Winning as an Underdog

Last Updated Sep 16, 2010 3:43 PM EDT

Interesting interview about "underdog branding" on HBS Working Knowledge. The piece looks into the research of professor Anat Keinan, who explores the workings of famous underdog brands from Avis to Snapple.
"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," Keinan says.
They are especially effective in difficult economic times, as demonstrated during the Great Depression.

Perhaps the most famous such campaign was initiated in the early 1960s by Avis, the car rental agency. Losing money and market share to industry leader Hertz, Avis worked with advertising giant DDB to turn the industry on its head with the message that "We are No. 2 so we have to try harder" campaign. A year later Avis was in the black and inside of three years its share had risen from 11% to 35%.

There were three keys to making that strategy work that you need to understand if you decide to go down this road, according to the Building Brands Web site.

  1. Upgrade your products and services before launching a single ad. Even great marketing won't sell crummy product.
  2. Answer the question, why should anyone buy a product from us? For Avis, the answer was, because we work harder.
  3. Get every employee involved. Avis workers received a copy of the new ads in their pay envelopes before each campaign was launched.
Keinan offers additional insights. Underdog branding isn't for everyone: Hospitals shouldn't trumpet their lack of resources. Also, make sure the underdog label is credible.
"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."
Just ask President Obama, who campaigned and won as an underdog. But now that he is top dog, the expectations of his customers have changed.

What are your favorite underdog brands? (I think Southwestern Airlines has done a terrific job positioning itself as a renegade against United.) Which ones have failed? (John McCain as a political outsider? Come on!)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.