Cheat Code: Why challenger brands need extreme proof

Bold declarations of over-commitment, whether they relate to your products, philosophy or business practices, can be a fast track to brand fame and market share, says Dan Monheit, CEO of Hardhat.

Market leading brands are designed to appeal to the masses, which is all but impossible to do without making compromises. The bigger the brand, the broader the appeal, the greater the need to compromise. All of this compromising is what leaves market leaders operating with a ‘just enough’ mentality.

Just enough customer service.

Just enough personality in the brand.

Just enough durability of the product.

Just enough sustainability in the packaging.

Just enough cheaper than the competition.

‘Just enough’ is bland. It’s boring. But it’s critical for keeping most of the people mostly happy most of the time.

Considering all the levers market leaders could pull to improve quality, pricing, or service, ‘just enough’ is the guiding light. After all, overcapitalisation in one area means undercapitalisation in another. Going beyond the point of ‘just enough’ risks alienating large swathes of their customer base, a cardinal sin for those on top.

If you invest in better fabric durability, prices may increase, cutting out many customers who can no longer afford it. Going beyond just enough spice in your chilli sauce will mean losing volume, as most consumers prefer a milder taste. The same goes for offering above-and-beyond customer service and telling your call centre workers it’s okay to spend more time on calls. The result is that they can’t service as many people, so there will be longer wait times, which will also impact sales.

Challenger brands face the opposite dilemma: they can’t afford to be just enough. Thrillingly, the richest opportunities are found over, under and around ‘just enough’. They’re in products that are unreasonably durable, insanely spicy or accompanied by unprecedented levels of customer service.

If you’re a challenger brand, you’re already doing a version of this or you wouldn’t exist. Somewhere in your origin story, somebody looked at a market leader’s ‘just enough’ and saw an opportunity to double down on what they believed customers would deeply care about.

Things get interesting when you take what the brand is already committed to and communicate it by turning the dial up to a thousand. These bold declarations of commitment provide extreme proof of what your brand believes. They set a north star that shows employees and customers why you exist in an unexpected, engaging and highly memorable way.

While outlandish product demonstrations are the classic way to deploy the ‘extreme proof’ cheat code, they’ve fallen out of favour for more abstract marketing strategies. This makes it the perfect time for challenger brands to start bringing them out. But how?

For a start, products need to be put through experiences far beyond what any average customer would ever think of. When done well, the demonstrations become so extreme that they reframe the product and become instant talking points because they’re attention-grabbing, highly memorable and undeniably engaging.

The American watch brand Timex built its entire brand off of this notion. Initially, jewellers wouldn’t sell Timex due to its low margins. So, in 1954, instead of changing its pricing, Timex used extreme proof to sell into creative retail channels such as pharmacies, tobacconists, and hardware stores. A point-of-purchase display used levers to dunk a Timex in water before the watch was dropped onto an anvil and hit with a hammer. The retailer would then show the potential buyer that, miraculously, the watch still worked.

And so did the strategy.

In 1956, Timex evolved the idea into a campaign featuring live TV torture tests, in which the watch was thrown into a paint mixer, off of buildings, and strapped to the bottom of race horses’ hooves. The genius tagline, “It took a licking and kept on ticking”, caught the public’s imagination. Each month, thousands of people would write in with ideas for torture tests. By 1960, Timex was grossing $70 million and selling seven million watches yearly in the United States. By the end of the decade, every third watch sold in America was a Timex.

As YouTube took off in the mid-2000s, BlendTec used the same tactic to differentiate itself from competitors with its ‘Will It Bend’ channel. The brand developed a cult following by chucking rakes, marbles, iPhones, iPads, golf balls and even crowbars into its blenders. The videos attracted millions of views, rocketed BlendTec out of obscurity and drove a 500% uplift in sales.

Sweden did the same with a stunningly successful ‘nation branding’ campaign. To honour the 250th anniversary of Sweden being the first country in the world to introduce a constitutional law to abolish censorship, Sweden became the first country to introduce its own uncensored phone number. The number connected random people from all over the world with random Swedes all over the country for a random conversation about anything they wanted to know. The Swedes received 197,000 calls from 190 countries, giving extreme proof of what a friendly, open society they are.

Product attributes like durability are usually pretty uninteresting. This wasn’t the case for Norwegian glassware maker Strahl, who promoted its unbreakable range by mailing wine, beer and cocktail glasses to dozens of bars and restaurants without any protective packaging whatsoever. Instead, each venue received a glass that was ‘naked’ (void of any packaging), other than a simple sticker with their name and mailing address. Considering the recipients work in an industry where glassware shatters every shift, receiving a glass that had been sent through the regular post was extreme proof of how durable Strahl’s glassware was. Every single recipient ended up making an order and the ‘Handle with “I don’t care”’ campaign picked up a stack of industry awards including a Lion in 2022.

If you want extreme proof of how hot chilli sauce can be, meet Australian brand Bunsters ‘Shit The Bed Hot Sauce 12/10’. The brand promises to be ‘dangerously hot, dangerously addictive and dangerously messy in the bed’. It has won millions of fans across the globe, appeared on the cult YouTube show Hot Ones, and when Gordon Ramsay posted about it on TikTok, the clip had more than 250k likes and 3.4 million views.

@gordonramsayofficial I’ve been pitched some ideas in my time….but this one from #FoodStarsAu is on a differnt level 😳. Australia ! More tonight on @Channel 9 & @9Now ♬ original sound – Gordon Ramsay

A few years back, our agency was working with Deakin University on an Open Day activation for future students. We set out to provide extreme proof of the university pushing the digital frontier. To do this, we created an oversized slot car racing track with cars that students could control with their minds using pioneering BCI (brain computer interface) technology. The harder they concentrated, the faster their car flew around the track. We indeed blew their minds, proving the university was at the cutting edge of technology in a way that’s still talked about all of these years later.

Extreme proof can also relate to taking a brand’s overarching business philosophy and making a tangible, real world commitment out of it. Patagonia showed its commitment to the environment by turning the $4.5 billion company into a specially designed trust to ensure that all of its annual profits (in the order of $150 million) are used to combat climate change and protect undeveloped land across the planet.

Similarly, British cosmetic giant Lush also used extreme proof to validate their commitment to the well-being of their young, mainly female consumer base. In November 2021, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen leaked documents revealing the company knew how much harm its algorithm was causing teens but was downplaying the effects. In response, the brand immediately stopped posting (and spending) on Instagram and Facebook, instantly losing over five million followers. After a short period of readjustment, Lush started funnelling the surplus cash into numerous partnerships, including joint ventures with mental health apps and a range of quirky brand collaborations that have already driven an extra $30 million in sales.

This kind of extreme proof resonates because it isn’t just about marketing—it’s a living, breathing testament to a brand’s core values and promise to customers by pushing the boundaries, taking risks, and daring to be different.

If you’re looking to produce extreme proof and reap the rewards it can bring, start by asking where, in your business, is just enough never enough. You might also look at the areas where you overinvest compared to others in the category. From here, consider the most extreme way you could bring it to life. Then double it!


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