May 5, 2016

We’re Thinking… About the power of fairytales

By Genevieve Roberts


Britain is celebrating a football fairytale come true. The extraordinary. The unpredictable. The 5,000 to one chance of the underdog outfoxing their rivals to claim the Premier League title. Even those who don’t know one end of a football from another (and I include myself among them) have been caught up and swept along by Leicester City’s success.

For the Foxes victory isn’t a tale exclusively for football fans any more than Seabiscuit’s victory is one for those into horseracing, or Steve Jobs’s life was one about computers. Instead, these are tales of underdogs; of David facing Goliath and of human psychology.

Studies consistently show that humans love to root for the underdog, whether it’s in the context of Olympic events or countries in conflict. But why is this, when we prefer to be winners ourselves? Well, quite simply, not every win is equal. The feeling of basking in reflected glory for a Leicester fan this week is a sweetness that will remain in the memory for a lifetime. In comparison, a Manchester United fan may feel happy at a league win, but the predictability – at least until the last few seasons –means their joy will fade swiftly. So by backing an underdog, we get more happiness from a win.

Another study by Harvard Business School suggests our support for underdogs is about effort, as we perceive them to be trying harder. Avis and advertising agency DDB famously – and highly effectively – played on this in the 1960s, with the tagline: ‘When you’re number two, you try harder’.

The smartest election candidates understand how important this appeal is, competing to position themselves as the underdog. Liberal Justin Trudeau entered Canada’s general election race in third place in the polls; capitalised on his underdog status and swooped to victory. In the 2008 Presidential election in the US, Harvard Business School was struck that almost every candidate, from Barack Obama to John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul, tried to position themselves as the underdogs. It is no coincidence that this was in the midst of the last recession, when these stories resonate most powerfully as we all feel a little more underdoggish ourselves.

For brands, there are times when an underdog story isn’t ideal. Southwest Airlines in the US may have used this status to their advantage, but this is an exception: quality is the most reassuring thing airlines can offer – or any businesses associated with safety and security. And if a story is inauthentic, expect to be called out: when Zac Goldsmith tried to play the underdog card in the Mayoral race this week – likening his position to that of Leicester’s – social media users were swift to dismiss his attempts, saying they felt hollow coming from the son of a billionaire.

The crucial elements of an underdog narrative include starting with a disadvantage and being outgunned by rivals, coupled with resilience, passion and determination to succeed. Giant brands with humble roots – especially in technology where so many multi-billion pound businesses, including Google, Amazon and Apple, started in a garage – are excellent at effectively reminding consumers of their original underdog status.

So if you’re developing a brand from the start, and you’re finding it really hard to break into a crowded market with big players, then you may already have the key to connecting with your future customers. Admitting that you’re sitting at your kitchen table and working damn hard through ups and downs may just help people warm to you – and to your brand.


Adidas: Impossible is Nothing campaign

The sports company’s campaign focused on athletes’ personal challenges in their rise to fame. David Beckham talked about receiving a red card, and feeling unsafe for three and a half years before he scored a goal against Greece and his toughest critics – sports’ writers – all stood up and cheered. The underdog status of other athletes, including Lionel Messi and Yelena Isinbayeva, created compelling content.

Under Armour

The sportswear brand that started with a t-shirt. Kevin Plank, former American football captain at the University of Maryland, was fed up of sweat-logged cotton shirts. So he spent months testing fabrics to develop the Under Armour HeatGear shirt to wick away moisture. Launching in 1996, and operating out of his grandmother’s basement, his sports company has now grown into a $2bn business.



Yes, it’s from the 1960s, and yes, it’s in every guide to effective advertising and book on challenger brands you’ve ever read. But that’s for good reason. DDB’s advertising for Avis – capitalising on their status as number two to Hertz – lives on in our minds for being inspired and effective. A fine example to us all.


Scottish craft brewer BrewDog has gone from humble beginnings to having IPA-infused pies, ice cream, bars and a television show. Their battle against brewery giants and positioning as an irreverent underdog remains the same, and they have consistently won praise for their approach to brewing, packaging – and marketing. The company used social media to have conversations with its fans – rather than high-spend conventional advertising – showing that they truly were accessible (rather than creating an illusion of accessibility).