Ever wondered how to stand out in a crowded market? This episode dives into the art of building a challenger brand with insights from an industry expert who has done it time and again.


In this episode of Performance Delivered, we are joined by Dhiraj Kumar, the Chief Marketing Officer at Dashlane, a leading password management platform protecting 2.5 billion credentials. Dhiraj brings a wealth of experience from scaling multibillion-dollar businesses at companies like Facebook, PayPal, and Bluevine. He shares his journey and the strategies he uses to turn Dashlane into a formidable challenger brand in the credential security industry.


We’ll cover:

  • Dhiraj’s unconventional career path from engineering to marketing.
  • The critical challenges faced when rebranding Dashlane for business and consumer markets.
  • Strategies for competing against well-established brands with limited resources.
  • The importance of having a clear and distinct point of view as a challenger brand.
  • Tips for hiring the right team to drive a challenger brand forward.
  • And more


Mentioned in this episode:



Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to build a challenger brand. Here to speak with me is Dhiraj Kumar, the CMO at Dashlane, a leading password management platform protecting 2.5 billion credentials serving 18 million customers and 23,000 businesses across 185 countries. 


Dhiraj leads global marketing and communication to support the company’s rapid growth as the leading credential security platform in the industry. He is a transformative marketing leader and growth expert, who has built a track record in scaling multi-billion dollar businesses and building best-in-class go-to-market functions at both established and young high-growth companies such as Facebook, PayPal, BlueVine, and Dashlane. Dhiraj, welcome to the show.


Dhiraj Kumar: Thank you for having me.


Steffen: Now, before we get started talking about how to build a challenger brand, tell our listeners a little bit about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to sitting at the helm for marketing Dashlane


Dhiraj: Yes, my journey wasn’t exactly a straight line. So I started my journey as an engineer designing semiconductor chips, which is as far as you can get from marketing and advertising. But I always have this thread, this kind of desire and this talent for storytelling, and for creative expression. And I also had the desire to be very close to the customer. I wanted to know where the rubber meets the road, what happens. 


How’d they make this decision? So I pivoted in my career, midway through to the marketing media industry, which was sort of evolving at a rapid rate and was kind of attracting people from all walks of life. And then stopped in multiple points of the journey. I started off at Facebook, where I led go-to-market for the ads business. 


As a media company, how do you build this disruptive platform as an entirely new platform in the marketing and advertising space? Then I went to PayPal and ran consumer marketing for them for five years and build that brand and to now in Dashlane, responsible for their global marketing. So it’s been a journey, and I love marketing as a craft as a discipline. I think we’re living in the golden age of marketing because it’s so multidisciplinary. 


You’re a storyteller one day, you’re an analyst the other day, you’re a technologist the third. And so I love that. And the other thread you’ll see in my career is I’ve always been attracted to high-tech growth. So businesses that they’re solving a hot secular problem, high aperture, big ambition, and they’re going from a small scale to very large scale, and how do you do that? So that’s been a little bit of my journey and how I got here.


Steffen: Wonderful. Well, talk to us about your role at Dashlane. And what were the key challenges or what are the key challenges that you faced when you joined them?


Dhiraj: Yeah, as you said in my introduction, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at Dashlane. Dassin is a credential security company. We serve about 23,000 businesses, millions of consumers, over 185 countries and we protect businesses and their employees from credential threats. The credential threat is the leading source for breaches. 


Most breaches start from a stolen credentials, stolen password where there’s some phishing or other attacks. And you know, you see the stories play out in media almost every week now, it is extremely disruptive to the business and extremely debilitating for the business into the cost and the morale and the brand reputation and so on, so forth. 


So that’s the space we operate in. Dashlane has a deep heritage. It originated as a French company and deep heritage in the consumer space. So when I arrived a few years ago, the challenge I had was to reinvigorate that brand as a brand for business and consumers. 


And so we had to clearly articulate why a business decision-maker should be choosing Dashlane against all the leading competitors who had already made that pivot ahead of us. So that required a sort of a challenge of mentality. 


