A personal highlight from AdWeek’s 2021 Challenger Brand Summit
From February 22–25, AdWeek’s 2021 Challenger Brand Summit took place, sharing stories of success, strategy and challenging convention in all manner of circumstances.
One of the highlights of the event was not delivered by a Chief Executive Officer or Growth Expert but rather Chance The Rapper, a creative force with a lot of lessons when it comes to upending the status quo.
Chance has always been a Challenger. In 2016, stories circulated about the rapper taking the music industry by storm without actually being signed to a label. They reported how he would give away his music for free and make an income through merchandise and concert sales. It was a strategy that saw him gain hundreds of thousands of downloads, be the first to have a streaming-only album make the Billboard 200 and, in 2017, make history by becoming the first artist to be awarded a Grammy without actually selling any physical copies of his music.
As he said in an interview with Vanity Fair:
“… my plan was to sign with a label and figure out my music from there. But after meeting with the three major labels, I realized my strength was being able to offer my best work to people without any limit on it… I honestly believe if you put effort into something and you execute properly, you don’t necessarily have to go through the traditional ways.”
It’s this sentiment that underpins Chance’s success as an artist but also as a Challenger. By understanding the dynamics, income sources and intricacies of his industry, he was able to set up a memorable business and bypass the incumbent. In the AdWeek talk he said “you don’t have to compromise to get what you want”.
When you see the trajectory of his career, that rings true.
It’s also that approach that’s seen him win brand deals and collaborations.
In 2016, Chance became the face and voice of KitKat with the Chance The Wrapper campaign. It marked the first time the chocolate brand had aligned itself with a celebrity and, as he mentioned in his talk, was instigated by reaching out to the brand himself. He was able to identify a potential collaborator on his own terms, and work with the brand to come up with creative that he pitched and knew would suit what they wanted to achieve.
As Ian Norton, director of marketing for Kit Kat said at the time, “we’re in the process of trying to modernize the Kit Kat brand, not just in terms of what we’re communicating but how we’re communicating.” Perhaps more telling, however, was that Norton followed the quote with “we like that he’s the largest and most successful unsigned artist in history.”
More recently, Chance has also been rethinking his approach to live music and pivoting his strategy to better accommodate performing during the pandemic. As he said during his AdWeek presentation, “you need to create for the medium”.
But rather than attempt to simply recreate the offline experience of a live concert online, he decided to design something new and maximize his potential within the constraints. Where the noise of the crowd would typically intensify between songs in a live setting, at home the opposite was true. How could he keep the audience engaged throughout?
By experimenting with sets, transitions, scenes from his favourite movie and TV scenes (an idea inspired by SNL), he’s managed to keep every transition between songs exciting, inviting, and memorable.
For Challenger Brands there’s a lot to learn here, not just in Chance’s approach to innovation but his understanding of his industry and the barriers to entry that stood before him. He represents an impressive success story for eschewing traditional distribution paths to market, embarking on brands deals with creative control, and understanding economics.
Before he ended his talk, he urged listeners to “be the person willing to change things”. When it comes to Challengers, the sentiment is no different.