the authentic underdog

by Rachel Mitchell

As humans, struggle draws us in. We love to support passion and determination—and when we see those qualities coupled with a fight to succeed against overwhelming odds, we become captivated. We cheer for the underdog.

Entering the consumer world

“It’s normal to think that being the biggest is best, and to strive to be that. But it’s interesting when it’s turned on its head. It’s an anomaly. It’s something unexpected based on typical patterns of consumption and behavior,” explains Jennifer Siemens, whose background in psychology prompted her interest in brand perception and purchasing habits in today’s retail market.

underdog - goliath
Source image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sparked by this curiosity, Jennifer Siemens and her team are researching “rooting for the underdog” as it relates to the consumer world. They are particularly interested in studying the differences between types of underdogs, varying competitive landscapes, and the effects of ownership changes on consumption patterns once success is achieved.

The team conducted a study of nearly 400 participants and found that consumers trust brands storied as underdogs, which leads to favorable customer attitudes toward the brand and a greater tendency to purchase the products.

“Americans themselves are underdogs,” Siemens explains. “It’s the American dream: Anyone can rise up and succeed. And people who view themselves as underdogs are often more likely to support an underdog brand.”

According to Siemens, there are two main types of underdog brands: oppositional and hopeful. The first are more likely to “hate the man” and go up against the market leader, while the latter build their brand because they believe in what they do. The findings showed that it doesn’t matter which mindset motivates the brand, as long as their story is communicated authentically.

Siemens notes that varying market competition doesn’t affect the amount of trust that people place in the brand. “It seems to be inherent to the underdog brand,” she says. “There’s something in what the brand communicates that makes consumers trust them, and it isn’t affected by what’s going on in the market around them.” Although their mindset may remain the same, a customer’s actions can change when a strong competitor enters the picture. For example, when in the presence of Starbucks, consumers may be more motivated to shop at a local coffee place and support fellow community members. When the market is dominated by one main competitor, people have more positive attitudes regarding the underdog, and are more likely to purchase their products. Alternatively, with multiple options available for clothing stores, a buyer may be more influenced by selection or lower prices at a larger retailer. Therefore, although the consumer’s trust remains high, whether or not a person decides to purchase a product is ultimately affected by the external market environment.

Managing growth

So what happens when an underdog brand does achieve success? Siemens and her team discovered that it’s important for the retailer to communicate that it’s staying true to its roots authenticity is key. A brand should continue to uphold the same values on which it was founded, and deviation from those beliefs could alienate the core customer base. For example, if a brand of trail mix begins with strong ties to organic and unprocessed snacks, this should not change as the company grows.

In situations where the founders of a company maintain control, customers are more likely to continue buying their products. People connect with brands that share similar values, and relinquishing the company can send the message of selling out, and can cause the brand to suffer. However, if ownership changes are inevitable, managing the brand status through appropriate, authentic communications can minimize the negative perceptions that surround a buyout.

Overall, Siemens and her team found that it’s vital to maintain a brand story that communicates authenticity. Regardless of a retailer’s motivations, consumers feel tied to a brand that is battling to succeed—and harnessing those consumer emotions can lead to growth. It seems that passion and determination plus an authentic struggle can lead to an underdog’s success in the long run.

Jennifer Siemens is an assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business and Behavioral Science. Rachel Mitchell, a 2012 graduate and former editor of Decipher, a student-led research magazine at Clemson, is now a marketing manager and freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
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