We pull for the upstarts.

We want to see the giant fall and the hero triumph. It’s a universal story told for timeless generations around the world. This story is the heart and soul of Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry and it gives us all timely – and timeless – equipment for living.

In a recent piece in Harvard Business Review’s Working Knowledge, Professor Anat Keinan previewed an article she co-authored that will appear in February’s Journal of Consumer Research discussing the power of underdog brand narratives. What she found in her research should give careful brand stewards new inspiration on how to craft stories that resonate – as well as paths to avoid.

“The common themes that link these brands’ underdog biographies are a disadvantaged position in the marketplace versus a “top dog” … and tremendous passion and determination to succeed despite the odds,” professor Keinan explained.

The underdog’s external environment is largely negative: Underdogs start from a disadvantaged position and hit obstacles along the way… The underdog’s internal characteristics are largely positive… perseverance in the face of adversity and (resiliency) even when they fail, staying focused on their end goal… They defy others’ expectations that they will fail. They are more passionate than others about their goals, which serve a central role in defining the meaning of their lives, and they remain hopeful about achieving them, even when faced with obstacles.”

There is a very real current of the contrast phenomenon running through this idea, of starting at a disadvantaged position and overcoming it, from negative to positive relative positioning – even if the relative positions aren’t absolute. We still gravitate to underdogs, even if they haven’t “overcome” their obstacles completely. We respond to the story, the journey, more than just the ultimate results.

I think this idea is important – we don’t gravitate to “smaller” brands by virtue of their smallness. We gravitate to those whose character and actions show them to be willing to take the Hero’s Journey. This willingness to undergo the challenges is what we value. Perennial second class brands that wallow in last place don’t get our respect. It ain’t just the size of the dog – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.

“Given that psychological research has shown that people want to associate themselves with winners (and therefore with winning brands), we thought it was interesting that brands would try to position themselves as underdogs, because the underdog is the one expected to lose.”

I’d suggest here that the “expectation of winning” is worth defining. Ultimate victory, where one wins all and the other loses all, isn’t always in the offering. Importantly, we also can see a bit of exclusivity, the “rule of the rare,” in this identification with the underdog as the unknown, the Clint Eastwood-esque “Man With No Name,” whose story and particulars are known only to a few insiders.

Professor Keinen ends with an exhortation to avoid forcing this cultural ideal on brands where it doesn’t fit.

“Brand managers need to consider the credibility of the underdog narrative for the firm. Many brands emphasize their underdog roots, but if they are later acquired by large corporations, it diminishes the credibility of their underdog brand biographies. Brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Snapple have been criticized by consumers once they were acquired by large corporations. Additionally, there may be product categories for which consumers reject underdog brand biographies. With hospitals, consumers believe that being externally disadvantaged jeopardizes quality and safety.”

There are times where the story no longer becomes relevant – and there are times when an underdog isn’t attractive at all. Good advice.

As an addition to the body of giant killer research, I’m looking forward to reading the article in full!