Loading the Slingshot: How to Position Your Institution as a Challenger Brand

June 10, 2021

Loading the Slingshot: How to Position Your Institution as a Challenger Brand

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Loading the Slingshot: How to Position Your Institution as a Challenger Brand

Using Challenger Thinking for Higher Education Branding

Avis needed something new. 

They found themselves hemorrhaging millions of dollars and losing market share.

For as long as anyone could remember, Avis trailed Hertz– the established market leader. Avis, named after its founder and Air Force Officer Warren Avis, got its start by providing rental car transportation. As he traveled throughout the world, Avis noticed an undiscovered need. Business travelers needed a way to fly into a city, drive to a meeting and return to the airport on the same day. And yet, even with this innovative product extension, Avis would continue to trail Hertz over the next couple of decades.

In 1962, Avis went looking for answers. Madison Avenue was fully engulfed in what is now considered advertising’s creative revolution–the “Mad Men” era. The diversification of many of the prominent ad agencies cultivated new talent and, ultimately, new ways of thinking about branding.

What Avis found, in their new partnership with the legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency, was a campaign that exploited their position in the market. They would celebrate a perceived weakness as well as status in the market–shattering many, if not all, advertising conventions. “When you’re only No. 2, you try harder” not only made its way into the zeitgeist but helped Avis become profitable for the first time in over a decade. 

The story of Avis is a lesson for higher education branding. It’s not necessarily about celebrating a weakness per se, but defying conventions, reframing your offering and cultivating an authentic brand promise. 


Our industry is ripe for challenger brand thinking. For instance, the patterns found in fast moving consumer goods, as it relates to market leaders, are playing out in higher ed. We’ve seen this in the recent reports on application distribution. The reported increase in applications was not evenly distributed–favoring leaders. With unreliable yield predictions, establishing right-ft is critical. 

Similarly, our higher education marketing universe has exploded–with many institutions primed to continue to turn to marketing to right-the-ship. Finding one’s voice amongst the crowd will continue to get more difficult, and success in digital will continue to favor current leaders. 

Finally, we’ve experienced major disruption in the category. COVID aside, standardized test changes, Google’s renewed interest in micro credentials and decentralized learning models are some of the more recent changes that have signalled continued shifts. Our normal category boundaries and competitor sets have quickly evolved. Higher education marketers must reconcile their evolving position in the marketplace and focus on a clear and compelling brand promise.

As these types of market forces continue to collide, we may see “the middle ground” become less desirable. And in a time of reinvention, ambitious efforts from institutions couldn’t be more relevant. Avis adopted a challenger mindset. They used a new frame of reference as a new formalized strategic process. Below, we explore challenger brand thinking and two applications for higher education marketers. 

Let’s start with defining a challenger brand. 

What’s a challenger brand?

The term challenger brand was officially codified by Adam Morgan, founder and CEO of Eat Big Fish. In his book, Eating the Big Fish, he defined a challenger brand as more of a mindset. And while there’s a tendency to envision a David and Goliath scenario, Morgan is quick to argue that it’s reductive because it insinuates a challenger brand must always be considered small or an “underdog” brand, or a business stage.  

The challenger brand mindset is one where a brand “has ambitions bigger than its conventional resources” and is prepared to challenge conventions knowing this gap exists, and to develop a perspective around a particular mindset. 

What’s central to the challenger philosophy is that it’s rooted in elevating companies whose mission is for the greater good. Higher education is uniquely positioned to take advantage of applying this thinking as a framework for developing ambitious brand strategies. 

Next, we’ll explore two challenger brand mindsets and show how they can be used to inform brand strategy. 

Champion your location

We know colleges can be an economic driver and a beacon of support for the community it serves. As renewed interest in localism continues to permeate American culture, there’s an opportunity for smaller institutions to position themselves as champions of their location, in relation to a larger institution. This strategy may become even more important, for smaller colleges who do not have the resources to challenge categorical changes but can position more successfully against a larger institution.

To adopt this mindset, an institution must champion its location and prioritize understanding the intersection of what the institution offers and the needs of the community.

Characteristics of brands who want to champion their location:

Brand Actions over Branded Tactics: Brand actions are the things brands do that have real-world impact–and they can be just as powerful as any advertising campaigns. The sweet spot is when these actions align with the brand. In what ways can you champion your community, while reinforcing your core offerings? 

Character into Culture: Brands who have successfully championed their communities, first created a shared purpose within the organization that was powerful enough to easily translate to external audiences. And when a shared purpose is understood, it’s a better rallying cry than most profit-driven endeavors. In what ways can you translate your brand strategy effectively to all internal stakeholders?

Pride before Scale: Localized media buys should form the foundation for media planning. The rationalization is that the more your institution is creating a consistent narrative around your community efforts, the more local audiences take pride and respond to marketing activities. The result is both positive affect and positive word-of-mouth, extending the reach of your campaigns with more influential messaging. 

Make your mission your objective

Brand purpose receives lots of attention among marketers. And while often it becomes hygienic, colleges and universities whose mission is focused and ultimately used to inform decision-making, have a compelling claim in the marketplace. It’s the old saying: “The business is the mission and the mission is the objective.”

Think about REI’s mission: “to inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.” It doesn’t take much effort to uncover how this mission has affected brand decisions. From the brand’s OptOutside Black Friday campaign to its Circular Commerce efforts, the mission resides at the center of all marketing and communications decisions. By wearing its mission on its sleeve, REI creates a unique position in direct opposition of perceived “big box” retailers.

Characteristics of brands who want to make their mission their objective:

Challenge Conventions and the Category: This strategy leads with a transparent sense of purpose and stakes claim to the perspective that their views are in contrast to the beliefs of the category leaders. In some cases, the goal of this mindset is to directly challenge the beliefs that underpin the category–it can also be the conventions found within the category. No one would argue that providing an education is something a brand should position against, but there are attributes or the delivery of the product that a challenger can actively challenge. Create a list of weaknesses you may have compared to the market leader. How can they be reframed as a strength? Cull all the communications you can from those in your market. What conventions do you see, in terms of creative and messaging? In what ways can you create a unique perspective in comparison? 

Refresh Creative and Refresh Response: Like REI, your purpose should be visible. From internal communications to recruitment materials, there should be a direct line from how your purpose is challenging the conventions, making it easier for your audience to identify with it and understand how your purpose fits within the wider world. This creates a need to constantly refresh and update creative to maintain relevancy in a constantly changing world. For this mindset, it’s imperative to keep an eye on culture and the category to establish changes in market. 

Endeavor for Endorsements: When you’ve challenged the dominant behavior or beliefs of the leaders, it’s important to establish your credibility beyond your own communications. This mindset requires the need to prioritize public relations and key partnerships with organizations that not only create active endorsements, but also help support content creation that reinforces your views. 

In 1954, Roger Bannister broke the record for running a 4-minute mile–a feat deemed impossible simply because 4 minutes occupied a mental barrier within the sport. In fact, it was arbitrary. It was a record that hadn’t been beaten in over nine years and a number that just happened to be the next round number. Interestingly, Bannister’s record was broken 46 days later, and then multiple times thereafter. What happened? It wasn’t so much that human psychology changed, but the runner’s mental model changed.

In the case of higher education branding, challenger brand thinking is simply a frame. While it may not necessarily work for every institution, exploring the model is a good way to think differently about your brand–creating a new mental model for exploring new opportunities or finding interesting points of distinction.