“Unteaching” Customers And Breaking Through The Noise With Challenger Marketing

Published: March 18, 2014

Brent Adamson has changed the selling methods of companies around the world as the co-author of The Challenger Sale. The book has appeared on The Wall Street Journal’s Top 10 Business Books list more than a dozen times and has sold 185,000 copies on Amazon.

Adamson is applying the Challenger concept to marketing and will provide a comprehensive overview at the upcoming B2B Content2Conversion Conference, being held May 7-8, 2014 in New York City.

In an interview with Demand Gen Report, Adamson previewed his presentation, which will outline the tenets of Challenger Marketing, the process of “unteaching” the customer and the skills of successful Challenger Marketers.

Demand Gen Report: What is Challenger Marketing and how does it differ from other approaches to marketing?

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Brent Adamson: In many ways, the list of core marketing competencies doesn’t change much in Challenger Marketing. Things like customer segmentation, content and campaign creation, brand management and lead nurturing management are still important.

The key difference is less about what to do and more about how to do it. Challenger Marketing takes, as its starting point, a very different world in which customers are now empowered with incredible amounts of information from multiple sources now accessible independent of direct supplier intervention. In this world, many traditional marketing strategies now come up dramatically short. 

The best example is a long-standing effort among marketers to “increase customer focus” and build a world-class “customer centric organization.” Following this model, primary marketing activities aim to first identify customer needs and then meet or exceed those needs in unexpected ways designed to create “moments of customer delight.”

What we’re finding is, in today’s B2B world where customers can learn on their own, those efforts to delight customers may indeed get customers to like you, but they won’t predictably get customers to pay you — at least not much more than the two other leading competitors whose arguably less delightful solutions were nonetheless perceived by the customer to be at least good enough.

DGR: What are the attributes of a Challenger Marketer?

Adamson: We find that there are really two categories of marketers we need to talk about in Challenger Marketing. First are those tasked with the creation of commercial insight. Second are those responsible for deploying that insight through traditional content marketing channels.

Research at CEB tells us that the former category is best made up of individuals with a deep understanding of customers’ businesses (we call them “customer natives”), but who are also able to apply a critical eye to those customers’ typical behaviors and beliefs in a structured and systematic manner, all in an effort to uncover opportunities for disruptive teaching, and not just improved “customer understanding.”

The latter group, on the other hand, is comprised of a range of individuals with the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to package those insights in compelling stories, images and campaigns, and then identify the proper channels through which to deliver that content for maximum impact.

DGR: You contend that most content fails to generate leads because it is based on thought leadership. Why is that?

Adamson: It’s not so much that most content fails to generate leads — though that is quite possibly true — it’s that most content fails to generate leads that ultimately convert to real business at the premiums we need to achieve in order to grow. The simple reason is most thought leadership is designed to help a supplier “stand out” in a world crowded with both too much content and too many competitors.

Even the best thought leadership campaigns are typically designed to present customers with a robust view of what they could be doing, but do very little to truly and methodically undermine what they are currently doing, thus leaving customers unlikely to diverge from their current path. 

DGR: How can Challenger Marketing help break through the noise of the traditional approaches to marketing?

Adamson: In a world of empowered customers, winning is less about outselling or “outmarketing” the competition and much more about “unteaching” the customer. Challenger Marketing demonstrates clearly, methodically and dramatically that, despite all of the learning they’ve done on their own, that they’ve missed something materially important to the performance of their business. 

DGR: What is the difference between commercial insights and thought leadership?

Adamson: In a nutshell, thought leadership is about getting customers to think that we’re smart. Commercial insight is all about getting customers to think that they’re wrong. Thought leadership is designed to change the way customers think about us. Commercial insight is designed to change the way that customers think about themselves.

DGR: Can you provide some of the key features/attributes of successful commercial insights?

Adamson: There are a number of important attributes of successful commercial insights, but two in particular really stand out.  First and foremost, commercial insight must be grounded in a set of unique capabilities and strengths that set your company apart from all possible competitors (including the status quo). Ultimately, whatever you teach your customer about their business has to lead back to something you can help them do better than anyone else. 

So in the process of commercial teaching, at that moment when your customer (figuratively) looks you in the eye and says, “You’re right!  I have to do something about this!  But who can help me with that?”  You must be able to respond unequivocally (agnostic of channel) “Let me show you how we can help you with that better than anyone else.” Otherwise, your teaching efforts could easily lead to smarter customers who can easily meet their newly realized needs in any number of ways from any number of competing suppliers. 

Second, once you have identified those unique strengths, it is vital to overcome the natural, almost unavoidable desire to lead with those strengths, and instead lead to them.  Commercial Insight isn’t about the supplier. It’s about the customer. It’s not about what they could be doing with you, but what they are currently doing on their own, and how that current behavior is exposing them to unseen costs or risks that they need to address. The fact that your company is uniquely positioned to help them solve the problem that you’ve just taught them they have is almost an afterthought.  It’s the punch line of the story, not the opening act. 

DGR: Challenger Marketing is a natural extension of Challenger Selling. But how does Challenger Marketing succeed when rolled out independently of Challenger Selling?

Adamson: At the end of the day, neither Challenger Selling nor Challenger Marketing is an independent “technique” or function-specific “methodology.” They both make up part of a broader commercial strategy. 

Like any commercial strategy, long-term, widespread success will hinge upon its broad, cross-functional, sustained application. Challenger is less about how you “do” sales or marketing, and much more about how you go to market altogether. It has implications for new product development, customer service, leadership, talent and possibly even operations. 

That said, marketing teams can take all sorts of steps independent of other functions to drive commercial success through Challenger Marketing right away. In fact, in many ways marketing is the primary engine of any good Challenger approach, as marketing is best positioned across the organization to create compelling content — or at least direct it.  Marketers often ask, “Where are we supposed to find this insight?” And the answer is, “You don’t find insight, you create it.” 

Can sales reps benefit from Challenger training? Undeniably. But even in the absence of all that work, the single biggest thing marketers can do right now to improve their content marketing strategy is to focus on the content of their content.


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