It was Robert Townsend, CEO of Avis, who memorably capitalised upon being an underdog brand. The ‘We try harder’, campaign not only passed into folklore but also markedly won market share from the mighty Hertz. (It is worth reading Townsend’s classic book, Up the Organization, to hear how this started over a lunch with Bill Bernbach).
The truth is we all love underdog brands. Despite their success, or perhaps because of it, leaders such as Microsoft, Tesco and Manchester United attract approbation and opprobrium in equal measure. It is often illuminating to see such names appearing in both ‘best loved’ and ‘most hated’ brand surveys at the same time. Part of this may be the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome – we like to see high flyers taken down a notch. But the No.2’s need to be aware that their success may put them into the firing line. Microsoft and Windows have attracted brickbats for some time, while Apple struggled but was smiled upon as a lovable struggler. Then, as the Apple brand prospered in a new arena thanks to the iPod, iPhone and iPad, suddenly the negative voices swelled. David was becoming Goliath and we all would rather root for David..
Our love of underdogs, however, is rarely translated into significant consumer behaviour, but there will always be a significant minority for whom it will. Apple always had a small but loyal following who would choose their products even when the staunchest fan would have to admit they did not match up to Windows offerings. As the brand’s success in the mobile sector grows we now see a similar minority who will not succumb to the lure of the iPhone but choose an Android alternative for instance.
There may be two levels of explanation for our love of the runner-up. Firstly, it is cultural, set in a deep history of narratives. Our fairy tales are rich in stories of the underdog triumphing: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood… these narratives are part of our cultural explanation of the world from our earliest understanding. Myth and fable to make use of the same devices from Greek mythology to Robin Hood. More modern authors also built on this narrative: Dickens is littered with underdogs. In comedy, the public loved Chaplin’s little man. Comedy double acts from Laurel and Hardy, Morcambe and Wise, and Tom and Jerry have the underlying theme of the foolish or weaker member triumphing over the smart, strong or pompous. Schadenfreude is aways sharper the higher up the ladder the victim falls from.
Perhaps the second level of explanation is based upon identification. There is a powerful argument for our identification with the underdog. Numerically, there can only be one ‘Number One’ in any field, but any number of ‘also rans’. So, unless we are fortunate to be one of life’s top achievers we can more easily empathise with the mass of strugglers.