Today I’m going to show you exactly how to build and manage an underdog brand for success!

In fact, this is the same framework we include in the Brand for Success workshop those who consider themselves underdog brands. This allows them to compete effectively against top dogs. The framework works, but there are specific things you need to know and do to be successful.

Want to learn how to brand an underdog for success? Then continue reading!

In today’s newsletter, I share how to build an underdog brand. It includes defining what an underdog brand is, the underdog effect, and underdog story. This lays the foundation for the discussion of the step-by-step and sequenced framework. 

What I share here is a more accessible version of the scientific article I coauthored with a fellow academic and friend. The article was published in the highly acclaimed Journal of Brand Management. Our research led us to develop the first-ever underdog brand management framework. We basically ‘wrote the book’ on underdog brand management.

“Everyone loves an underdog story until you’re the underdog” is how the baritone voiceover starts the @Yoco_ZA card machines’ ‘We the underdog’ advertisement.



To be on the same page and for the underdog brand management framework that follows to make sense, we need to understand the concepts ‘underdog brand’, ‘underdog effect’ and ‘underdog story/biography’.

Underdog brand

In our article, we define an ‘underdog brand’ as “a brand with humble resources that competes with passion and determination against competitors that dominate a market”.

Underdog brands are typically smaller, less powerful, and with fewer resources, often lesser known but determined to succeed despite disadvantages. They often refer to humble origins and compete with passion and determination against dominant competitors.

Most of us are familiar with the underdog storyline of Rocky Balboa in the Rocky films, which offers valuable insights. First, we are introduced to the underdog Rocky Balboa and his physical and emotional struggles, who then overcomes significant obstacles through sheer guts and determination to ultimately fight and (just) win against the leader.

There are only a few leaders in each industry, so most business owners, entrepreneurs, and freelancers can relate to the underdog narrative. But being an underdog does not only have to be your status, it can be your brand strategy.

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters; it’s the size of the fight in the dog (Fishman, 2014).

Underdog effect

The lesser-studied ‘underdog effect’ is at the heart of underdog brand management. Based on our research findings, we define the underdog effect as “the consumer’s affection for and support of underdog brands or of brands that build on their underdog heritage”.

As we all know, people root for the underdog or disadvantaged competitor that is likely to lose. We see this happening in various aspects of society, including sports, politics, and business. In sports, supporters of the underdog are likely to sympathise with the losing team and can ride high on emotions if the underdog wins against all odds.

Similarly, many voters support candidates less likely to succeed, and support often increases when one candidate is presented as disadvantaged. Politicians like Barack Obama and Donald Trump relied on it to position themselves as the underdog against their competitors.

From a marketing perspective, it may seem that consumers prefer market leaders and famous brands over less established competitors. However, some consumers prefer underdog brands for moral reasons, as these brands act as nonconformists and position themselves against capitalism and consumerism.

In the literature, we found that bank clients with a highly loving and friendly demeanor tend to support underdog brands, and consumers who believe in the greater good of society are more likely to purchase brands positioned as underdog brands.

We may think that only small brands benefit from the underdog effect, but it is so powerful that even big brands like Apple, Nike, and Diesel share of how their founders started from a humble position but overcame obstacles to succeed.

The good news is that in reality not everyone supports the leadings and that there are people who will support you as an underdog brand because you are an underdog. The secret is to not merely bear your underdog status, rather, you need to position your brand as the underdog and tap into the underdog effect for it to become your strategy.

Underdog brands are positioned as such through an underdog biographies.

Underdog story

Making their underdog biography explicit has significantly influenced the growth of well-known brands, such as Leicester City, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Avis, Pepsi, Double-cola, Fritz-Kola, Sam Adams, and Apple.

Hint: If you are building your celebrity underdog brand status, you need to focus on transparency and approachability to sustain your authentic underdog brand status for the long term.

It is also true that an underdog in one person’s mind may be a top dog in another’s.

Let’s use takeovers as a case in point. Smaller brands acquired by more prominent brands can be positioned as small or leading brands based on consumers’ perceptions of their size.

Therefore to exploit the underdog effect, the brand’s story or narrative may be the most important focus point. To reiterate the point, even large and successful brands like Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Apple play the underdog role by profiling their humble beginnings. Sam Adams, positioned as an “underdog craft beer” with a national footprint, is an example of a brand using an underdog biography.

Ok, okay… we now know what an underdog brand is, what the positive underdog effect is all about, and that we position an underdog as such through an underdog story. Now I can take you through the step-by-step underdog brand management framework to share the strategy of positioning your brand as an underdog.


7 Step underdog brand management framework

Below is the first-ever underdog brand management framework in academic literature.

Underdog brand management framework

As you can see, the framework consists of seven sequential underdog brand-building blocks: philosophy, offering, people, target, positioning, underdog affection and underdog support.

Also, the framework has two parts, ‘underdog brand identity’ and ