Beating the odds: Corporate underdogs make it to the top.

For many decades, sports fans in the West have always (seemingly) rooted for the underdog to win against the odds-on favorite.  For the same reason, consumers often find the underdog more attractive than the category leader, a phenomenon that has been noted by Harvard Business School writers Professor Anat Keinan and Martha Legrace.

According to Keinan and Legrace: “In the public eye, the weaker party is often more attractive,” and “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.”

A few prominent examples:

* The famous Avis rent-a-car slogan: “We’re Number 2” brought Avis great success as they positioned themselves relative to Hertz, which was then the No. 1 rent-a-car company.

* Oprah Winfrey’s success is largely based on her ability to construct a repeated biographical narrative of failure, struggle, and redemption.

* Snapple gained its initial popularity due to stories about its quirky founder and underdog spokesperson, Wendy.

* Nantucket Nectars beverages bear a label that portrays the founders as starting out “with only a blender and a dream. ”

* Famous brands such as Apple, Disney, Google and Hewlett-Packard play on their “created in a garage” origin stories.

* Starbucks created the Pike Place Roast coffee blend to emphasize the brand’s humble beginnings in Seattle.

* The Adidas “Impossible is Nothing” campaign features underdog stories from famous athletes.

Why, then, is this society that apparently identifies with “winners” so enamored with“underdogs” who are naturally expected to be losers?

There is nothing original in the notion that it is an intrinsic part of American culture to embrace the “Horatio Alger” American dream – promising 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, as historically-unprecedented opportunities for advancement are in jeopardy.

According to Prof. Keinan, “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.”

Underdog stories became increasingly popular in difficult economic times such as the Great Depression. Seabiscuit – the horse that nobody wanted – was such an inspiration, as was the fighter James Braddock, the Cinderella man.  The films of Frank Capra lightened Depression-era despair with optimism and laughter.  Then there were the little darlings of the Great Depression – child star Shirley Temple and comic heroine Little Orphan Annie.

What about Franklin Roosevelt, a disabled man who became one of America’s greatest presidents, and triumphantly 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 and the decline of the great American middle class that have brought these Algeresque stories back into vogue, with underdog brands reaping the benefit, and I sense some of the same feelings here in central Europe too. For those of you who are in Prague, if you doubt these words, please go to IP Pavlova, just down the street from the UNYP campus, and take a good look at the food on offer.  Alongside the powerhouse international brands of McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, and Paul, you will find the tiny underdog Pizza Roma, which has been doing very nicely since 2005 (with zero advertising budget).  How can this little mom-and-pop pizza shop survive and thrive for over a decade against the big boys? 

My answer? Maybe Europeans like to pick their own Horatio Algers, too.

Written by: 

Follow us

Go to top