The underdog has finally made it to Harvard. Underdogs are winners this year, according to Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan. David Morey, co-author of “The Underdog Advantage: Using the Power of Insurgent Strategy to Put Your Business on Top,” isn’t surprised. “I’ve been showing businesses how to act like underdogs for years,” Morey says. “They must compete against the market incumbents as come-from-behind insurgent underdogs. There are plenty of examples in the real world of brilliantly successful insurgent companies, like Apple, Google, Starbucks, and Jet Blue. Now, university researchers in the academic world are finally showing an interest in the underdog concept, and it’s about time.”
Professor Keinan’s view of the underdog phenomenon appears in an article in the Journal of Consumer Research. In an interview about the article in the Harvard Business School’s newsletter, “Working Papers,” Keinan stresses the importance of “brand biographies” that emphasize companies’ heroic but humble backgrounds. These underdog brand biographies feature “a disadvantaged position in the marketplace versus a ‘top dog’…and a tremendous passion and determination to succeed despite the odds.” In bleak economic times, underdog stories appeal to consumers, who reward the underdog company with brand loyalty and by buying that company’s products. Keinan cites Avis, Snapple, Nantucket Nectars, and Clif Bars & Company as companies that have gotten a lot of mileage out of underdog narratives.
David Morey warns that, if a company really wants to win, the underdog brand biography had better be more than casual marketing. “I’m glad that the Harvard Business School has recognized the value of the underdog story in a company’s biography,” he says. “Customers love the idea that the company they’re buying from is a David, competing with the Goliaths of the business world. I’ve always said that the best story wins, in business as in the rest of life. But it’s not enough to portray yourself as a challenger; to be a true underdog, you have to compete against the top companies in the field, with all the energy, aggression, and cleverness you’ve got. You’ll need boldness, an outsider’s perspective, curiosity, and imagination, as well as classic leadership skills, planning, and tactics. And you’ve got to have those ‘insanely great products’ that Steve Jobs of Apple Computers talks about. Consumers aren’t stupid. They may buy a product once on the basis of an underdog story, but if the product doesn’t work for them, they won’t make that mistake twice.”