Zag Ed. 17 – The North Star for Challenger Marketers, Paying Down Marketing Debt, and How to Build Community

🌎 Driving growth and building a brand is a tough job in today’s competitive and cultural environment. Advertising is no longer limited to the big companies with big budgets to hire agencies and launch TV-centric campaigns. Now, every brand – from global enterprises to start-ups to individual influencers –  is able to dump content into the ecosystem.

How do you break through with all this noise? You bring value. You earn people’s attention instead of expecting it. The brands held up as best-in-class in this era are the ones that bring value to their audience through their marketing. Pick almost any challenger brand and you’ll see evidence of this approach. Away has grown as a challenger in the luggage business by telling beautiful, inspirational stories about travel on social media. Cash App is growing like crazy in the mobile payments space by leveraging influencers to post fun, engaging content on channels with underpriced attention like TikTok. One of our favourite examples is actually from more than 100 years ago when Michelin started their fine dining guide to get people in France to drive more. (Remember, you don’t need to be a start-up to be a challenger!).

On the other side of the conversation, the incumbent brands held up as the worst examples (or the ones ignored entirely), are still stuck in the old model. They use marketing to extract value. They start with them – their business, their product, their sales targets, instead of their audience. Take your pick here, it’s not hard to find examples and you likely already have a few in mind!

The new model isn’t all that new. Inbound marketing, content marketing, the “publisher approach” – all of these methods stem from the same philosophy: using marketing to add value, not just extract it.

So, how do you add value? The tactic will depend on your business, but the approach is the same for everyone who’s done it well: you reverse-engineer from your audience. You start with the customer and put him/her at the center of everything you do. You push yourself and your team to understand who they are, what they care about, and what problems they’re trying to solve. You define the value you want to add and constantly reassess whether you’re delivering against it.

Adding value is the North Star for challenger marketers. They seek to produce content and experiences that will be valuable to their customers. Challengers invest heavily in the content their audience will find most valuable, distributed in the channels most convenient to them, not where the marketer (or media agency) wants them to be. Anything and everything they do starts and ends with the question of “how can we add value through the marketing we do?”

🤔 You’ve heard of tech debt: old, legacy technology that’s become so entrenched in a business that it’s almost impossible to change, even if it’s incredibly outdated.

What about marketing debt?

Marketing debt is real, and it’s limiting the growth of so many businesses. They have layers of incremental changes that have been put down, year over year, on top of a weak foundation because it’s easier and quicker than rebuilding.

The top layers of marketing activity might look fine, but underneath it all the core is old and outdated. The principles and perspectives that provide the pillars of the marketing structure aren’t fit for purpose in today’s world.

Much like with tech debt for a CTO, CMOs need to make a decision about how and when to pay down their marketing debt. They can go layer by layer or rip and replace the whole thing at once.

But until they clear their marketing debt, they will be paying interest on it in the form of less effective, less efficient marketing activity.

🕴️Good marketers make the companies they work for more customer-centric. They find ways to not only bring the product to the customer, but bring the customer to the product. That could be through straightforward customer research (which can be cheap, fast, and easy to do – or just use Attest like we do!), more complex test/learn agendas baked into marketing campaigns, or it could be just by being the team that religiously represents the voice and needs of the customer internally.

All growth ultimately comes from innovation – product innovation and marketing innovation. And all innovation comes from an understanding of how your brand and business can better, faster, or more cheaply solve the needs that your customer has.

Be the marketer that makes your company more customer-centric.

👫 Community. What does it mean to your brand and business? Community is one of the twelve building blocks we believe drives the hyper-growth of challenger brands. But why? And how can you leverage its potential?

Community ultimately comes down to people sharing a belief, experience, and connection with each other around your brand. That could be in a forum, a discussion, or an event. It’s about taking your brand purpose and creating a platform where people who share your perspective on the industry can come together.

Communities can (and usually do) start small, but can become incredibly powerful when they hit scale. Communities drive engagement and advocacy, but even more importantly they create differentiated value that keeps people connected to your brand. Content brings them in, community keeps them there.


Have a thought on this? We'd love to hear it.

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