Have No Fear, the Underdogs Are Here!

Have No Fear, the Underdogs Are Here!

Use the underdog effect to become a top dog.

“There’s no need to fear; Underdog is here!” Some of you may remember the animated TV series that began in 1964, featuring a caped superhero dog and his alter-ego, Shoeshine Boy. Whenever the beautiful Sweet Polly Purebred was threatened by villains such as Riff Raff and Simon Bar Sinister, Underdog would appear, flying through the air, speaking in rhyme, to save the day.

Why do we love underdogs? Besides the lovable cartoon dog in a red suit and blue cape, think about how we loved overnight singing sensation Susan Boyle, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, boxer Rocky Balboa, Notre Dame footballer Rudy Ruettiger, or Harry Potter. These are a just a few examples of beloved underdogs, real and fictional, who have inspired us and captured our hearts.

Underdogs exist in business and brands as well. In fact, underdogs are so popular today that businesses have learned to highlight their brand’s scrappy fighter status and spend millions advertising that status. According to “Capitalizing on the Underdog Effect,” by Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, and Neeru Paharia (Harvard Business Review, November 2010), “the biographies of underdog brands share two important narrative components: a disadvantaged position (they highlight a company’s humble beginnings and portray it as being ‘outgunned’ by bigger, better-resourced competitors) and a passion and determination to triumph against the odds.” They add, “Our research suggests that consumers respond most favorably to brands that contain both these elements.”

Business leaders who understand the underdog appeal use it to motivate their organizations to work harder, be team players, believe in their ability to overcome the odds, and become their source of competitive advantage against powerhouse rivals. Here are some lessons from underdogs that business leaders can use to instill passion and determination in their employees:

We’re in this together: Underdogs are like us; they’re average people who somehow rise above. Think of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team of amateurs and college kids who, because of their common bond of “underdogishness,” were able to overcome the U.S.S.R’s team of tough professionals. Business leaders who can encourage a corporate sense of common “averageness” and an underdog kinship will generate a greater bond and increased teamwork.

If they can do it, so can we: I love Hoosiers, the film about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team from the 1950s that wins the state championship despite their small size and inexperience, among other obstacles. It’s one of my favorites, probably because it demonstrates that greatness can be found in the most unlikely places. By sharing inspiring stories about overcoming the odds, business leaders can instill a belief in their employees that they just might be able to triumph amid overwhelming circumstances as well.

Hard work really does pay off: Remember the legal clerk who, despite her lack of a formal law school education, was instrumental in constructing a winning case against Pacific Gas and Electric Company in 1993? Erin Brockovich, of course! Featured in the 2000 film bearing her name and starring Julia Roberts, Brockovich showed that with hard work and passion underdogs can win, even with the odds against them.

It’s OK to swim against the tide: Underdogs are often the ones who don’t fit in—but don’t care. I’m reminded of Homer Hickam Jr., a real person whose story was featured in the film October Sky. He grew up in a coal mining town in the 1950s but was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 to become a rocket scientist and eventually a NASA engineer. Almost every man in his small town worked the coal mine and told Hickam he was a “geek” who was wasting his time. Stories like this show employees that it’s OK for underdogs to shun the herd and take risks, even if it means doing the unpopular thing.

Stick to the basics: What do waxing cars, sanding floors, and painting fences have to do with karate? The clockwise/counterclockwise and up-and-down hand motions, repeated over and over, remain a classic lesson from the underdog movie The Karate Kid. After learning to stick to the basics, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) can move on to more advanced karate maneuvers taught by Mr. Miyagi. In the end, Daniel wins the karate tournament by performing a classic “crane” stance, which he had observed Mr. Miyagi performing on the beach. The business lesson inherent in this story is that underdogs who excel in the basics can beat the competition.

When you fall, get back up: One more question: What famous underdog athlete fought back from an injury to win a championship—but was not human? Seabiscuit, a thoroughbred race horse that was a national hero during the Depression. Seabiscuit was an underdog from the beginning because he was small, but he eventually won the “match of the century” against War Admiral in 1938. In 1939, Seabiscuit was injured in a race, normally a career-ending event for a racehorse, but he recovered and won the Santa Anita Handicap in 1940, the only major prize he hadn’t won. The lesson for us human underdogs? When you fall, get back up and keep on running because you could still win.

As these lessons demonstrate, there are plenty of popular underdog stories that business leaders can tell to motivate employees to beat the odds. The “underdog effect” can be a powerful tool, because who doesn’t love an underdog? And when you belong to an underdog team fighting together to defeat the competition, the rush of winning can’t be equaled. All you have to do is put on a red suit and blue cape, and repeat after me: “There’s no need to fear—Underdog is here!”

Mark W. Sheffert, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., provides investment banking and corporate renewal/performance advisory services. Contact him at mark@manchestercompanies.com .

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