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The Merits of Underdog Positioning

December 2011 Communication

 For some reason, consumers often find the underdog more attractive than the category leader, according to research done by Harvard Business School Professor Anat Keinan.

In an article in the 2010 issue of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge,
author Martha Legace, senior editor, writes “in the public eye, the weaker party is often more attractive.”  Prof. Keinan explains: “Today, underdog brand biographies are being used by large and small companies and across categories, including food and beverages, technology, airlines and automobiles.  Even large corporations, such as Apple and Google, are careful to retain their underdog roots in the brand biographies.”

Examples of the power of underdog brand biographies cited in the Working Knowledge  article include:

The famous Avis rent-a-car slogan: “We’re Number 2” was a very attractive and successful positioning vs. Hertz, the then No. 1 rent-a-car company.

Oprah Winfrey’s success, which is largely based on her ability to construct the oft-repeated biographical narrative of failure, struggle, and redemption.

Snapple, which obtained its initial popularity, thanks to stories about its quirky founder and underdog spokesperson, Wendy.

Nantucket Nectors’ whose label portrays its founders as starting out “with only a blender and a dream.

The founded in a garage narratives of famous brands like Apple, Google and Hewlett-Packard.

Starbuck’s, when faced by recent adversity, created Pike Place Roast, which emphasizes the brand’s humble beginnings in Seattle.

Adidas’s “Impossible is Nothing” campaign, which features underdog stories of famous athletes.

Why, then, would our society, which apparently identifies with “winners”  be so enamored with “underdogs,” which are expected to be losers?  This is a question posed to Prof. Keinan.

The answer lies in the research that was done.  The Harvard team did a series of lab and online studies with over 2,000 consumers recruited from national online samples.  “We tested the response to underdog brand stories,” said Prof. Keinan.  “Our studies examined the effect of conveying an underdog brand biography on purchase intentions and consumers’ real choices.”

Prof. Keinan points out that it is part of the American culture to embrace the “American Dream,” which “proclaims that through hard work and perseverance anyone can be successful regardless of class, caste, religion, race or ethnicity.  Underdog narratives may be particularly salient at the current moment because historical opportunities to advance are in jeopardy.

“In today’s world.” Prof. Keinan continues, “underdog narratives address real-world challenges and anxieties faced by increasing numbers of Americans.  Recession, inflation and the financial crisis of 2008 have intensified anxieties.”

Stories of underdogs have become increasingly popular in difficult economic times such as “The Great Depression” for example:

Seabiscuit, the horse nobody wanted, became an inspiration, as did fighter James Braddock, the Cinderella man.  The films of Frank Capra lightened Depression-era despair with optimism and laughter.  Then there was Shirley Temple, the little darling of the Great Depression and the ever-famous underdog, Little Orphan Annie.

What about Franklin Roosevelt, the cripple who became one of our most famous Presidents and led the country through the Great Depression and World War II.

“For the last three decades,” Prof. Keinan says, “distribution of income and wealth have grown more unequal and the rates of socioeconomic mobility have declined.   Millions of households have had to work longer hours, add additional income earners, and devote more effort to succeed on the job.”

Perhaps it is this polarization of American society with the decline of great American middle class that have brought these stories of Horatio Alger-type brands back into vogue, and reaping the benefit are the underdog brands. .



About the author

James T. Berger, Managing Editor of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.

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