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

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.

    • Anonymous
    While academic research can be both credible and interesting, why do I find myself wincing at the "underdog" narratives that I hear from large companies. (In particular the "poor us . . . despite that . . . we are trying to make your life better" strategy currently favored by politicians, oil companies and the pharmaceutical industry even as they rape us in concert.)

    In our current hyper-linked environment, authenticity trumps underdog status, so implementation of any type of underdog strategy must be both authentic and carefully executed - if at all - by large companies. (And perception of authenticity is in the eyes of the consumer.)
    • Gerard Bremault
    • CEO, The Centre for Child Development of the Lower Mainland
    Many thanks Martha for this interview with Anat - it immediately resonated with me as an "ah ha" moment on a matter we struggle with as a non-profit charitable organization providing outpatient medical rehabilitation services for children with disabilities in British Columbia, Canada. On the one hand we are long-standing (est. 1954), pioneering and well-regarded by those who know us, usually through direct service experience or our local fundraising efforts. On the other hand we aspire (ok, dream!) to be as top of mind for charitable giving as our much larger sector peers such as the local children's hospital. But we are dwarfed in relative marketing and fundraising muscle, so competing directly is a nonsense. We have also struggled mightily and overcome many death knells in a legendary fashion during our 56 years to now have achieved a degree of thriving, but there are many more children to serve than our current growth allows. In recent donor research we have found that several of our supporters referred to wanting to give funds where they were most relatively needed, that they love our cause and wished to support our Centre at least partly because they perceived the "big dogs" to already have more than enough to eat! Your article provides further insight into a phenomenon we were partially, but not fully understanding - our underdog status can be a greater strength than we may have realized. Thank you!
    • Rich Foss
    • CE0/Teachers Asst., Evergreen Leaders
    I'm intrigued by the notion of how nonprofits can use underdog branding. One nonprofit that uses it very effectively is Greg Mortenson's Central Asia Institute. Their work is well known because of the best seller--Three Cups of Tea. They build schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan and they build them beyond the end of the road, definitely the underdog theme.
    • Ron Kurtz
    • President, American Affluence Research Center
    While there may be some research to support Ms. Keinan's thesis about the influence of "under dog branding" the success of Southwest Airlines versus United and Apple versus Microsoft seems to be primarily the result of being more customer friendly, offering a better product and better value, and communicating to the consumer in an appealing way.
    • Anonymous
    Reminiscent of Judo strategy, but most of the companies you attribute are dominant players in the industry. How do you connect Judo, Underdog Branding and recent success of Red Bull?
    • John Heng
    • Director, Living By Design
    How very true this article is in the message that underdog branding does capture the heartstrings of the consumer. The question I would like Ms Keinan to consider, is where does she see the Harvard brand relative to other less known schools?
    • Nelson Wong
    • CEO, Geneva21 Inc.
    Likewise, our company is operating an online shopping mall and an online news portal that are facing stiff competition from the big players. We have to believe in ourselves and our mission because nobody else does.
    • Roger Ellman
    • Founder, SuperbWorld / NewUKventures
    We have successfully positioned a small, high personal service, truthful and innovative online travel service via a perhaps-subtle underdog message but without intending to do so.

    It was true!

    We started with nothing, created content and a new business methodology from scratch, of course including the personalities of the two founders (how could we not!?).

    The respondent who winces at the corporate attempt to seem like the underdog is that instance it is best that a true service or product there to help "the underdog" is brought to the fore.

    It is unlikely to make it believable that a mass-brand name, a fortune 500 company IS the underdog!

    Used with integrity (whether you like it or not most of your customers now smell a rat where integrity is lacking) the story of the early days of a company is helpful and can be genuinely interesting and engaging to customers.

    I thank you for the article because it shows a learned examination of the cultural impact on what is marketable, how it is and the tendency that is clearly being seen.

    With interest, in haste
    Roger Ellman
    • Stephen Cantu
    • Accountant, Olinger Distributing
    Good Point Mr. Kurtz. Could it be that the success of Southwest Airlines and Apple are due to percieved customer friendlieness, perceived better product, and perceived better value as a byproduct of their marketing themselves as a more passionate and customer oriented organization? It is possible that their strong marketing campaign can have an impact on customer perceptions and that Microsoft and United do try to have a great product, service, and value but are not executing in their brand marketing to effect customer perceptions of their products and services?
    • Vandana
    I have been a firm believer in underdogs and as you pointed out correctly, People (I) can relate to them. However, In context to lets say the Internet & Online selling: I fail to understand the Massive outbreak and following of overselling in today's world. Take for example, an ebook seller online with his 2000 words sales pitch + a highly overrated bio. Same in case of so many bloggers & personalities online. As much as I like the underdog theory which is tremendously appealing to a person like me, it isn't for the masses. These ebook sellers online with an inflated sales pitch are the ones who make money, certainly they must posses some appeal.
    • Raghav
    • Asst Mgr, ITC
    People love to support and root for the underdog, atleast in the movies and thru pop culture. However, in the market place, the positioning taken by Avis seems to be perfect, I wonder if other brands that are successful who are at #2 are due to the inherent nature of the product/service that they are offering or just plain luck!
    • Manish
    • Senior Marketing Executive

    This is a good article.

    Other examples are like underdog Spanish team winning Football world cup this year, when Sri Lanka won Cricket world cup some years ago they were also considered as underdogs etc etc
    • Doug Wilson
    • Founder and Former CEO, HoundDog Technology
    At HoundDog Technology, we used this tactic with great effect against larger, more entrenched competitors. In our case, and in contrast to Starbucks, it was still a current and authentic story. Once we were acquired by a more established software player, it lost most of its authenticity and impact.