Think of yourself as an underdog and to provide a different perspective in the marketplace and find creative ways to build awareness with a fairly limited resource, right? You have to do this without having the wherewithal and the luxury to have a lot of resources to go challenge the leaders in the category.


Steffen: Now is this the first time you’ve been a challenger brand? Or if not, what did you learn from previous positions at challenger brands? And is there a common theme, how to be a challenger brand?


Dhiraj: And that’s a great observation, Steffen. I’ve mostly worked at challenger brands. Whether it’s Facebook, who was challenging the marketers leverage digital media at scale, at the time, which was like 2014 or so. 2010 actually, or so. I was at PayPal, where I led consumer marketing which was challenging both how established companies like banks, or new companies like Apple and Google, were helping consumers and businesses move money, do payments, or to here at Dashlane. 


So I’ve always been in challenger brands. If I step back and think for a moment, I believe most brands, especially in the technology sector, are challenger brands. Either you’re disrupting a category, or you’re expanding into a new market or a segment or you’re pivoting and catching up to a leader. 


Challenge, your mindset is almost inherent to growth business. I’ll use a little story to the question about what have you learned. So we all know our movie Top Gun, the Maverick. I love that movie, both the first and the second one. And here we have our protagonist Pete Mitchell, the Maverick and as you see in the movie, you get passed on by his peers who rise in ranks while he remains stuck. 


Despite being one of the best fighter pilots, now, he’s an underdog, one thing that is going for me, he’s passionate about flying. He’s great at it, he thinks creatively, and he has a chip on his shoulder. So when the situation demands, we have to destroy this underground nuclear bunker that nobody can penetrate. Well, guess what, you need a pilot who’s the best at the job, who can think creatively, and who has something to prove. And he answered the bell. 


And I think the challenge of brand that I’ve learned has some similar traits. Obviously, that’s drama, and it’s a story, but it has similar traits. To be a challenger brand, it’s being good at something, it’s kind of knowing that there is a need out there that’s not being served and that you can uniquely serve, and having a little bit of mentality of proving people wrong. I feel like that’s at the heart of being a challenger brand.


Steffen: In a marketplace where you are a challenger and there is an established company that’s leading the pack, right? In many situations, those leaders, they have pockets that they can use to potentially protect their territory, right? How do you as a challenger brand break into that if you are not the one that has deep pockets? For example, if you are not a big company that can throw money at a new category where they want to get into?


Dhiraj: Yeah, that’s where the rubber hits the, rubber meets the road. I mean, obviously, one thing you have to do is to have a clear and distinct and differentiated point of view. Because why would somebody pay attention to you if you’re not coming up? And so I think you got to really look deep and say what is it that I can address? 


I think of a couple of different strategies when I think about that and I’ll dig into the plays. So I think about what is sort of the shifting sands, what’s happening in the marketplace that’s making a customer think about what they have is not working, I got to look at something else. The second thing I think about is, what is the untapped frustration? 


Because there is always, even with a leader, there’s an untapped frustration about something with the current leader. And so what is that? Because that gives you the wedge. That gives you the way in so to speak. And then you have to think about what is something that we do that is uniquely different? 


What is it that you do that’s uniquely different that you’re really good at that plays into it? And so I think that’s sort of the mentality I use because you are out there trying to compete with the players so entrenched and so deep. So when I think of that, I think of a couple of strategies. So first is what is sort of what I call a low effort for a high impact. 


So what is something that you can execute that’s less resources, but allows you to have a bigger bang for the buck? Right? So at Dashlane, for example, one of the things we recognize that we have breaches, as we talked about, rights. Despite all this investment companies are making. 


So there’s some problem and customers are constantly now thinking like, hey, listen, what do I need to do, because it’s not like the breaches have slowed down, or the impact has slowed down. That gives an opportunity. The second thing is, the customers look at credential security and the leader in the category, one of the leaders got breached. 


The other leader is a product that’s far more complex. So they are like, okay, well, I’m not getting the answers, I’m not getting served well. They have frustration and risk around security, they feel like they need something more simple. We also found is that there’s always this, there’s this median price customer, who has some of the similar needs, like very large enterprises, but they want something that’s more simple. 


