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Why Consumers Love a Losing Brand

What do Seabiscuit, Harry Potter and the Boston Red Sox have in common?

They were all losers at one point in time (or for a really long time for the Sox). But, their perseverance and eventual success created a powerful connection with the masses that led to a rabid fan base. This so-called “underdog effect” is a technique marketing professionals can use to reach consumers on a deeper, more personal level.

The Royals: America’s New Favorite Underdog

The Kansas City Royals can teach us a thing or two about underdog branding. As America’s new “It Team,” the Kansas City Royals showed that despite a smaller budget than their opponents, they could overcome a 29-season dry spell and win a nail-biting wild card game to make to it to the World Series.

An ESPN poll reported that out of 100,000 sports fans, 68% preferred the Royals over the Orioles in the American League Championship Series. With such avid support in all 50 states, the team is cashing in big on their underdog status. Just one day after the Royals triumphed over the Athletics in the Wild Card Game, The Royals became the top-selling MLB team on and claimed three of the site’s top five products.

What Underdog Branding Can Do For You

Luckily, telling the underdog story is easier—and more effective—than you may realize. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research shows that underdog branding can be effective for marketing all types of products and services. Brands like Avis, Dominos and Bing have all used a mix of humility and humor to gain consumer loyalty and market share.

So, what are the ingredients of the perfect underdog?

Find Common Ground

Hardships. Mistakes. Loss. These are all human qualities, but they’re also realities for many companies. And, these are factors that allow you to tell a story that consumers can relate to. Researchers from the Harvard Business School found that "consumers react positively when they see the underdog aspects of their own lives being reflected in branded products." If your company has humble roots or you’ve managed to succeed despite improbable odds, share that story!

Identify A Villain

Fact of the matter is, haters gonna hate. People want the “good guy” to win in all aspects of life, but for you to be the good guy, you need to first identify your foe. The Wall Street Journal makes it easier for sports fans to identify the villain by publishing the annual Hateability Index, a ranking of which postseason teams are most loathed (sorry Cardinals fans, but you led the pack this year). In order to find your foe, you can either focus on the market leader in your space or select a competitor that you can clearly position against.

Show Your Pride

Don’t be afraid to flaunt the blood and sweat you put into your product or service—it helps you look like the modest underdog that consumers go crazy for. The Royals’ first baseman Eric Hosmer did just that when he told USA Today Sports, "I think the whole world still considers us underdogs so we're going to keep that same mentality." As long as you admit your underdog status in a modest or humorous light, your fans will respond to it.

In Conclusion

You don’t always have to put on a brave face and puff your feathers to be successful. Sometimes sharing your brand’s struggles or humble beginnings is the best thing you can do to capture the hearts of consumers. Think about telling the story of how you got to where you are and the challenges you faced along the way. You may find that it’s your weaknesses, rather than your strengths that help you build a loyal fan base.