When underdog brands won’t heel to top dogs


CLEMSON — If a brand positions itself as an underdog with consumers, it had better remain true to its humble beginnings once success is achieved, a Clemson University research project has found.

“Research shows consumers have a trust in underdogs that they don’t have with top-dog brands,” said Jennifer Siemens, an assistant professor of marketing. “The underdog tag is an advantage while a brand is on its climb, but once success is achieved, consumers expect the authenticity that got it there to hold true. It’s also important for the upstart brand to subtly communicate to its consumers that it hasn’t sold out.”

Siemens was joined in the research by Danny Weathers, a marketing associate professor at Clemson; Scott Smith, a marketing professor at the University of Central Missouri; and Dan Fisher, a marketing associate professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

The research involved interviews and a survey of nearly 400 consumers assessing their opinions of underdog brands and what kind of consumer is attracted to them.

“Consumers really trust brands that are storied as underdogs,” Siemens said. “One is more likely to favor an underdog if there’s a giant industry competitor, but we find that the trust may actually be inherent to something in the underdog’s brand story. It may be the struggle of the underdog that appeals to consumers.”

The researchers define underdog brands as those that commonly highlight their disadvantaged positions and their passion to succeed. Siemens cited Ben & Jerry’s and Clif Bar as examples of successful brands that have leveraged their underdog status as part of their marketing strategies.

“Ben & Jerry’s and Clif Bar use their brand biography to communicate to their customers that they still operate under the same principles as when they truly were marketplace underdogs,” Siemens said.

Though society often identifies with winners, for some the attraction to underdogs is inescapable. Siemens said consumers who align with underdog brands fall into two camps: those who support a “hopeful underdog” because they identify with the brand and want it to succeed, and those who support an “oppositional underdog” to simply oppose the dominant market competitor.

“Research has shown that people who culturally self-identify as underdogs are similarly attracted to those types of brands, and from a profile standpoint, consumers who are innovative, like to try new things and aren’t averse to taking risks tend to trust underdog brands,” Siemens said.


This story courtesy of Clemson University.

This story courtesy of Clemson University.

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