Simpler to deploy and execute. So that allowed us to get a way in but what we had to figure out is, how do you compete and one of the insights we drew, is that if you wanted to bring credibility quickly, we got to create a great first impression. So let’s focus on the start of the journey. 


So we invested in PR and SEO, and what I would say customer ratings. We had a lot of great customers. Customers loved us who we had and that investment paid off that allowed us to show up and create a great impression and quickly build credibility. The second play, when you’re trying to compete, you have to think about where’s the puck going, versus where’s the puck right now. 


So what happens typically is I feel like, there’s always despite the leader being a leader, there’s always a new thing that’s happening that nobody has established leadership in. And you as an upstart, can go grab that leadership. In our category that was passkeys and the evolution to password list. 


There’s a lot of toggling on about removing password lists, and there’s a new technology but passkeys, nobody, and leadership, we hustle and develop leadership in that area, and that gave us a lot of credibility as an innovative brand, who was recognized was out in public and press and had a point of view. The third thing for me is breaking the glass. 


So if you’re going out to compete, if all you do is the tried and true things, your competitor who has more resources is going to do it three times better. So you got to be willing to paint outside the lines, try something. Experiment. Some will break. But you will find the leverage, you’ll find the players that work. 


So we have been experimenting very rapidly with pricing models. Sort of features, even channels, and finding success, and you need to double down on those areas, but you cannot do all things. And the last thing I would say is what I call the forgotten customer. So we talked earlier that no matter who the leader is or the category is. 


And that was true for PayPal, that was true of Facebook, there’s always a forgotten customer left behind. For us, it was that mid-enterprise customer that I just talked about, who wanted a secure solution and didn’t care for all the features. 


They wanted a certain set of features, but what they really cared when you’re talking about a product you have to deploy to all the employees, simplicity of deployment. Does my employee love this product? Is the UX great? And those are areas which we are great at. So we focus on that because then that word of mouth helps. 


So I’ve already summarized that I would say what is lower effort, maximum impact? Where’s the puck going versus where the puck is today and can you get leadership there? Break the glass, don’t be shy about that. That’s how you win and kind of try to find if there is a forgotten customer that you can even gain ownership on.


Steffen: Now your point around SEO and PR sounds to me a little bit like look at media solution look at communication channels, where you can achieve reach and maybe even morality without pain. 


Dhiraj: Exactly.


Steffen: Because if you were to invest a lot of unpaid media now you could start small and define what works and then double down on it. But with PR and SEO, those are obviously also solutions, especially SEO that are more long-term, mid-term, and long-term focused. And then the growth of organic traffic that you know once it is established, your organic traffic should kind of continue to come in and grow. Is that the right observation?


Dhiraj: And you’re right on. I mean you and I were talking earlier but when you’re a challenger brand, you have less resources and you don’t have the brand recognition, you all are looking at what is, organic is the mechanism. And some people don’t realize that we cannot outspend your competitor. 


So I said, those are the plays, those are the strategies in the channel that are organic. But they also are at the beginning of the journey. The moment a person starts thinking about it, they start reading news, they start reading content, they do searches. And if you show up there, I think you have a much higher, there’s a force multiplier. 


So yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think focusing on organic. And I think today in the world of marketing, or one of the things that’s changed, and you know, this is that the amount of formats and channels and ways you can engage customers has multiplied. 


So you, if you’re smart, and you have a hustle, and you have good intuition, you can kind of leverage some of these channels very effectively, because you can play this game. So, exactly right. I think that insight is what we drew on to kind of get us going.


Steffen: When people discover new software, new solutions that might help them overcome challenges that they have, or where they see, this is a step up from what they currently are, that still doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re ready to jump ship and change things. Humans in that regard are, I don’t want to call it lazy, but they are a little bit resistant to change. Because if we talk about a company there is resources involved that the solution needs to be deployed across entire, in your case, machines.


