07 February 2023

Richard Taylor: The Making of a Challenger Brand

The Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50 is full of challenger brands taking on the established businesses in their sector. But what does it take to succeed as a challenger?

Many of the businesses in this year’s Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50 share the same characteristic: they are disruptive challenger brands that have gone out of their way to shake up product categories where new ideas have previously been in short supply. It’s an attribute that has characterised many of the high flyers from our previous reports going back more than a decade – the likes of Innocent Drinks, BrewDog and Fever-Tree, for example.

For businesses hoping to emulate these brands’ success, what does it take to disrupt and challenge? There’s good news and bad, says Richard Taylor, the founder of Brandon Consultants, which specialises in helping businesses build brands that can drive growth. “There is definitely a backlash against large corporate brands amongst consumers, particularly amongst the young; they are looking for something more artisanal and authentic,” Taylor says. “But there has to be an idea that stands behind any challenger – a high-quality solution to a genuine problem.”

In other words, good branding won’t sell a poor product. The recipe box company Gousto – last year’s top-placed company in the Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50 and a top 10 performer this year – is a success because it has the perfect product for its demographic.

Relatively affluent customers short on time are happy to pay for Gousto’s fresh ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes. Similarly, Charlie Bigham’s, which has repeatedly featured in the Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50, honed in on consumers’ concerns that the ready meal market was full of low-quality, unhealthy products.

“Our job as marketeers is to help brands articulate their story in the most effective way possible, but there has to be a story in the first place,” Taylor adds. “The challenger brands that succeed are those who understand who they are and why they want to be in the world.”

For brands with that vision, the key is to express it in a way that resonates with potential customers. One common strategy is to define the proposition in terms of how it is different to what came before. “It helps if you have something to fight against,” points out Taylor. Sometimes, this strategy can be aggressive. BrewDog, for instance, has built its brand, in part at least, by being prepared to call out what it perceives to be the failings of its sector. Criticisms of established brewers as bland and characterless appear to have struck a chord with consumers.

In other cases, the challenge is more nuanced. THIS™, the top-ranked business in this year’s Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50 is a case in point. “It’s the antithesis of previous products in its category,” says Taylor, pointing out that THIS™ set out to create a meat-like product that carnivores would enjoy, rather than simply courting the vegan and vegetarian audience. “Everyone else was doing something different, so THIS™ has a more rebellious feel.”

Distinctive packaging, advertising, marketing material and tone of voice can all add to this sense of difference. In THIS™’s case, for example, the company very deliberately operates with a monochrome colour scheme; it stands out in a sector where green is the dominant colour because brands feel it plays to their plant-based, natural attributes.

One common strategy is to build the brand around an individual. People, after all, relate to people – and particularly to an underdog perceived as standing up to the establishment or a larger organisation.

Charlie Bigham’s is one example of this idea; Gousto’s use of Joe Wicks is based on a similar rationale. It also helps if brands win sufficient support to give themselves an almost self-sustaining momentum.

Many challenger brands in the sector are working hard to create communities of customers who effectively operate as brand ambassadors, building noise around the company independently of its own efforts.

This has worked well for businesses such as Huel, another regular in the Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50, whose customers engage with one another on social media, sharing tips and advice about how to use the product.

The most successful challenger brands have grown very rapidly using such tactics, but the key is to avoid complacency, Taylor warns. “You do need continuous improvement of the user experience,” he says. “Your product becomes a lifestyle choice, but you have to keep giving customers new reasons to make that choice, rather than taking them for granted.”

Indeed, the danger for challenger brands is they eventually grow to such a size and market position that they themselves are open to challenge from newcomers with even fresher ideas. It’s a problem many brands would happily have, of course, but must be confronted nonetheless.


This article originally featured in the 2022 Alantra Food & Beverage Fast 50 report. See the full report on Alantra's website here


Richard Taylor is the founder at Brandon. If you're looking for help with brand design, strategy or innovation, give us a call or send us an email. We'd love to hear from you. 

Richard Taylor