David and Goliath — Marketing for Challenger Brands and Underdogs

Sep 12, 2017 · 6 min read

The old tale of David and Goliath is about how an underdog — a challenger in a weaker position — conquers his enemy.

This Biblical story is thousands of years old, but still today there’s a lot we can learn from its narrative.

We see David versus Goliath in the business world on a daily basis. All over the world, well-known brands are leading the industry and sometimes it seems like there’s no place for the smaller brands out there.

But that’s not true. ‘Challenger brands’ can actually become a strong force against the bigger brands in the business. Under certain conditions, that is.


Goliath of Gath was a Biblical warrior who played a big role in the war between the Israelites and the Philistines in the Valley of Elah. Twice a day, for forty days long, the warrior champion Goliath had been taunting and challenging the Israelites. He asked the Israelites to send out their best champion to fight him, so that the war could be decided in a one-to-one combat.

But the Israelites were afraid. Until one day, David hears of the challenge. Saul, the king of the Israelites, offers Goliath his armor to wear in the fight with Goliath, but David refuses.

David brings only his staff, a sling and five stones with him to the fight with Goliath.

Goliath was much taller, had better armor, a greater weapon and every single person on the battlefront was instantly impressed by Goliath’s appearance.

But then David hurled his stone at Goliath, using his sling. David hit Goliath in the center of his forehead and Goliath instantly fell to the ground.

Nobody thought that Goliath could be conquered. But in the end, he was defeated by an unknown challenger who was far less equipped for the fight.

So what can we learn from this Biblical tale?


In modern usage, the phrase of ‘David and Goliath’ refers to an underdog situation where a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger adversary.

It’s about the little guy versus the big guy. And we see this in the world of business every day.

Every day, we see big, well-known brands with a big budget and a large and talented workforce versus the smaller company whose budget is much, much smaller.

Previously, I wrote about how the brand that’s first in the market is generally the one that stays to be one of the top three biggest brands in the industry. “It’s more important to be first than it is to be better.”

But if there’s one thing we can learn from David and Goliath, it’s that size doesn’t matter. Challenger brands canreally conquer their competitors.


So what do we define as a challenger brand? Is every small business a challenger brand? No.

A challenger brand is a brand that’s neither the market leader or a true niche brand. So they’re not the biggest, but they’re not the only one in the market either.

What separates a challenger brand from an established brand is that their ambitions often outweigh the resources they have available. They got the ambition to grow but they don’t necessarily have the resources.

The challenger brand is not satisfied with a piece of the pie. They want the whole pie.

But it’s about more than ambition. Challenger brands focus on changing something within an industry. They want to be different.

Think Virgin, Uber, innocent and Airbnb for example (before they became market leaders, that is).

Virgin was founded by Richard Branson in February 1970. Virgin started as a record company and Branson and his partner actually came up with the brand name ‘Virgin’ because they considered themselves virgins in business.

Branson turned Virgin into a successful record company because he started selling records via post, while every other brand in the business was still selling records in-store.

Virgin was the ‘David’ in the record industry. It was a small brand that wanted to do things differently. Today, it’s a billion dollar company.


Firstly, a challenger brand needs to truly understand its position in the market. Many smaller businesses look up to the biggest player in the market and copy what they’re doing.

‘They’re successful with it, so it should work for us as well, right?’ That’s what many people think. And it’s just not true.

A challenger brand is per definition challenging the status quo. They want things in the industry to be different, so they need to live up to it.

Consider what makes you different, because that is what you want to be communicating.

Secondly, you need to prioritize. Big brands don’t need to be as picky with their budget. But it’s different for the challenger brand.

You know how people say “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket?” That doesn’t apply to challenger brands. Prioritize until it hurts.

Thirdly, make advantage of your position. If you’re smaller that simply means that you’re more flexible. You can adapt easily.

It’s just like in the Biblical tale; Goliath was a big guy with thick (and heavy) armor. David was small and without armor, he could move around more easily.


Virgin is a great example of a challenger brand, but there are many more. Consider ‘Innocent’ for example.

Innocent is a company that sells healthy juices. The company was founded in 1999 by three Cambridge University graduates: Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright.

They had just finished their studies and working in consulting and advertising at the time. In their spare time, they were selling juices at music festivals.

One day, they put up a big sign at their stand which said: “Should we give up our job to make smoothies?”. People could then leave a note saying either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. At the end of the day, they had dozens of notes of people urging them to quit their jobs and focus on making great juices.

So they quit their jobs to make natural, delicious and healthy drinks that help people live well and die old. That was all they cared about in 1999 and that’s what they’re still doing to this very day.

Their belief in healthy, delicious juices is something you see in their communication as well. Take their ‘The Big Knit’ campaign, for example. It’s a campaign that they do every year, for which they provide their customers with knitting designs. In return, customers can knit little hats made of wool to fit the caps of the Innocent Juices. Innocent they put those knitted hats on their juices and sell them in stores around the world. For every bottle sold, money goes to Age UK, a charity supporting elderly in the UK to help them stay warm in the winter.

Innocent once started as a small challenger brand struggling to find investment. In 2016, they reported revenues of 250 million pounds.


David conquered Goliath because he had the belief he could win. That’s where it all started.

It’s the same for challenger brands: have big ambitions. Combine those with your ideas on how you can change things in the industry and your working from a strong, underdog position.

From there, it’s ‘only’ a matter of smart decisions.


38 claps

Written by

Founder of the AI Health Frontier newsletter, a bi-weekly newsletter where artificial intelligence meets healthcare. #AI #healthcare #artificialintelligence