Triumph of the underdog

Being a challenger brand can pay off in a big way - if you have the right game plan

At the recent Women’s World Cup, Canada shocked soccer fans when it knocked out heavyweight China in the quarterfinals. The Canadians came out aggressively, contrasting China’s succinct, short passing style with long ball attacks. This led to an early goal – scored by a defender who dared to leave her back line – and they clung to that lead until the final whistle blew.

Many underdog marketers play their strategies out in a similar fashion. And with good reason – in order to steal market share away from the leaders they need to find a distinct approach, take creative risks and, perhaps most importantly, work within the confines of their brand’s potential.

Marcus Wiseman, who handles strategy and planning at Toronto-based agency Sharpe Blackmore Euro RSCG, knows what it’s like to be the smaller guy in a David vs. Goliath battle, as he once helped launch Bell in Telus-dominated Western Canada. His advice? Don’t be a clone, be clear on who you are and what you stand for, and know your customer.

‘Segment and learn – it can lead to significant insight, which helps you reach consumers,’ he says. ‘Number-two companies really need to learn how to be relevant to their customers.’

That’s exactly how Mississauga, Ont.-based Cara Operations sees it. The firm recently introduced its new positioning for its Harvey’s fast-food chain and, according to marketing manager Joanne Stewart, the idea was born after a year-and-a-half spent studying the target.

She explains: ‘We can’t compete on being all things to all people. We figured there was a core customer that was being neglected.’

That abandoned customer turned out to be guys who just want to chow down on a good burger. So while McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King continue to cook up healthier options, Harvey’s has gone in the opposite direction, which makes complete sense for them. In fact, a healthy push would have been all wrong, considering the QSR has always promised a great-tasting burger perfected on the grill.

Says Angus Tucker, co-CD and partner of Harvey’s AOR John St.: ‘[Healthy] is not really in Harvey’s nature – a salad doesn’t come out of a grill, so we’ve decided to focus on what built their business in the first place, which is a better hamburger prepared a better way.’

There are two new TV ads from the Toronto-based shop; the first features a trio of guys attempting to light a barbecue, and causing an explosion in the process, while the second promotes Harvey’s new six-ounce Big Harv. The difference between these spots and what came before them, according to Stewart, is that they are seeking more of an emotional connection. ‘We think ‘the best taste’ message was delivering on the functional, rather than emotional relevancy.’

The goal for Harvey’s, which has 339 locations and usually finds itself as a number-four or number-five player in the category, is obviously to gain enough market share to move up the ranks.

If the experience of Knorr Canada is any indication, Harvey’s is on the right path. A division of Toronto-based packaged goods firm Unilever Canada, Knorr realized it couldn’t go head-to-head with category leader Campbell’s, so instead it carved out a new niche.

Last spring, Palmer Jarvis DDB Toronto launched a new campaign for Knorr, geared at ‘adventurers’ with the tagline ‘Our chefs work hard so you don’t have to.’ Since then Knorr has been growing faster than the competition despite having only one-fifth of Campbell’s’ budget, and overall brand sales are up 9% year to date and still climbing.

‘Some leader brands try to reach everybody, and that becomes a trap – you can become generic,’ points out Andrew Simon, associate CD at PJ DDB.

Instead, Knorr pinpoints ‘food lovers’ who like to explore different meals, but don’t have time to cook from scratch. This insight came through research. PJ DDB sent consumers home with product, and found out that participants used Knorr in different ways. ‘That opened up our thinking – we thought if we just showed a bowl of food it would not speak to these people.’

As a result, the Knorr advertising, including print, TV and outdoor, tries to be more clever to reach its experimental target; the advertising depicts high-end dishware that is styled to look like something edible. For instance, the TV spot shows a sea of plates that are stacked to mimic fish scales.

The media placement, by PHD Canada in Toronto, was also tactical, with the TV running on The Food Network, and print popping up in magazines like Food & Drink. ‘Most challenger brands don’t have the budget the leaders have, so it’s important to spend money smartly,’ explains Simon. ‘So you find those opportunities where you can create a bond with your customer.’