    My guess is that any attempt by a top dog, say a Starbucks or a Nike, to wind the clock back and make hay out of their underdog roots will have impact with some, but may have an opposite effect with the majority: it will only reinforce a perception of them as manipulators. I think their efforts in this regard may turn out to be a bit of an, ahem, dog's breakfast.
    • Nora Firestone
    • Founder,
    Thank you for this great read. My own "underdog" status as a sixth-grader competing in P.E. against the toughest girl in class--and the teacher who pulled me from "sure loser" status to victory with only his intense stare and constant chant: "You can do it; hang in there"--was in large part the inspiration behind me creating, the Web-based forum for posting stories of gratitude to thank the people who've had a lasting, positive influence on our lives. Two years into my passion-driven mission, I find myself surprised at all there is still to do and learn regarding getting our message out and connecting authentically with the public. This article resonated with me on many levels and its insights will likely help direct that connectivity and branding efforts. I agree with the author of comment #1 wholeheartedly: we are nothing if not authentic and of integrity in any relationship, in
    cluding business/service.
    Thanks again,
    • Alan Kirke
    • Director, Alan Kirke & Associates
    I think that is a basic and timeless perception that has its roots in survival psychology.

    Also one of the top plots writers creating ofetn turn to.
    but very interesting concept of neutralizing the
    "Tall Poppy Syndrome" they call it in Australia.
    If there can be a way to have the "Home town Boy made good" feel to success.

    Would like the concept to be expanded upon further and here your research on,

    ...For example, we look at how brand biographies can be used to avoid anti-corporate consumer backlash and mitigate "the curse of success.
    • clement
    • advisor/retired, black & light co
    Excellent article, which I forwarded on to my dear wife's kids, who've stepped in to help her with a business she founded in 2007-08, black & light co, after the economy creamed us in the Fall of 2008. She certainly qualifies as an underdog, in an industry dominated by imports, mostly from Asia.

    In my previous 'life', I served as a turn-around specialist of sorts for four different companies, ending my 'career' with my starting another company of my own at 37 before health sidelined me permanently at 45. I've run companies and been inside most every type, being sales and marketing driven - I wanted to see the customer and find out what they really needed. So I've a few clues as to what makes a good business tick.

    The key things I'll stress with the kids are Anat's first point summarized as "...a seemingly disadvantaged position in the marketplace, coupled with the passion and determination to succeed." - that determination and passion is critical - and that Americans do want the underdog to succeed.

    I completely concur with comment number one - authenticity is critical.

    I also found Gerard's comments helpful. We use Grand Traverse Industries to help us pack and fulfill our products. GTI employs severely mentally and physically challenged adults and in all my years of doing business - may be one of, if not the finer organizations, I've seen. Holly's key slogan is 'we measure our success by how well we support those in greater need' and she actively works with Airline Ambassadors to help children in need around the world.

    Nice to be back reading an HBS article (came via Smartbrief). I was an avid HBR reader back when it was only available in print - as in before the internet (was there a time?)

    In times like these we need to provide hope, have faith, and of course - don't forget that love thing. After all - people really do love the underdog.
    • Russell D. Moser
    • Americas Business Unit Manager, Power and Signal Quality
    Appreciate the timely article 'Underdog Branding!"

    I really look forward to all HBS communiques. Maintain the excellent work.

    • Katie Reynolds
    • Marketing Manager, New Revenue Streams, Vistage International
    I agree with the psychology - we LOVE the underdog - sometimes. I really liked your example of how no one would want to go to an "underdog" hospital where safety is a concern. And John Heng, your point is well taken - no one would turn down a free ride at Harvard to instead go to a less known "underdog" school. Like most things, the theory depends on the type of product. Consumers will buy it if it works better or tastes better than the leading product - and if its the underdog it gains even more of an edge.

    Katie Reynolds
    • Musaddiq Akhtar
    • Student, ACCA
    My humble experience inclines me to favour Anat Keinan's premise.

    Being the underdog does get you out of the scope of the hard-line critics, I think the proposition would also hold true to the tests of the prevalent geo-political situation of this world.

    The way American Way Of Life is marketed to the whole world places America in a very precarious scenario.

    American media coupled with the mainstream media giants are sort of imposing the American Way Of Life on virtually every other nation. Now this is taken to be an intrusive TopDog's intrusion in other cultures, and thus is disadvantaged.

    Whilst Germany staying silhouetted is mustering economic power, rising from the ashes!
    • Anonymous
    An underdog gains public sympathy. But the story of humble origins helps only when you have humbled a giant against all the odds. Thereafter, the company has to consistently deliver value and demonstrate it without appearing too aggressive. Friendship, afterall flowers between the equals. So may be when the chips are down underdog theory may help, but not all the time.
    • Shrikala
    • Graduate Trainee, PriceWaterhouse & Co.
    I believe that this form of branding is short-lived unless you have actual quality in your products/services. Another factor that should be kept into consideration is the target market. A high class Parisian would not want to be associated with a perfume, whose fragrance was first discovered in a dingy bedroom. Underdog branding may be powerful when you are targeting a large middle class market, but as people rise up in life (or rather start overcoming obstacles), they will pretty much not kep the 'underdog' factor in mind before buying something. At that point, what will matter is where the product stands in the market. Therefore, Underdog branding is largely dependent on the profile of your customers.