Dhiraj: Steffen on the b2b side, right?


Steffen: Yeah. How do you how do you approach it? How do you help your potential customers, your prospects, so that that doesn’t become a big thing, a big hurdle that they have to jump over? How can you make it easier for them to switch?


Dhiraj: So I think there isn’t a silver bullet. But first of all, you have to, so it’s good you identified a frustration. It’s good you figured out a forgotten customer. It’s good you’re doing your messaging strategy, but you have to remember, theory is great. Well, then just sit on theory. 


So the first step to that is, well, what is your better way? And how can you deliver it? So one thing is about really spending time saying what is our solution that we deliver that’s different, and it doesn’t need to be radically different. So that’s part one. And I think for us, what we have been saying, where do we realize is what these customers I talked a little bit about. 


It’s not just about features, it’s about the simplicity. But it’s also about thinking horizontally about the credential security solution. So it’s not just purely about auto-filling your passwords and creating better passwords. It’s thinking about protecting them from anti-phishing. It’s thinking about how do you train these individuals and employees to make it in a positive way, a positive change. Giving them password health reports, and password scores. 


So that’s part one, you got to come up with a new solution and learn and iterate from that. I think the second thing is that you have to execute well, the early journey. So you have to really pay attention. So we realized early on that we have to invest more resources in early onboarding to help a customer make a switch, or if a lot of customers will greenfield. 


They are not switching with somebody. The third thing is, you have to start being much more clear and direct in your messaging, whether it’s a sales team and enabling them, or your own messaging, you can’t just be about the story. You have to be very clear and direct saying this is why we believe the solution is better. 


So you’ve got to start giving concrete examples. Ao I think it’s, and obviously, the product has to innovate. So you have to come up with capabilities that can help this customer. So I think those are some of the ways I think I would also say that it’s a crawl, walk, run. You’re not gonna suddenly go from here to there. So in our minds having a real clear clock, right? 


Like, what is the phase one victory? Can we win credibility? I think customers give you a lot of leverage if you serve them well. In our business, the IT admin community that chooses us is a smaller community. So there’s a lot of word of mouth. So if you win credibility with them, they’re going to introduce you to other people.


Steffen: Yeah. You touched on messaging. So what’s the right approach here from a messaging overall perspective? Is it to ignore the category leader or go directly at them?


Dhiraj: That is another great question. So one thing is clear to me that if you want to be a challenger brand, you have to have a clear point of view that is distinct and that is different. Because if you don’t have a clear point of view you cannot win that, because they won’t pay attention. 


Now, how does that clear point of view manifest? It can be different on the context. If there’s a clear, growing frustration with the leader, then I think is more effective to call that out. But if you’re trying to disrupt a category and trying to create an entirely new solution, I think it’s much better to invest in painting a vision. 


But I think a couple of things, despite all those nuances, I think a couple of things you have to do in your messaging, number one, you have to clearly articulate, why does the problem matter. Whatever problem you’re describing, and it better align with the problem they see as well, why does the problem matter? Why has what others have done is not enough or not the right solution? 


And there is a power to saying that. What those people have done, or delivered is not right, not enough, not the correct solution. Third, what is a better way? And so you have to be very clear and articulating what is the better way and why you can deliver it. So I think those things are central in your messaging. 


As I was saying earlier, you have to then clearly articulate and balance between being theoretical and visionary and being pragmatic. And so if you are out there, and I learned this too, at Facebook. We had a big vision that was very exciting. But customers, especially, we were selling to CMOs, they’re not going to switch just because of a theory. 


They want to see how does that translate in real life? They are looking for outcomes you can drive for them. I want to drive brand awareness, I want to drive ROI, I want to drive new customer acquisition. Well, how’s this platform going to do that? Explain to me, I got the theory. So I think that balancing out is important in the messaging.


Steffen: Okay. Now, from an organizational perspective, right, we talked about more marketing-focused things. From an organizational perspective, do you hire differently if you are a challenger brand?


