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Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders

Author: Adam Morgan
Publisher Wiley, John & Sons, Incorporated
Publication Date: October 1998

Reviewer:Robert Morris
Based in Dallas, Robert Morris is an independent management consultant who specializes in accelerated executive development and organizational growth. He is the author of almost 150 Business Nuggets and frequently conducts workshops based on material selected from them. His formal education includes graduate study at Yale, Northwestern, U.C.L.A., and Chicago universities. He has served in several senior-level corporate positions and is currently preparing to launch his own website (interllect.com). Please contact him at rmmorris@airmail.net.

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Adam Morgan selected a terrific title for his book: Eating the Big Fish, published by John Wiley & Sons. In it Morgan explains how "challenger brands can compete against brand leaders." What is a "challenger brand"? In his Preface, Morgan suggests that it is based on eight "credos":

  • Break with the immediate past 
  • Build a lighthouse entity
  • Assume thought leadership of the category
  • Create symbols of reevaluation
  • Sacrifice
  • Overcommit
  • Use advertising and publicity as a high-leverage asset
  • Become ideas-centered rather than consumer-centered


He discusses each in detail in Part II. 

In Eating the Big Fish, Morgan's objective is to provide what he calls a "magnetic compass" for Small Fish which will enable them to compete successfully. Obviously, they face problems: certain markets have moved for the first time from maturity to overcapacity; as a result, there is not enough "food" to go around; and while turning their attention downward, the Big Fish have also turned outward...toward Small Fish; as the Big Fish moved downward, retailers moved upward.

Time and again, Morgan stresses the importance of ideas...actually, better ideas. Hence the imperative to break with the past: assume nothing, take no one and nothing for granted, constantly ask "What if?" and "Why not?" For Small Fish, the status quo is death. Period. Better ideas are engaging, provocative, and self-propagating. They help to create competitive advantages. 

In Chapter 3, Morgan suggests that a Challenger brand is at best a second-ranked brand, has demonstrated a period of sustained and dramatic growth, and is from another category. Think in terms of an ambush: A Challenger brand can attack whenever and wherever least expected. A Challenger brand redefines terms such as "enemy", "opponent", "competition", etc. A Challenger brand has attitude. It thrives when underestimated. Better yet, when ignored. Big Fish know they are Big Fish. They have a tendency to become arrogant, complacent, hence vulnerable.   

By breaking with the immediate past, the Small Fish is able to answer several critically important questions: 

  1. What is the core issue re Big Fish?
  2. What business are we in now?
  3. What business should we be in?
  4. What are our best opportunities?
  5. How can we implement a Challenger strategy to take full advantage of those opportunities?


The four dimensions of a Lighthouse brand are identity, emotion, intensity, and salience. As Morgan explains, identity should be self-referential: "This is who we are and this is what we stand for." Challenger brands should establish and then nourish an emotional rather than rational relationship with consumers. Sustainable customer loyalty, not temporary satisfaction, is the primary objective.  Moreover, there should be intensity in all communications with consumers. Finally, Challenger brands must attract attention to themselves. 

In Chapter 9, Morgan observes that "Challenger brands are not somehow unusual in that they have a monopoly on good ideas; they are unusual, however, in that they make good ideas happen." In Chapter 14, he explains that his premise so far in Eating the Big Fish is that "Challengers need their own models of strategy and behavior; that we [who must formulate that strategy] are entirely unlike the brand leader in position and resource and, consequently, need to find an entirely different set of rules of engagement." In the next chapter, Morgan explains how to write the Challenger program, recommending a two-day off-site during which key people produce it. 

The final chapter pulls together all of Morgan's key points. They are effectively organized within a four-stage process: Attitude & Preparation, Challenger Strategy, Challenger Behavior, and Sustaining Challenger Momentum. Everything begins with and an attitude suggested by shin -- Japanese for "spirit." Never give up. Never lose the will to win. Always be willing to take risks. (Jack Dempsey once suggested that "champions get up when they can't.") Morgan includes some copy from Apple's first 60-second television commercial after Steve Jobs returned. It begins: "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently." The ad copy concludes: "And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." 

Eating the Big Fish may have been written for Small Fish but can also be of great value to Big Fish. Moreover, at least a few Small Fish which use Morgan's ideas will become Big Fish. If they think and then compete as if they are still Small Fish, they will probably survive. Otherwise....