the event was to give new and emerging brands some strategies for navigating this journey from obscurity to household name. Likewise, I was interested to hear from them what they were doing with their brands, and what types of challenges they were facing. Three distinct themes emerged from the questions we received, and conversations we had, providing some interesting insights (and confirmations) about their experiences building brands. Read on to learn more.

Observation #1. Hitting a glass ceiling

Almost every brand we talked with at the event told us that, while up to this point, they'd achieved steady, and sometimes impressive, growth with a product- and performance-centric approach (promoting product features and competitive pricing), they had hit a glass ceiling limiting their ability to further elevate their brands into the "big leagues."

Up to this point, they had been investing primarily in performance marketing (DR advertising, affiliate marketing, etc.) to drive in-market audiences to take advantage of frequent deals and comparatively low pricing. However, in the process, they were effectively "buying" every conversion. If they switched off these lower-funnel activities, their sales would also stop, as well as any progress in increasing their market share.

Moreover, they described how they were missing out on more intangible opportunities afforded to better-known brands, such as brand partnerships, media coverage, and speaking engagements.

What they needed was a way of prompting long-term interest and consideration in their brand, not just deals, promotions, or fleeting product innovation; they needed a way of making their companies uniquely recognizable, memorable, and likable. They needed to invest in a brand strategy.

Observation #2. Branding is only skin-deep

While some of these brands had already gone through some form of brand development, their efforts had primarily been focused on VI and design, not on what I consider to be the "fundamentals" of branding: developing an understanding who they should be engaging - and how they should be engaging them.

Of course, if you're a new brand with finite funds, and need to fast-track your GTM efforts, it's tempting to hire a small agency, or a designer, to create just the essential branding elements you need to launch a site, design packaging, and print sales materials.

However, while this can get a startup through the first year or so, as the brand matures, it needs to better understand its position in the market in order to develop a strategy for growth. What I heard from several brands I talked with was that they didn't have strong knowledge of who they should be targeting for growth, and how best to present themselves to turn those audiences into customers and followers. So it makes sense that a lot of the brands we were talking with about branding were more mature "startups," 2 - 4 years old.

This is where investing in a comprehensive brand strategy initiative that leverages market research becomes an imperative. The deliverable at the end of this exercise should be a comprehensive guide covering positioning, messaging, creative, and activation strategies - everything you need to make informed decisions about what you should be communicating, how you should be communicating it, and, most importantly, why you are communicating it. This not only takes the guesswork out of marketing efforts, it also gives you the confidence to move forward with ambitious (and sometimes costly) investments in things like video production, TV advertising, or integrated brand campaigns.

Observation #3. Not bringing brands to life

The third observation from our conversations was that, for brands that had already developed some form of branding, few were actually bringing it to life. They went through the motions of writing the company's vision on their site, and printing business cards, but they weren't necessarily integrating their brand stories into their daily marketing activities - and maximizing the value of their investment.

This is evidenced by one prospective client's question, "how long does it take to build a brand?" In my mind, building a brand is not a discrete exercise, but rather a philosophy that informs and inspires everything the company does. For instance, a company's brand should be used to help determine the types of influencers it partners with (and the types of programs it executes with those influencers), the content and activities it creates and distributes across social media, and the media channels it runs ads on.

And it's not just marketing that are influenced by branding: product strategy, customer experience, BD partnerships, merchandising, and sales strategy should all ideally take cues from the brand in order to create a unified experience across all consumer touch points.

It's these ongoing applications of branding that repeatedly, and consistently, communicate and reinforce a brand's proposition. They're the experiences that form audiences' understanding of what the brand is, and why they should care about it. It's not just saying you're "a great brand;" it's letting consumers experience it for themselves.

A great example of this is how Warby Parker regularly creates experiences - including articles and blog posts, social campaigns, and CSR initiatives - to demonstrate how their brand believes in making quality eyewear affordable for everyone. In just a few years, they've arguably become the authoritative eyewear brand with this value proposition. Compare this to Zenni Optical who launched their brand with the exact same message (and even cheaper glasses) 10 years earlier. The difference is that Zenni initially didn't invest a lot in brand marketing to demonstrate this philosophy (though they have since begun to invest a lot more).

In summary, it was a great experience talking with these companies, and hearing where they are in their brand journeys (and sharing some advice in the process). It provided really valuable insights to help me/us, as marketers, understand how we can help them grow their brands and maybe eventually become tomorrow's market leaders.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experience, as well! Feel free to share a comment or drop us a line at!



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