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***Warning – contains Rocky III spoilers***

At the beginning of film number three, life is looking pretty sweet for Rocky. 

He’s been the world heavyweight boxing champion for five years. He has all the wealth, fame and fortune associated with a global sporting icon. And he spends most of his time ‘fighting’ in exhibition charity matches against wrestlers, unveiling statues of himself and generally living a life of luxury. 

At this point, Rocky’s focus has changed. Subconsciously at least. 

He’s not the hungry up-and-comer he once was. Rather than battling to improve his circumstances, he’s now happy to maintain the status quo. 

Rocky’s grizzled, long-time boxing trainer, Mickey, identifies this shift in his attitude. But he keeps quiet.

Then, James ‘Clubber’ Lang – a frightening new challenger, appears on the scene. He puts together a string of wins, using his strength and an aggressive style to knock out his opponents in terrifying fashion. 

After a particularly convincing victory, Clubber calls out Rocky. 

Mickey advises Rocky against taking the fight. Rocky accepts the challenge anyway. Clubber almost kills him in the ring. And then Mickey dies of a heart attack. 

Not a great situation for Rocky to find himself in, I’m sure you’ll agree. But how does it all go so wrong? 

Staying still is going backwards

Firstly (obviously) Rocky becomes complacent. He stops challenging himself, so he stops evolving and improving as a fighter. And his grit and determination – the key characteristics that helped him to become champion in the first place – desert him. 

Simply put, Rocky loses his challenger mindset.

Meanwhile, Clubber Lang embraces his challenger status and uses it perfectly to his advantage:

  • He’s single-minded in his goal (defeating Rocky to become world champion)
  • He identifies what makes him better than the other contenders (knockout power and aggression) and exploits it ruthlessly to rise through the ranks
  • He takes advantage of his underdog status to call out Rocky’s failings, growing in popularity with his audience as a result


The first two bullets are important tenets for all challenger brands, whilst the third one is relative.

Challenger brands are always focussed on a specific issue that they are determined to change. This can take many forms. 

Revolutionising a particular market, inventing a new one entirely or simply finding a flaw in a competitor’s offering and improving upon it can all be considered ‘challenger’ behaviour. 

And understanding (or developing) your competitive advantage is a fundamental part of the challenger mindset. 

Car rental company Avis exemplified the challenger approach in the 1960’s. Thanks to a genius creative campaign from ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, it managed to turn a perceived weakness – being no.2 in its category – into a competitive advantage. 

Avis claimed that, because it wasn’t as large or well known as rival and market leader Hertz, it provided a much higher standard of customer service. Because “when you’re only No. 2, you try harder. Or else”.

The campaign was a massive success, taking Avis from a loss-making position to profitable within a year. 

Embracing the underdog status was a hugely successful move for this particular business. 

But a brand doesn’t have to be smaller than its competitors to adopt a challenger approach. 

Former underdogs-turned-market-leaders such as smoothie brand Innocent Drinks maintain their challenger mindset by shifting the goalposts once their initial target(s) have been achieved. 

After becoming the no.1 smoothie brand in the UK, Innocent began to view itself as a small competitor in the much broader chilled drinks category. This shift in perspective meant that Innocent could continue to view itself as a change-maker, rather than settle into a comfortable position at the top of the smoothie pile. 

Why adopt a challenger stance?

A challenger mindset is one of the most powerful competitive advantages that an organisation can implement when it comes to marketing success. 

But getting ‘challenger’ brand positioning right isn’t always straightforward. There’s no specific blueprint for an effective ‘challenger brand’ strategy. It depends on a ton of different factors, including your organisation’s values, strengths, weaknesses, available resources…the list goes on.

But if you’re interested in exploring a challenger mindset for your organisation, we’d recommend reading ‘Eating the Big Fish’ by Adam Morgan. 

It’s the best book we’ve read on the challenger brands, and comes with a buttload of examples of successful challenger traits, tips and strategies.

Or, if you could use some more practical help developing your challenger brand identity, or a knockout creative campaign to showcase it – give us a shout!

But hang on…

…I almost forgot to tell you how Rocky III ends!

After getting his arse handed to him by Clubber Lang, Rocky regains a singular focus (once he stops seeing double, at least). 

It’s time to beat Clubber in a rematch.

So Rocky’s one-time rival and friend, Apollo Creed, takes Rocky to his former boxing gym in LA. 

With the help of Apollo’s old trainer and months of dedicated training, Rocky develops a new strategy and skill set. It’s based around movement, footwork and conditioning. And it’s specifically designed to counteract Clubber’s explosive, powerful style.

In the rematch, Rocky surprises Clubber with his agility and endurance. He takes the fight beyond the early rounds where Clubber usually dominates his opponents, eventually breaking his will and earning a knockout win. 

Challenger behaviour if ever we saw it.

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