• 13 Sep 2010
  • Research & Ideas

The Consumer Appeal of Underdog Branding

 
 
Research by HBS professor Anat Keinan and colleagues explains how and why a "brand biography" about hard luck and fierce determination can boost the power of products in industries as diverse as food and beverages, technology, airlines, and automobiles. Key concepts include:
  • Underdog brand biographies feature two intertwined narrative threads: a seemingly disadvantaged position in the marketplace, coupled with the passion and determination to succeed.
  • Examples of "brands" that emphasize their underdog roots include Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Oprah Winfrey; candidates in the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Nantucket Nectars, and Clif Bar.
  • Underdog brand biographies resonate with consumers during tough economic times like those we live in. Popular stories about underdogs were prevalent during the Great Depression, too, and have been powerful around the world and throughout history.
  • Use brand biographies carefully. Not all products and services are appropriate for underdog narratives.
 
 
by Martha Lagace

Picture the Jamaican bobsled team going for the gold at the Winter Olympics. Or competitors in what seem fundamentally unbalanced battles: the Chicago Cubs versus the New York Yankees, Apple versus Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines versus United.

In the public eye, the weaker party is often more attractive. Why?

The reason might be an increasing willingness on the part of consumers to identify with the underdog. In today's economically difficult times, it appears, underdog brands are gaining psychological, and real, power in the marketplace.

“In today's world, underdog narratives address real-world challenges and anxieties faced by increasing numbers of Americans.”

As HBS professor Anat Keinan explains, "Today, underdog brand biographies are being used by both 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 their brand biographies."

A forthcoming article coauthored by Keinan for the Journal of Consumer Research, "The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography," details her joint research about the trend and its implications for brand management. Keinan, an assistant professor in the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School whose research on consumer behavior has been published in leading marketing and psychology journals, coauthored the article with Neeru Paharia, Jill Avery, and Juliet B. Schor.

Says Keinan, "Through a series of experiments, we show that underdog brand biographies are effective in the marketplace because consumers identify with the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them."

Marketers can use underdog narratives to positively affect consumers' perceptions of and purchase of brands, she says. "Underdog narratives are often delivered to consumers through the rhetorical device of a brand biography, an unfolding story that chronicles the brand's origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story."

Keinan recently participated in an e-mail interview about the research and its importance for marketing strategies.

Martha Lagace: How do you define an underdog brand biography? What are some examples today?

Anat Keinan: Brand biographies contain underdog narratives that highlight the companies' humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble struggles against adversaries.

The common themes that link these brands' underdog biographies are

  1. a disadvantaged position in the marketplace versus a "top dog," a well-endowed competitor with superior resources or market dominance, and
  2. tremendous passion and determination to succeed despite the odds.

The underdog's external environment is largely negative: Underdogs start from a disadvantaged position and hit obstacles along the way, making it a more difficult struggle for them than for others. In competition with others that have more resources, underdogs feel the odds are against them.

The underdog's internal characteristics are largely positive: Underdogs show perseverance in the face of adversity and are resilient even when they fail, staying focused on their end goal. Their determination forces them to pick themselves up after they lose to try to win again. They defy others' expectations that they will fail. They are more passionate than others about their goals, which serve a central role in defining the meaning of their lives, and they remain hopeful about achieving them, even when faced with obstacles.

Many contemporary brand biographies contain underdog narratives. Product packaging, corporate Web sites, blogs, and marketing communications tell the biographical stories of brands.

There are lots of examples:

  • Avis's classic slogan "we're number 2" emphasized that it was playing second fiddle to a giant in the rental car business.
  • Oprah Winfrey's success is largely attributable to her ability to construct a repeating biographical narrative involving failure, struggle, and redemption.
  • Snapple forged its initial popularity with underdog narratives and "got its juice back" by reintroducing stories about its quirky founders and its underdog spokesperson, Wendy.
  • Nantucket Nectars' label portrays the story of the founders who started "with only a blender and a dream."
  • Brands such as Google, Clif Bar, and Apple celebrate their garage origins. Hewlett-Packard recently bought, and has a whole section on its Web site dedicated to, the garage in which it started. It is now a historical landmark.
  • Starbucks, in an effort to reverse declining sales, recently launched Pike Place Roast, which emphasizes the brand's humble Seattle coffee culture beginnings.
  • Adidas's "Impossible Is Nothing" campaign emphasized the underdog stories of famous athletes.

Q: How did you notice this trend? How did you study it in-depth?

A: Our interest was piqued during the 2008 presidential election when virtually all the candidates, including Obama, McCain, Clinton, Edwards, Huckabee, and Paul, portrayed themselves as "the underdog." A market scan of contemporary branding practices also indicated a rise in underdog positioning across a diverse group of brands.

Given that psychological research has shown that people want to associate themselves with winners (and therefore with winning brands), we thought it was interesting that brands would try to position themselves as underdogs, because the underdog is the one expected to lose.

