Commentary

Create Raving Fans for Your Brand by Tapping into the Underdog Principle

Yes, the Super Bowl is a showcase for world-class cities and football teams with the most elite athletes. And, high-performing, resilient teams give all they’ve got all season long to claim victory in the ultimate two-team throwdown where each puts it all on the line for hometown bragging rights and NFL history.

Yet, it’s not really about cheering on the best teams to take home the Lombardi Trophy, is it? Instead, it turns out, unless you’re from New England, it’s about rooting passionately for the underdog.  

We can’t help ourselves. It’s a reflection of behavioral science and the way our brains work. And we’re not even aware of it because 95% of our decisions happen in our subconscious.  We have an innate bias for equilibrium.  When one team dominates, we want the other to win.  When the leader stumbles and falls, we feel bad and switch our allegiances back.  

Many smart marketers create value and reap commercial benefits by showing up as an underdog brand. Sprint acknowledges that its network is smaller but touts its much lower cost as a reason to switch.  The current Buick campaign literally pokes fun at the fact that its image isn’t as stylish as its cars.  The University of Phoenix taps this principle by overtly targeting people who identify as underdogs – the hardworking, less-privileged people with big ambitions. 

Meaningful results? Absolutely. Those brands drive increased purchase intent, preferred choice and brand loyalty. 

How to invoke the Underdog Principle 

There are a few behavioral economics principles that can help you leverage underdog status for your brand.  Transparency, humility and self-deprecating humor are also tried and true strategies.  Buick’s willingness to address the elephant in the room (and no, that’s not a comment on the cars) conveys honesty and gives people permission to reconsider the brand.  Transparency is also a powerful appeal.  Consider Dominos’ return to popularity by confessing its prior quality lapses. 

The Own Team Biasprinciple states that when we share some kind of identity with a group of people, we automatically and immediately feel positive toward them.  This principle has most often been used to explain unconscious racial bias, but brands are also using it to invoke a stronger emotional connection with their targets.  

Several Super Bowl advertisers leverage this principle by connecting their brand to a “team,” or in this case, a cause, with which their target wants to identify.  Instead of selling cars during the Super Bowl using famous faces and spending millions on a celebrity, Kia is using its ad time to launch The Great Unknowns Scholarship, which promises to “help young people in need get a foothold in higher education.” 

Perennial Super Bowl advertiser Verizon is dialing up last year’s tribute to first responders. This year’s work includes 12 vignettes about NFL players and coaches who wouldn’t be playing football if it weren’t for the heroic efforts of first responders. Interestingly, this is also a nod to the principle of “Loss Aversion” – imagine what we might have lost if not for those first responders. 

Ironically, one might even say that President Trump leveraged these strategies for his “brand” when he classified himself as an outsider, touting his lack of experience in Washington and flouting his lack of concern over being politically correct.  The approach may be polarizing, but there’s no doubt it has endeared him to his “team.”  

So, whether it’s during the Super Bowl or any other time, brands both large and small can invoke the Underdog principle to advantage – one that can last all year long. That is, unless you’re the Patriots. 

 

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