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Challenging the challengers: How legacy food & drink brands can adapt and thrive

For The Drum’s food & drink focus week, TRO’s Charlie Li puzzles out how the titans in the industry can match the social agility of their challengers.

Kantar’s recent trend prediction in The Drum reveals a sobering truth: challenger brands are experiencing disproportionate growth, leaving legacy brands scrambling. Despite rich heritage, hefty marketing budgets, and extensive distribution channels, some legacy brands find themselves lacking direct connection and meaningful conversation in the face of more community- and value-driven generations. Meanwhile, some are diagnosing a growing resistance to mass advertising.

We seek connection and meaning within communities that share our passions. In this community-driven paradigm, brand trust remains a crucial topic, but the old assumptions must shift. Mass reach no longer guarantees high exposure, and high exposure does not necessarily turn into trust as people actively avoid generic ad messages. Trends like ‘TikTok made me buy it’ are perfect examples that highlight the power of peer-to-peer influence trumping traditional advertising tactics.

So, if the days of brand loyalty from mass reach and mass brand are long gone, it should not come as a surprise that challenger brands are thriving. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all too late legacy brands. Here’s how they can adapt.

1. Think beyond the category box and dive into the subcultures

Challenger brands like Blank Street Coffee understand that category boxes are meaningless. BSC defies its coffee shop label, positioning instead as a curation platform. The brand collaborates with brands like Chamberlain Coffee and Only NY, offering community-based experiences and collaborations beyond their core product, embracing their roles in broader passion-based communities for new audiences.

Emma Chamberlain came to NYC and tried Blank Street Coffee.

She loved it so much, it made it into her vlog viewed by 6.6M+ views.

Then Blank Street thought, let’s ride the wave!!

This is a perfect example of a well-executed collaboration ☕️

— Nik Sharma (@mrsharma) September 24, 2022

Legacy brands like Oreo, meanwhile, have long cracked the code by joining the creative baking subculture, moving beyond ‘snack’ and embracing their role as a baking ingredient. A Betty Crocker collab for baking mixes has consolidated the brand’s leadership of this subculture, inspiring new uses and inviting new audiences to join the community.

It’s all about inviting participation, using shared passions as a hook, identifying untapped potential, and finding authentic ways to contribute, by reimagining how your product fits in new spaces and strengthening the communities that form around your brand.

2. Rebuild trust with transparency and more consumer-facing channels

Brands must build trust where it truly matters: within their own communities.

Challenger brands tend to pass on the mass appeal and focus on a targeted, community-driven approach. Many challengers use direct-to-consumer (DTC) models to foster close, personal connections, or brand partnerships that bring like-minded communities together and create open channels of communication with them.

Outside of food & drink, cosmetics brand Glossier has successfully evolved from a DTC brand to a brick-and-mortar business by balancing its strong online community and influencer partnerships with IRL interactions. This seamless integration deepens engagement and fosters connection, blurring the lines between on and offline presences in people’s lives.

Legacy brands can follow suit by embracing transparency, finding their communities, understanding their shared passions, and most importantly, getting involved in what the audience cares about.

3. Drive active participation instead of passive presence

It’s time for brands to reconsider wallpaper-like sponsorship and one-off ‘activations’.

Today’s winning brands drive active participation, and it works both ways – brands becoming part of people’s everyday experiences, and people actively participating in brand activities.

Challenger brands dive headfirst into social communities to fuel shared passions through co-creation and bringing these unique experiences IRL beyond just brand messages people see online. Liquid Death takes water to a whole new level by creating entertaining experiences that build a cult following and fandom. Who knew water could be fun and engaging?

Despite their established partnerships and marketing budgets, legacy brands often miss out on this potential. The meaning of active participation goes beyond joining conversations. Brands can curate spaces where people connect with their passions around the brand.

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Dear legacy brands, it is time to get involved

Participation comes in many forms. Nowadays, it demands more from brands than mere presence.

It moves beyond passive presence, online reviews, and social conversations. Brand participation is a continuous dance, and established brands have the resources to lead the way. It can be supporting a cause your audiences care about, showing up alongside to celebrate a shared passion, fostering creativity with your products, or building genuine connections that go far beyond a one-off transaction.

Legacy brands have an advantage with their scalability and established infrastructure (think brand partnerships and collaboration deals). But to truly connect, they must step outside their comfort zones and embrace the challenger mindset – be unafraid to go beyond their own category, find their niche and go into sub-cultures. It’s time to break down the walls that separate brand from community, messaging from conversation, and product from experience. There is always a way.

For more about food, drink, and the smartest ways to market them, check out our dedicated focus week hub.

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