As founder of Frog vs Dinosaur StrawberryFrog I'm aligned with this lucid piece from the Globe & Mail
Too bad David didn’t go into marketing after he defeated Goliath: he could have made a killing.
(Sorry: no pun intended.)
It’s been thousands of years since the biblical hero raised his slingshot against the iconic giant, but his story remains one of the most popular in mythology and movies. From Rocky to Bad News Bears, Erin Brockovich, and The Blind Side, everyone seems to love an underdog. And now a handful of academics has weighed in on the place of underdogs in marketing too.
A forthcoming paper in the Journal of Consumer Research looks at the increasing use of what it calls “underdog brand biographies” – stories about companies founded by scrappy upstarts armed with few resources except their passion and determination. For many years, Apple played up its humble beginnings. Though Nantucket Nectars was bought almost 10 years ago by Cadbury Schweppes, the company’s website still tells the story of its two founders selling blended juices in the summer of 1990 off their red boat in Nantucket Harbor.
The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination Through Brand Biography outlines a series of studies that illustrate the bond that people have with those once-scrappy brands, and their increased likelihood of patronizing companies which leverage an underdog story. The paper originated when Neeru Paharia, then a PhD student at Harvard Business School, was chatting with a friend when they both realized they felt like underdogs.
“You can think that’s not really being an underdog,” said Ms. Paharia in an interview the other day, “but then, you very carefully choose your reference point, so my reference was everybody else at Harvard Business School who seemed better than me. Maybe you always want to believe you’re a scrappy fighter, somebody who doesn’t give up, even in the face of failure.”
One study conducted for the paper but not included suggests that people who were told about two companies, one small and one large, preferred the small one. But when the respondents were given background stories that outlined an underdog biography for each company, they lost their bias toward the small one. Which is why a company like Google is still able to leverage its history as a scrappy startup, despite its current status as a market-dominating Goliath.
The increasing popularity of the underdog narrative trope in marketing may have something to do with the dominance in the economy of Silicon Valley, where just about every company was founded in a garage.
“If you’re a big company and you have that background, you can highlight it, so it’s not that you say you’re an underdog at this moment, but you’re using the story of an underdog brand biography to help consumers identify with you,” notes Ms. Paharia. “So you’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re rich and successful now, but we actually started in a garage and had very few resources,’ and then people don’t feel like you’re so big and unattainable. They go, ‘Oh, that could have been me. I struggle to overcome the odds.’ “
While the underdog mentality may be universal, the JCR paper suggests there are some differences in the way people of different cultures respond to the story. One study found that Americans were more receptive to the underdog narrative than Singaporeans.
Cam Heaps and Greg Taylor, right, started Steam Whistle brewhouse.
That might not be a surprise: the U.S., after all, venerates individualism and self-determination. Its very DNA contains the narrative of underdogs throwing off the control of a top dog, which plays itself out in so many spheres of American life, from commercial marketing to politics. (See: Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential run; Sarah Palin’s every utterance, etc.).
And up here? Canadian literature has a few underdog stories (see: the novels of Mordecai Richler), but not many. The theme is largely absent in our politics: few politicians run “against Ottawa” in the way Americans run “against Washington.” And the Canadian commercial landscape is overloaded with large brands that either have never been underdogs (banks, beer companies) or have long since dropped that part of their identities (Canadian Tire, Shaw, Rogers).
Still, there are a few scrappy Canadian companies leveraging their role as latter-day Davids. Home Hardware, formed in the 1960s when a clutch of independent retailers banded together to fight the large discount stores, still promotes its little-guy character with the tagline, “Home owners helping home owners.” Porter Air and West Jet have made much hay out of not being Air Canada.
And then there’s beer. In the late 1990s Greg Taylor, Cameron Heaps, and Gregory Cromwell found themselves out of work after they’d been let go from their jobs at Upper Canada Brewing Company. Sitting around a campfire on a canoe trip, they decided they weren’t yet ready to permanently leave brewing, so they registered the corporate name “Three Fired Guys,” and drew up a business plan. In time, friends convinced them to drop the “fired guys” moniker – it was too bitter, they said, for a company dedicated to refreshment – and settle instead on Steam Whistle Brewing.
A little over 10 years later, the three guys are down to two (Mr. Cromwell decamped to Australia) but their origin myth takes pride of place on the company website, and every one of the 100,000 or so annual visitors who takes the tour at the company’s downtown Toronto headquarters hears the story too. The other day, Mr. Taylor suggested that the culture at Steam Whistle feels like it did at Upper Canada in the days before that brewer was bought by Sleeman (which was then gobbled up by Japan’s Sapporo.) “You always had a feeling you were working against the large conglomerates,” said Mr. Taylor, “and nowadays even more so because they’re foreign-owned.”