The Philippine Star
Understanding the underdog
T he concept of the underdog came to mind when, in a huddle with colleagues in the communication profession, this question popped up: Will the Court of Appeals’ decision to grant the petition by the Anti-Money Laundering Council to freeze the bank accounts of Vice President Jejomar Binay spell the end of his political future, or will it boost his underdog stance and strengthen even more his chance to win the 2016 presidential election?
The dictionary defines “underdog” as a person in a competition who is less likely to be successful. He does not have as much potency as his competitor and is handicapped compared to the other party. The term is often used in sports to refer to a team with a weaker record playing a stronger team. Metaphorically it can be extended in society to people without the advantages of the upper class.
Filipinos love the underdog. In many TV reality shows in the country involving text voting, the winner almost always turns out to be the underdog, whose backstory is anchored in struggle and whose success is told with immense passion.
Manny Pacquiao relished his rare status as the underdog in his recent fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. As he said: “Any time I am the underdog, I like that. It means my killer instinct and focus is fully there. Being underdog is what I want. My confidence is different than in other fights.”
Mayweather, unbeaten in 47 fights, was the oddson favorite at the MGM Grand, and as you know, Mayweather triumphed. Yet Pacquiao won the hearts of his countrymen and boxing fans around the world because of his perceptible humility and sincerity.
Great underdog stories abound in business. Every industry has a market leader: the number one, the inaccessible giant, or the impossible-to-reach person or brand. With bigger budgets and more resources, the top dog can be threatening. But through innovation, perseverance and a commitment to do things better, many small catch-up brands and companies have challenged the status quo and have overtaken the market leader. Pepsi is the underdog to Coke and used this to effectively capture the youth market. Thus “the choice of the new generation” positioning was born. Adidas is the underdog to Nike and has grown its brand considerably in the past decade. “Impossible Is Nothing” is the award-winning advertising campaign of Adidas, which highlighted the underdog narratives of celebrated athletes. Apple was the underdog to Microsoft, Nokia and Hewlett Packard and after a short period of time became one of the most powerful brands in the world. “We’re Number 2, and we try harder” is the classic Avis rent-a-car slogan. It was an extremely striking and winning underdog positioning versus Hertz, the number-one rent-a-car company.
Hapee is a homegrown toothpaste brand in the Philippines where the generic word for the product category is Colgate. But Filipino businessman Cecilio Pedro and his “David” showed how small businesses can lightly outsmart the “Goliath.” Accel is a local athletic brand that addresses the market demands of sporting aficionados who look for value-for-money products that do not sacrifice quality and durability. Accel’s presence in an industry dominated by foreign players sporting more expensive products has been admirable. It’s the underdog that continues to hold its own in the category where it competes.
“Courage is what you earn when you’ve been through tough times and you discover they aren’t so tough after all.” That’s a Malcolm Gladwell quote, which argues that for the strong, the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often sources of great weakness, whereas for the weak, the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. Gladwell emphasized that people have the potential to succeed, not in spite, but because of, their underdog status. That they can pick up something in their struggle that brings a massive advantage. Harry Potter was the likable underdog character in the colossal J.K. Rowling series. Cinderella, Disney’s undyingly engaging character, is at its core a simple story — a tale of the classic underdog, the damsel in distress, that finds appeal with anyone who has ever felt disadvantaged or unfairly treated. Audience empathy with Cinderella goes far and deep because her character rises above her pitiable condition eventually.
The underdog effect is a marvel of public opinion encroaching upon itself. When election voters, for example, see a particular party or candidate to be the likely winner, they tend to go with a competitor who is expected to lose — the underdog in the race. This means that apparent success may chip away at itself. Both Barack Obama and John McCain positioned themselves as underdogs in the 2008 US presidential election. Mhairi Black hasn’t even sat her final year exams in the university yet, but the 20-year-old Glasgow University student has become the youngest member of the British Parliament for 300 years. She is the underdog contender representing the Scottish Nationalist Party and beat Douglas Alexander, a senior and more experienced candidate, by more than 6,000 votes. Oprah Winfrey’s oft-repeated biographical tale of disappointment, tussle and deliverance is hugely responsible for her success in business and in life.
Underdog brands have an underprivileged position and a zeal and willpower to triumph against the odds. They have humble beginnings portrayed as being outmaneuvered by bigger, better-resourced competitors, but at the end emerge as winners. Consumers not only prefer underdog brands but also do so because they can identify with the brand’s underdog characteristics. The stronger a person’s own sense of struggling is, the greater the preference for the underdog brand. Shane Koyczan pronounced, “We grew up learning to cheer on the underdog because we see ourselves in them.”
Not every brand can benefit from the underdog story. High-end brands — Rolls-Royce, Mercedes Benz, Hermes or Louis Vuitton — derive much of their strength from their top-dog lineage. Service-oriented organizations like hotels, hospitals, and airlines would be negatively received if consumers perceived their deprived position as negatively affecting quality or safety.
Underdog brand life stories resonate with consumers during tough times. When the economy is down and the social and political situations are challenged, the underdogs gain emotional and bona-fide power in the marketplace. Americans throughout history have embraced the “American Dream,” which proclaims that through hard work and perseverance anyone can be successful, regardless of class, caste, religion, race, or ethnicity. During the Great Depression, popular stories about underdogs and how they became powerful around the world and throughout history were prevalent. Eminent movie director, producer and writer Frank Capra’s underdog films countered the desolation of the Depression era with uncontainable positivism and hilarity. As a writer described it, “His ‘fantasies of goodwill’ boxed up hope for the hopeless.” James J. Braddock, otherwise known as “The Cinderella Man,” was a bankrupt ex-prizefighter whose career had hit rock bottom. In a last-ditch effort to help his family he went back to the ring, where, despite the odds, he kept winning. With the hopes and dreams of the destitute on his shoulders, Braddock rocketed through the ranks until he took on the heavyweight champion of the world. Shirley Temple was dubbed the “Hollywood darling of the Great Depression.” She brought light and optimism in the midst of gloom and doom. The characters she portrayed in her films — mostly orphans or a kid from a broken home — demonstrated perseverance and rising above sorrow and pain.
Underdog narratives address real-world challenges and anxieties faced by an increasing number of people. Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan shared that underdog brand biographies are being used by both 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 their brand biographies.” Marketers, Keinan added, can use underdog narratives to positively affect consumers’ perceptions of and purchase of brands. She explained, “Underdog narratives are often delivered to consumers through the rhetorical device of a brand biography, an unfolding story that chronicles the brand’s origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story.”
Fair warning. Underdogs — the real or made-up variety— proliferate. You have to deal with them with a vigilant mind and a careful heart. As science-fiction author Henry Beam Piper wittily cautioned, “You know, it’s quite all right to give the underdog a hand, but only one hand. Keep the other hand on your pistol — or he’ll try to eat the one you gave him!”