Our forthcoming article in the February Journal of Consumer Research is based on the results of a series of lab and online studies with over 2,000 consumers recruited from national online samples. We tested their response to underdog brand stories. Our studies examined the effect of conveying an underdog brand biography on purchase intentions and consumers' real choices.

“Brand biographies can be used to avoid anticorporate consumer backlash and mitigate the 'curse of success.' ”

Because the underdog narrative is an underexplored topic in consumer research, we first studied the dimensions of an underdog narrative to better define and test the construct of an underdog brand biography. We identified two important narrative components: a disadvantaged position versus an adversary, and passion and determination to beat the odds.

We then ran a series of studies that tested the effectiveness of underdog brand biographies to increase consumers' purchase intentions, brand loyalty, and real choice. We explored the contexts and situations in which these brand biographies are likely to be more effective. Our studies also examined the underlying psychological process, and demonstrate that the underdog effect is driven by consumers' identification with the brand.

Q: As you and your coauthors write, "Stories about underdogs are pervasive across cultures and throughout history, and appear in ancient religious texts, as well as in modern literature, art, film, and politics." What makes underdog brand biographies especially prevalent and popular now?

A: Underdog stories about overcoming great odds through passion and determination are particularly resonant during difficult times. They inspire and give hope when the outlook is bleak. They promise that success is still possible in challenging social, political, and economic times.

Americans throughout history have embraced 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, 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. For the last three decades, distributions of income and wealth have grown more unequal, and 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.

Underdog stories have always been popular during difficult economic times. The Great Depression, for example, spawned many of the great underdog stories in history:

  • In 1938, Seabiscuit, the little horse that nobody wanted, beat the likely winner War Admiral and became a symbol and inspiration for the little guy who came from behind and beat the odds.
  • Film director Frank Capra's underdog tales lightened Depression-era despair with irrepressible optimism and laughter. Capra's "fantasies of goodwill" packaged hope for the hopeless.
  • The Cinderella Man, James J. Braddock, was an impoverished ex-prizefighter. He had hit rock bottom, and his career appeared to be finished. He was unable to pay his bills, and he was forced to go on public relief. Driven by love, honor, and an incredible dose of grit, Braddock never relinquished his determination. In a last-chance bid to help his family, he returned to the ring, where despite the odds he kept winning. Carrying the hopes and dreams of the disenfranchised on his shoulders, Braddock rocketed through the ranks, until he took on the heavyweight champion of the world.
  • Shirley Temple was the Hollywood darling of the Great Depression, bringing hope and optimism in the midst of despair. Often playing an orphan or a child from a broken home, her character persevered and rose above her disadvantages.

Q: In addition to studying Americans, you compared their responses with those of people in a different cultural context, Singapore. Why? What did you find?

A: We wanted to examine the cross-cultural appeal of underdog brand biographies.

We found that the underdog effect crosses cultural boundaries, with both Singaporean and American participants showing preference for underdog brands. However, underdog preference was stronger for American participants, which we hypothesize is due to the fact that Americans may be more receptive to underdog narratives because of the unique role of underdogs in the history of the United States.

Q: Are certain products more suitable for the creation of underdog narratives than others? What should marketers keep in mind?

A: Brand managers need to consider the credibility of the underdog narrative for the firm. Many brands emphasize their underdog roots, but if they are later acquired by large corporations, it diminishes the credibility of their underdog brand biographies. Brands such as Ben & Jerry's and Snapple have been criticized by consumers once they were acquired by large corporations.

Additionally, there may be product categories for which consumers reject underdog brand biographies. With hospitals, consumers believe that being externally disadvantaged jeopardizes quality and safety.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: We are examining how brand biographies can be used strategically to strengthen the connection between consumers and a brand or to address areas of weakness that threaten consumer-brand bonds.

For example, we look at how brand biographies can be used to avoid anti-corporate consumer backlash and mitigate "the curse of success. "As brands grow and become successful, they are often marked by the negative stigma associated with size and power, which elicits anticorporate sentiment from consumers. As Starbucks grew out of its humble roots in the artisanal coffee culture of Seattle and became ubiquitous on every street corner, an anti-Starbucks counterculture began to emerge. In recent years, some of the world's largest and most popular brands have been targeted by activists.

In this environment, emphasizing a big brand's underdog roots can be a strategic antidote. We show that making an underdog biography salient allows consumers to identify with a brand's projected passion and struggles rather than its size, and this effect may overpower any negative attributions associated with large size or a firm's top-dog status. People may have an easier time identifying with a large company when they understand the journey the company has had to endure along the way.

About the Author

James Maxmin was chairman and CEO of Volvo-UK, Thorn Home Electronics, and Laura Ashley PLC. He founded the private investment company Global Brand Development, and is currently the advisory director at Mast Global, the investment banking arm of the Monitor Company.