Big Fish - Shark

Eating the Big Fish

Often, in our work with organizational leaders, executives will reference seminal works by prominent business authors. Some titles seem to pop up routinely, others less so. One title we hear surprisingly seldom is Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders (Adam Morgan, 1999). Yet, to us, the concepts Morgan develops in Eating the Big Fish are every bit as critical to success as those of Trout and Reis, or Rosser Reeves, or Kim and Mauborgne, or Malcolm Gladwell, or Jim Collins, or Seth Godin. And so, we’ve decided to offer a brief overview, here…

Eating the Big Fish is about winning in the face of superior competition. It’s about taking on the market leader despite your limited resources. It’s about playing by your own rules and redefining the terms by which all competitors should be judged.

Morgan argues that it is futile to play by the prevailing rules. Invariably, the market leader (the big fish) will outspend you, out-message you, outperform you. The only path, he argues, is to strive to be the mindshare leader, and that war is fought and won through thought leadership – specifically, with ideas that add value.

Eating the Big Fish outlines eight concepts Morgan calls “credos.” These concepts, he insists, apply equally well to any situation and in any market.

Intelligent Naivety. By deliberately forgetting what they already “know,” successful challengers free themselves to see their opportunities anew, to identify the core issues facing their brand or their organization, to redefine their businesses and to choose and shape the criteria by which they will be judged in the marketplace. They often reject – or even break – the orthodoxies of their category.

Lighthouse Identity. Successful challengers have a clear sense of who they are, and they project that identity intensely (like a lighthouse). Driven by self-confidence, they encourage the world to navigate by them, by their standards. They expend their marketing energies simply to tell us where they stand. They are intrusive, they stand on a brand or truth that is inarguable, they are over-engineered to over-perform,  and they build strong emotional relationships with their markets.

Thought Leadership. Successful challengers are thought leaders – they are the brands that everyone is talking about, not the brand with the biggest share or the biggest distribution. They gain momentum by portraying themselves differently, by encountering the market in new locations, and by changing the definitions of performance. And by redefining the core issues of the market, they force us to encounter the market in terms other than the ones the Market Leader has been teaching for years.

Symbols of Re-evaluation: Challenger Brands move swiftly and powerfully to capture the consumer’s imagination, with dramatic acts that become symbols – icons of change. They communicate emotion with powerful juxtapositions that force consumers to rethink their assumptions about a category.

Sacrifice. Because Challengers often have fewer resources than the Market Leader, they make tough choices between what to do and what to sacrifice. This improves their focus by eliminating the distractions created by having options.

Over-commitment. By sacrificing all other options, the Challenger Brand forces itself into a posture of desperation. When failure is no longer an option, the only path is to overcommit to the only path.

Social Culture. Successful Challengers leverage their communications and publicity efforts to engage the public in creating a social folklore. They risk offending large segments of the traditional market to establish social prominence. They transcend the normal discussions about consumer preferences by creating a mythology about their brands, motivating consumers to communicate proactively, through word-of-mouth, on the brand’s behalf.

Idea-centricity. Challenger Brands o not measure their success through immediate growth in sales and revenues, but on momentum gained for their ideas. Their equity comes from a confidence on the part of the consumer that the brand is making a run in its category. Rather than promising the consumer a sense of belonging to an established community, Challengers offer the ability to be different, to be ahead of the curve.

These eight simple concepts are no more enlightening today than when they were first published – just more poignant in the context of our recent loss. They endure to reassure us of opportunity in overcrowded markets. The real challenge for Apple, and for a generation of competitors, will not be to prevail in the face of competition, but to live up to the example set by Mr. Jobs.