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The Overdog’s Dilemma: What Happens When Challengers Win?

Does the recent commotion about the shortcomings of the new iPhone seem out of proportion to both the problem and the newsworthiness of the whole affair? When’s the last time you saw so much energy devoted to a cell phone that drops calls? And yet, there it is, front and center in the public consciousness.

And yet, from a story perspective it makes perfect sense. This isn’t really about a phone that drops calls, it is about a status shift in an iconic brand. Apple spent decades as the counter-culture underdog of the tech world. Steve Jobs was the freewheeling, self-proclaimed pirate (“It’s more fun to be the pirates than to be the navy”) who thumbed his nose at the stuffy conventions of the IBM and Microsoft establishment, building fun, cool computers that broke the rules for the benefit of the audience.

But a series of truly disruptive innovations, beginning with the iPod, has changed the role that Apple plays in the drama of the category. Apple successfully challenged the old definition of what a computer could be and thereby cemented its position as the thought leader in the tech category. In the long running battle between Apple and IBM/Microsoft, Apple won–so much so that it felt like an amusing bit of trivia when Apple’s market cap actually surpassed Microsoft’s recently.

While winning thought leadership has clearly been a good thing for Apple, it also comes with some fairly significant challenges. The chief one is how it affects the brand story. How can Apple be the underdog-pirate-challenger on which it has built its identity when it is now the king of the category? Everything Apple does and says is interpreted differently when it is the winner. Aggressive actions that would have seemed perfectly *in character* for a scrappy underdog fighting the oppressive big guys, take on a whole new aspect when those big guys are on the run and the world is lying at your feet. We’ve seen this happen many times–whenever a challenger wins. As far as the brand is concerned, it is just doing what it has always done, but from the audience’s perspective, it is playing a different role now and it needs to act accordingly.

That new perspective was painfully apparent at the press conference where Steve Jobs, previously seen as a charming and entertaining rouge for his in-your-face arrogance, tried to defend the new iPhone.

It will be very interesting to see what happens next in the unfolding story of Apple, but it is our suspicion that, unless they can come to terms with their change in status and circumstance, they’re going to be in for some rough sailing.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery