Underdog Strategy

3 necessary elements for an underdog strategy

The underdog technique is a powerful method for increasing word-of-mouth and maximising affection towards your brand. It’s often used in viral marketing campaigns because of its powerful affects on motives to share.

People have a natural desire to help those who are unfairly disadvantaged. The unlikely contestant in the talent show who blows everyone away, or the kid who defeats a bully at school share the same underlying themes as iconic stories of triumph like Cinderella or David and Goliath. Given the instinctive nature of people’s desire to help the disadvantaged, when marketers successfully recreate it in videos, it very often goes viral.

This is the “underdog” technique. It taps into people’s instinctive desires to support the disadvantaged, and can have an extremely powerful effect on your brand. Here are the three elements necessary to create an underdog effect.

1. Fairness & Justice

The secret to making a successful underdog story is developing a sense of disadvantage combined with fairness and justice. A homeless person is clearly disadvantaged, but people unfortunately won’t necessarily care about them without a sense of fairness and justice. If you frame the homeless person as someone who is beating the odds to fight an injustice, then people will start to take notice. The fundamental requirement for positioning yourself as an underdog is that you’re a weaker entity facing adversity. This is the key.

Let’s compare two video ads that attempt to use a similar underdog technique, but that differ greatly in popularity. One produced by established brand Powerade has a few hundred shares. The other produced by new brand Goldieblox, and has almost half a million shares. It’s safe to say the Goldieblox one went viral, and the Powerade one didn’t.

The Powerade advertisement attempts the underdog strategy. It features the “Powerade Basketball team” in a locker-room being given a pep-talk by their coach just before a game. The coach reminds the team that although their opponents may have better resources, gold uniforms, star players, and the crowd on their side, they can “power through” and triumph.

The Goldieblox theme is: “Little girls are underdogs, and our brand is here to help them triumph by using our toys”. Their Princess Machine video advertisement about young girls claiming their place in a male dominated world currently has close to 3 million views on YouTube.

The Goldieblox ad sets the scene with the unfair revelation that girls begin to lose confidence in maths and science by around age seven. The young girls, when faced with boredom watching TV, decide to demonstrate their analytical and engineering potential by constructing an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine using only their girly toys—demonstrating effort over ability. Most people’s perceptions of young girls are as cute and vulnerable little people. But in the advertisement the girls are intelligent, powerful, and capable human beings, triumphing over adversity by performing an impressive and surprising feat.

2. Unfair Disadvantage

Genuine unfairness creates empathy. But success relies on convincing the viewer that there is injustice in the form of an unfair disadvantage, not simply a disadvantage. Powerade failed at this. The coach made several comparisons between the Powerade team and the competition to create an illusion of disadvantage, but the apparent advantages held by the opposing team did not create the illusion of genuine unfairness.

3. Effort over Ability

Finally, necessary for a successful underdog theme is emphasizing effort over ability. The difference between effort and ability is that effort is perceived to be under someone’s control, –ability is perceived to be not under someone’s control. Effort is directly associated with the task at hand, and people who try hard are generally more respected than those who don’t try hard but have a capable ability.

The Powerade ad failed at this. The key to creating empathy is demonstrating that the antagonist in the story is deserving, and that they’re deserving because of their efforts not just their ability. The Powerade ad doesn’t include any evidence of effort, only several “reminders” by the coach of the team’s abilities.

In comparison to the Powerade ad, the GoldieBlox ad was remarkably successful given they’re an unheard of brand with a limited budget. Using the underdog technique they successfully propelled their brand from obscurity to serious player in the notoriously difficult toy market.

The advertisement is successful at creating an illusion of unfairness. It’s highly believable that young girls are disadvantaged in male dominated professions such as engineering, and statistics pointing to evidence of gender discrimination in the workforce are highly publicised.