How Big Companies Can Keep the Culture of the Underdog

We can all identify with the little nerdy kid that gets handed daily ass kicking’s because of his small stature and glasses.

Perhaps not in a literal sense, but at least somewhat metaphorically. Be it a shitty boss, a big multi-national squeezing the life out of our SME, or just general bad luck, we’ve all been there at some point. So when the small kid finally builds up the courage and stands up to his tormentor in a scene reminiscent of a Wild West showdown we’re dying to see him win. Why? Because we love to see the odds defied. We love to see will and determination out smart brute force. And, more importantly, we love to see the irreverence and audacity of somebody who has no right to win kick Goliath's ass. 

In a business sense, underdog brand biographies reflect the life struggles of the target audience and are driven by identity mechanisms. If we can buy a product that reflects our own needs, trials, and tribulations we instantly relate to that brand culture and become loyal into it. Take a stroll around any supermarket or retail outlet and scan the shelves. You’ll find umpteen brand narratives that are harnessing the power of the ‘underdog biography’. Small companies that are embracing their disadvantaged position and weaponising it. They have fewer privileges, far less resources (size, market share, and money), and generally less heritage to provide a quality guarantee. But they fight anyway. And they seem to be winning. 

These underdog narratives tell the same roundabout tale of humble roots and noble struggles against dominant adversaries. 

So what can the big dogs learn from these minnows? 

1) Highlight a weakness and make it an asset

This obviously isn’t going to work if your weakness is ‘we make crappy product’. But companies such Avis and their classic positioning as ‘We are second best but harder working’ is an iconic example of the David vs. Goliath counter-culture. More recent campaigns by Adidas and their ‘Impossible is Nothing’ tagline that emphasized the meteoric rise of iconic athletes despite their disadvantaged origins are prime examples of how to make this strategy work. You don’t have to be the best, you just have to aspire to be the best. 

2) Being small makes you nimble

Being small is hard. Nobody will give us credit. Getting press can be pretty hard. We don’t usually have a marketing budget (let alone a social media team). But it can also be a huge advantage. Massive multinational corporations are like supertankers. They’re not particularly nimble and the concept of ‘pivoting’ is essentially non existent. When we are small we can change direction quickly. We are speedboats. We can respond to whats working immediately without having to pass it by our brand manager, our marketing strategist, our board of directors, or shareholders, etc. Being small means we can respond to changes in the market quickly and effectively. If you’re big cut off some of the fat and root out the unnecessary bureaucracy—you’ll get things done quicker and more efficiently. 

3) Embrace a counter culture

Dr Martens have got this nailed. Vivienne Westwood, also. Becoming synonymous with a counter culture is probably the most effective way of retaining underdog status and perception, despite how large your company may eventually become. When you think of punk music, youth revolt, or general apathy for the status quo Dr Martens are an prominent part of the uniform of the disenchanted. Affiliation with a counter-culture is, by definition, alienating oneself from the general conventions of social normality. By aligning yourself with the ‘others’ you will always be an underdog—so long as that culture remains on the peripheries and eludes the mainstream.

4) Be Human

There is nothing less human than a bank. The rottenness of the modern banking system make outsiders gasp. The pomposity of its architecture can no longer dignity the gerrymandering, the bankers egregious power and the irresponsible money sloshing. They have, by and large, lost the confidence of the public and are perceived as faceless suits playing roulette with the lives of others. So Halifax’s strategy of using staff from its branches for its ad campaigns is a stroke of underdog genius. It creates an interpersonal relativity that breeds trust. Their just people too. But the point is that big companies often lose a human face. They become pristine Frankenstein’s dreamed up by marketing teams. Be human. Fuck things up occasionally. Perfect is boring.

Written by Tomas Coleman, founder of The 25 Mile Supper Club