Psychology of Underdog Appeal
I try to schedule most of my in town breakfast meetings at an independent coffee shop because I’d rather support the little guy and keep more of the money in the community. I figure that Starbucks is going to do just fine regardless.
Are there underdog brands that you find yourself supporting, too?
From ancient narratives like David and Goliath to NCAA basketball Cinderella stories to the Avis motto, “We’re number 2, we try harder,” the natural appeal of the underdog is well recognized, if not fully understood. Why back a potential loser? Ask a Chicago Cubs fan. Underdogs actually do come in second most of the time; the rare upsets are just more memorable and thrilling to us precisely because they stand out from the norm.
So why do we favor the unfavored, and how can business organizations use underdog branding strategies?
Harder Effort = Deserved Support
In order to better understand the psychology of the underdog effect, Josepth Vandello, associate professor of psychology at The University of South Florida, and his colleagues conducted a series of four experiments, using scenarios from politics and sports. Consistently, people rated underdogs to be harder working. No matter how the researchers altered the scenarios, observers’ support for a particular competitor always increased when it was framed an underdog. Vandello and his colleagues propose that a commitment to fairness and the value of hard work are potential reasons for the appeal of the underdog.
However, they found that even underdogs had to “earn” this support. In situations in which the underdog clearly did not demonstrate sufficient determination and effort, support evaporated.
Identifying with Underdog Mindset Linked to Purchasing Intent
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from three universities in the Boston area found that consumer affinity is highest with challenger brands.
As a thank-you gift, study participants were given a choice of two different chocolate bars. One chocolate brand had a top dog pedigree, with experienced leaders and plenty of marketing dollars. The story of the underdog brand was described as “small and new, competing against powerhouses like Lindt and Godiva.” 71% of all particpants chose the underdog chocolate! The authors found that study participants with the strongest “underdog” personal story – being scrappy and overcoming adversity – had the highest affinity for the underdog brand. The authors concluded:
“Underdog brand biographies contain two important narrative components: a disadvantaged position versus an adversary and passion and determination to beat the odds.”
Develop Your Underdog Brand Story
1. Begin with your founder’s story or origin story.
We love to learn about the humble origins and innovative thinking that started the organization. Talk about challenges and forks in the road. For example, Nantucket Nectars’ label says the company started “with only a blender and a dream.” Many Silicon Valley technology companies such as Facebook and Apple point out that their entrepreneurial founders were born in dorm rooms and garages. HP is preserving the actual garage (and the corporate legend it represents) where Hewlett and Packard started. Even an already wealthy and popular actor like Paul Newman invoked the humble founder’s story when he started his Newman’s Own charity with tomato sauce, off-handedly describing “old pal Hotchner and I down in the basement cooking sauce for friends.” Develop a compelling “About Us” page and related content. People are eager to more about your before they try your products.
2. Frame your current underdog status against powerful adversaries.
Avis did this most succinctly with their “We’re #2…” campaign. Apple continues somehow to deftly balance outsider status simultaneously with their current tech leadership. Apple continues to poke fun at the stuffy Microsoft image with the Mac vs. PC advertisements. However Apple’s future narrative arc seems to aim more at bad design in general than any specific business competitor. Of course, adversaries don’t even need to be other organizations at all, Non-profits can leverage emotions against the disease, need or issue they are fighting, such as polio. Finally, note that the underdog story may not work in certain segments, such as luxury goods or health care, where status and quality are inherent in the value of the product.
3. Share stories about your organization’s continued dedication and enthusiasm.
Telling isn’t selling. Client success stories, employee profiles and “case stories,” can bring your enthusiasm vividly into focus, in ways that facts and figures alone cannot. Not many people enjoy reading bullet points. Conduct regular story circles with your teams to gather and share anecdotes. Do some StoryMining. Ask, “What are examples of our values in action?” Encourage both failure and success stories to be retold for the sake of learning. Take the best examples and begin developing a StoryBank, a searchable matrix of verbal, written and video stories that anyone in the organization can share at the right time and right place. Underdog or not, the StoryBank is the essence of any story-based strategy for sales and marketing.
*Underdog Photo courtesy of Photo.Buddha
Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, and David A. R. Richards of the University of South Florida Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The Appeal of the Underdog Pers Soc Psychol Bull December 2007 33: 1603-1616,
The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography. By: PAHARIA, NEERU; KEINAN, ANAT; AVERY, JILL; SCHOR, JULIET B. Journal of Consumer Research, Feb2011, Vol. 37 Issue 5, p775-790.