When the Underdog Becomes the Big Dog

How to Combat Consumer Disdain Once You Make It to the Top

By Published on .

Kevin Briskey
Kevin Briskey
From the movie "The Blind Side" to the success of Susan Boyle, everyone loves an underdog story. And the same is true in the world of branding. For years, brands such as Jet Blue and Ben & Jerry 's have capitalized on their plucky challenger images.

But the converse of that axiom is also true -- the so-called tall-poppy syndrome, that people love to tear down those who reach the top. And therein lies the rub: While many companies may start as the underdog, few aim to stay the underdog forever. And when you're no longer coming from behind, but instead leading from the front, your relationship with consumers can change.

That's what appears to be happening with Google. In the late 90s, they entered the scene with a funny name and a philosophy that "you can make money without doing evil," and they were cast as the young upstart trying to compete with big, established contenders like Yahoo. But now, Google appears to be more Goliath than David. France has declared Google a monopoly, the EU has begun an antitrust investigation, and privacy advocates are up in arms about personal data being caught up in its ever-expanding net.

While there's been a lot written about how to be a successful challenger brand, what do you do when you actually make it to the top? How do you go from challenger brand to brand leader without losing the loyalty of those who got you there?

One way is to take a page from the politicians' playbook and celebrate your humbler origins. Politicians know that talking about their blue-collar roots, small-town upbringing and financial struggles plays well on the campaign trail. Similarly, a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, titled "The Underdog Effect," found that consumers favored brands featuring underdog narratives that highlight a disadvantaged position and a sense of determination. For example, Nantucket Nectars' label proclaims the company "started with blender and a dream." Similarly, Sam Adams heavily features its founder in ads and celebrates how he brewed his first batch of beer in his kitchen and how the company started with just three employees. Despite being a publicly traded company with more than $400 million in sales, this continual reminder of the company's modest start keeps the underdog spirit alive.

But there is also an element of fairness that drives our attraction to underdogs. A study conducted at the University of South Florida, titled "The Appeal of the Underdog," suggested that a possible reason we root for underdogs is because of a natural human "aversion to inequality." We see underdogs as a being in a disadvantaged position, and we throw our support behind them as a way of rebalancing equality and fairness. One way that leading brands can foster a bit of that underdog appeal may be by aligning with causes pertaining to fairness, equality and justice. For example, Dove is a global mega-brand, yet it has none of the feelings of big-brand badness. Perhaps that's in part because the brand has been a champion in trying to redress unfair beauty standards through its Campaign for Real Beauty. By taking on an issue of fairness in society, Dove may take some of the critical focus off of its advantaged position in the marketplace -- making it appear more David than Goliath.

The USF study also suggests that people attribute greater effort to underdogs, which in turn leads to greater liking. Challenger brands often get automatic credit for applying more effort. But even as a brand becomes established, they can maintain some underdog allure by showing they're not coasting on their success. Kashi, owned by Kellogg, is a $600 million-dollar success story. But their tagline, "Seven whole grains on a mission," conveys the admirable restlessness of someone who is still clambering up the ladder of success versus someone who has already arrived.

Not every underdog will make it big, but by applying these lessons, big doesn't have to mean bad for those that do.

Kevin Briskey is an associate partner at Consumer Dynamics. He began his marketing career in branding at British Airways and MasterCard in Europe, and then made the switch to consulting in 2000 when he joined Sterling Brands.
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