Although grounded in research, Simon admits the campaign was a creative risk, albeit one worth taking. This is another advantage of being an underdog: there’s less pressure to play it safe. ‘Knorr was a bit outdated and used mainly for special occasions so it wasn’t top of mind. [There was] an opportunity to reinvent the brand and look at it in a whole new way.’

For Kia, a Korean entry in the automotive category, creativity is key to establishing a foothold in a sector dominated by large competitors. Last spring, the Mississauga, Ont.-based firm, which entered the Canadian landscape two years ago, unveiled the TV spot ‘Cart Noir,’ starring a young guy who is chased by an evil shopping cart. In the end, the character expertly manoeuvres a sharp curve in his Kia Rio, forcing the cart to crash over a cliff. And in homage to all ’70s action TV shows, it explodes for no reason at all.

‘As a new company, we’re not stuck in a mould, and we have the opportunity to look at what’s gone on in the market before, and learn from what others have done,’ says Ross Cunningham, Kia’s marketing manager, who adds that the idea went unresearched and was ‘a leap of faith for sure.’

Pat Pirisi and Duncan Bruce are the co-CDs at Toronto-based Publicis who developed the effort. Like Knorr, they believe that Kia’s underdog status gave them more creative licence. Says Bruce: ‘The idea that Kia doesn’t have a heritage – that’s also its weapon. We can create from a fresh start, and we can surprise the consumer. Sometimes heritage has baggage – [the response is] ‘I don’t believe that from General Motors.”

With the Kia Rio in particular, which is aimed at a first-time car buyer, Publicis was able to push the imagination even further. ‘We took elements of horror and put it with comedy, which makes for entertaining TV,’ says Pirisi.

He adds: ‘The big three don’t give themselves permission to do that kind of stuff. They generate a lot of GRPs, they run ads constantly, and they protect their territory. But when you’re in the Wild West and trying to grow a brand that’s new to the marketplace, you have to take chances in order to make a notable first impression.’

This willingness to step away from the crowd seems to be working for Kia. In May, it announced its best month ever with a grand total of 3,076 vehicles sold. In particular, the Rio had the highest monthly numbers (selling 1,223), breaking the previous record set back in June 2002 (1,105).

Similarly, 15-month-old airline carrier Jetsgo tries to stand out in its sector with attention-grabbing offers. ‘We’ve tried to capture the consumer’s imagination,’ says Michael Granshaw, VP corporate planning at the Montreal-based company. ‘So we’ve come up with some interesting promotional concepts and ideas, which set us apart.’

For instance, in September Jetsgo announced ‘Loonie Sundays,’ permitting travellers to book seats for a buck on that day of the week. And last February, Jetsgo introduced Simplifree; in an effort to encourage registration on its site, the airline rewarded consumers who had booked six flights with a complimentary trip to Florida. That initiative, which ended in August, increased registration by 250% and spawned the launch of the Jetsmiles loyalty program (see sidebar).

Since the airline leans heavily on PR – although it has invested in outdoor and print advertising here and there – innovation is imperative. Explains Granshaw: ‘When you look at airlines, 35% of new business comes from word of mouth. What better way to drive that than to create interest and excitement?’

Jetsgo also took a risk with its friendly airline positioning, relying on a bright green happy face for its logo, instead of a more traditional and serious corporate design. Says Granshaw: ‘We had to create an environment that appeals to all consumers, and that’s an interesting challenge if you have to appeal to the 45-year-old business person, as much as you do to a student and a retired couple. So the positioning had to be right – not too cutesy, not too soft, not too hard.’

It appears the airline struck the right balance. The number of business to leisure travellers is equally split. Furthermore, the airline has seen a 460% improvement in numbers this September over September 2002, and while it launched its business with three aircraft, by the end of the year it will have 12 jets in the sky.

But being an underdog isn’t as easy as it sounds. Just like in sports, the challenge is to avoid falling into a defensive shell as gains are made, and to be able to continually surprise. Team Canada eventually learned that the hard way.