What Can Media and Marketers Learn from Malcolm Gladwell's 'David & Goliath'?

Latest Book Lighter on Research, but Shows How Sweet It Is to Beat the Odds

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Malcolm Gladwell made a valuable contribution to marketing with his book "The Tipping Point," which got us to think about how brands catch fire and the power of influencers. Though it was published over 11 years ago, it still ranks No. 1 on Amazon's best sellers list among advertising books, and No. 2 among marketing books.

So what can we gain from his latest effort, "David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And the Art of Battling Giants"? Those expecting a marketing textbook will be left wanting. No cases studies, as in "The Tipping Point," of how Hush Puppies shoes was able to become cool again. This book shows less research, but contains dozens' of stories of everyday individuals who have overcome extraordinary disadvantages or adversity. These include, for example, David Boies, who became a brilliant attorney despite dyslexia, and Wilma Derksen, who dealt with the violent murder of her 13-year-old daughter.

The story I was particularly drawn to was of Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian national working in Silicon Valley, who decided to coach his 12-year-old daughter's basketball team. He grew up a fan of cricket and soccer, and didn't know the rules of basketball. The girls on the team were daughters of nerds and computer programmers and were often overmatched by opponents who were taller and more schooled in basketball skills. Yet he devised an unconventional strategy and that took his daughter's team to the national championships. Gladwell describes Ranadivé as "an underdog and misfit, which gave him the freedom to try things no one else had dreamed of."

So what can brands can learn from David And Goliath?

Changing the Shape of the Battle. Playing by the same rules as the established brands is a losing proposition. When Ranadivé's daughter's basketball team played the opposition's game plan, they lost. This was the lesson I took when the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas needed to promote itself against bigger, better known hotel properties. Instead of competing with the noise, executives created a campaign for a sophisticated traveler, promising a smaller, more intimate experience. The hotel continues to command some of the highest room rates on The Strip. If you have the same strategy as another brand that's outspending you 2-1, you simply will lose.

The Act of Overwhelming Odds Produces Greatness and Beauty. Being a David brand is so much about attitude. Gladwell describes how David Boies and Wilma Derksen talk about not accepting the inevitable. So what if the establishment brands have bigger budgets, more resources and wider distribution? Having judged at the Effie Awards, I know that the campaigns that overcame the odds made the most compelling cases. Sometimes the best ideas have come when our clients have challenged us to develop a media plan with no budget. Dove's global brand director, Fernando Machado, briefed his agencies with exactly that task, out of which Dove's Sketches campaign evolved. (Oh, and by the way, they found budget to support it, as so often clients do when confronted with great thinking.)

Substituting Speed and Surprise for Strength. Bigger firms have scale over challenger companies. But with scale, comes complexity, when organizations need to make decisions and act on them. David brands can succeed by seeing opportunities early and gain an edge by securing them faster. Urban Outfitters, for example, gained kudos for being one of first brands to employ Vine.

Gladwell's "David and Goliath" deserves to be on your bookshelf or Kindle library, if only to remind you that success is so much sweeter when beating the odds.

Antony Young is president of Water Cooler Group, an independent brand media communications agency, and author of "Brand Media Strategy," a Palgrave MacMillan and Advertising Age publication offering strategies on communications planning in the Google and Facebook era.
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