Picture the Jamaican bobsled team going for the gold at the Winter Olympics. Or competitors in what seem fundamentally unbalanced battles: the Chicago Cubs versus the New York Yankees, Apple versus Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines versus United. In the public eye, the weaker party is often more attractive. Why? The reason might be an increasing willingness on the part of consumers to identify with the underdog. In today's economically difficult times, it appears, underdog brands are gaining psychological, and real, power in the marketplace. "In today's world, underdog narratives address real-world challenges and anxieties faced by increasing numbers of Americans." As HBS professor Anat Keinan explains, "Today, underdog brand biographies are being used by both large and small companies and across categories, including food and beverages, technology, airlines, and automobiles. Even large corporations, such as Apple and Google, are careful to retain their underdog roots in their brand biographies." A forthcoming article coauthored by Keinan for the Journal of Consumer Research, "The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography," details her joint research about the trend and its implications for brand management. Keinan, an assistant professor in the Marketing Unit at Harvard Business School whose research on consumer behavior has been published in leading marketing and psychology journals, coauthored the article with Neeru Paharia, Jill Avery, and Juliet B. Schor. Says Keinan, "Through a series of experiments, we show that underdog brand biographies are effective in the marketplace because consumers identify with the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them." Marketers can use underdog narratives to positively affect consumers' perceptions of and purchase of brands, she says. "Underdog narratives are often delivered to consumers through the rhetorical device of a brand biography, an unfolding story that chronicles the brand's origins, life experiences, and evolution over time in a selectively constructed story." Keinan recently participated in an e-mail interview about the research and its importance for marketing strategies. Martha Lagace: How do you define an underdog brand biography? What are some examples today? Anat Keinan: Brand biographies contain underdog narratives that highlight the companies' humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble struggles against adversaries. The common themes that link these brands' underdog biographies are 1. a disadvantaged position in the marketplace versus a "top dog," a well-endowed competitor with superior resources or market dominance, and 2. tremendous passion and determination to succeed despite the odds. The underdog's external environment is largely negative: Underdogs start from a disadvantaged position and hit obstacles along the way, making it a more difficult struggle for them than for others. In competition with others that have more resources, underdogs feel the odds are against them. The underdog's internal characteristics are largely positive: Underdogs show perseverance in the face of adversity and are resilient even when they fail, staying focused on their end goal. Their determination forces them to pick themselves up after they lose to try to win again. They defy others' expectations that they will fail. They are more passionate than others about their goals, which serve a central role in defining the meaning of their lives, and they remain hopeful about achieving them, even when faced with obstacles. Many contemporary brand biographies contain underdog narratives. Product packaging, corporate Web sites, blogs, and marketing communications tell the biographical stories of brands. There are lots of examples:
* Avis's classic slogan "we're number 2" emphasized that it was playing second fiddle to a giant in the rental car business....
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