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Everyone loves a scrappy underdog. J.K. Rowling created an appealing underdog character in Harry Potter. The New Orleans Saints and the Butler Bulldogs gave fans against-the-odds teams to back in the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four this year. Both Barack Obama and John McCain positioned themselves as underdogs in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Brands, too, can profit from this positioning — in fact, stores are teeming with underdog products. Its label informs us, for example, that Nantucket Nectars started “with only a blender and a dream,” and Clif Bar proclaims that its founder once lived in a garage. Brewery Samuel Adams reminds us how small it is compared with behemoth Budweiser — while avoiding mention of how big it is compared with most craft beer makers.
What underdog brands share is a biography with two important narrative components: a disadvantaged position (one that typically highlights a company’s humble beginnings and portrays it as being “outgunned” by bigger, better resourced competitors) and a passion and determination to triumph against the odds.
To understand what makes underdog brands powerful, we devised online and live experiments that looked at how consumers’ self-image and circumstances affect their reaction to underdog and top-dog brand stories. We hypothesized that not only would consumers prefer underdog brands but they would do so because they personally identified with the brand’s underdog characteristics. In fact, subjects across all experiments showed a preference for the underdogs, most dramatically in a study in which we gave them a choice of chocolate bars. One brand had an underdog story: We described it as relatively small and new, competing against longtime powerhouses like Lindt and Godiva. The other brand had a top-dog biography, characterized by experienced, well-resourced founders and a big marketing budget. The result: 71 percent chose the underdog chocolate.
And the stronger a subject’s own “underdog disposition” — a sense of struggling in tough circumstances — the greater his or her preference for the underdog brand. That may be why underdog biographies appeal strongly to people in traditionally disadvantaged segments, such as women, blue collar workers, or ethnic minorities.
Obviously, not every brand can benefit from an underdog story. Some brands — Rolls-Royce, for instance — derive much of their strength from their top-dog lineage. Others, such as hospitals, could run into trouble if consumers perceived their disadvantaged position as negatively affecting quality or safety. And for brands like Microsoft that can’t credibly claim underdog status, attempting to employ such a narrative could backfire badly.
But for brands with a plausible underdog story to tell, the timing is good for rolling it out. Even as the Great Recession recedes, consumers continue to feel under siege. Smart underdogs will turn the zeitgeist to their advantage.
Contributed to BSI by: Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, and Neeru Pahari and featured today on Branding Strategy Insider in partnership with the Harvard Business Review
Sponsored by: The Brand Positioning Workshop