Dhiraj: Yes, you do. And I go back to that analogy from Top Gun. When are you looking for people, at least the way I think about it, I always look for people who are passionate about the craft. Whether I’m hiring for a PR person or a social media person or a demand gen person. Because then they’ll constantly push the boundary because they love the craft. 


They constantly want to hone it. You’re also looking for people who can paint outside the lines. Can you be creative, because boy oh boy, you’re gonna be in many situations, where you have a problem to solve and it won’t be the straight line. And so you have to be a creative problem solver. You also want a person who has something to prove. 


They have a little bit of a chip on the shoulder, feel like the underdog, feel they can win it, and that motivates them. So when I recruit people, certainly, when you’re thinking of a challenger brand, you kind of look for those traits. So I will ask them questions about what do they love about their craft. Why? What got them into it?


Steffen: So is it more experience, or is it more this drive, this hunger over potentially even seniority or inexperience? Is it easier to teach someone who brings the right attitude that is really gunning for the role, then someone who might have the experience, but might not be as ambitious, and might not be as hungry?


Dhiraj: I think that’s a great thing to consider. So where do you weigh experience versus where you weigh drive? So one thing I would say is, when you’re trying to build a team, you kind of think holistically rather than thinking about every role has to be a certain way. I think somewhere experience matters much more. 


Somewhere drive matters much more. But even when I look at experienced people, say I’m hiring for a head of product marketing or head of PR. There’s a lot of variability in experienced people. Some experienced people are comfortable with knowing what they’re doing, building at scale, operating at scale, but it’s not about constantly moving around and changing things. 


They were more some people less so. So I would answer two ways. I think some in roles experience matters, you cannot compromise on it. But within that, I would look at things and sometimes both not only recruiting but sometimes you look at the performance of individuals and some people show you the hustle. 


They show you creative thinking and so I constantly when we do calibration, think about who’s the one who can take on more? And it’s funny, it happens, you might have started with saying, well, I don’t know what this person’s job is, but they will show you what they’re capable of. And so you have to double down on that. So I think that’s how I think about it.


Steffen: Is it fair to say it’s a little bit like building a sports team? Doesn’t matter what sport, whether we’re talking about soccer or football or basketball, you cannot have a team of, I don’t know 11 superstar soccer players, right? It’s gonna be really expensive. But you might want to look at it and say, hey, you know, what? Do I need a great striker that can just score goals day and night? Or do I want to have a more defensive approach? 


So I want to have a strong defense and then you know, I’m okay with maybe average sounds bad but a balanced team. Is that going to bring me success? And it’s probably the same approach when you build a team. You don’t have the money to get just superstars and then you have to see what position potentially is most important where you need someone that can carry a lot of weight.


Dhiraj: I think that’s an astute observation. And I would say, the way I’ve thought about it is you’re feeling a team to get a job done. So it doesn’t matter if you have a few superstars. In my past we have had a situation where we had superstars but they drew all the oxygen out of the room and in so that’s part one. 


Part two, I think we made another big astute observation. What is a superstar? To me, superstars in the context of the role you’re trying to do, to me a superstar is not just who had past tremendous success or comes with a great resume. Superstars sometimes are which have the right mix of knowledge, but hustle. 


Because a lot of time in the growth environment, it matters what do you have done in the past, but you have to solve new problems. And so yes, experience matters, but equally matters how motivated you are, how much you are willing to hustle, how much you’re willing to try. 


Do you want to prove something? So I think it’s a balance. So I even think of a definition for superstar. And I know exactly what you’re saying, which is a classic definition of superstar doesn’t really pan out. And you’ve got to think about fielding an entire team to win the game.


Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Well Dhiraj, unfortunately, we’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. Thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge, and your thoughts on how to build a challenger brand. Now, if people want to find out more about you and Dashlane, how can they get in touch?


Dhiraj: Well they can go to dashlane.com, and there’s tons of resources. We just redesigned our new website. Created a lot of content that they can access. And if you want to reach me, you can message me on LinkedIn. That’s kind of the best way of reaching me. So I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for inviting me.


Steffen: Thank you so much. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on X at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.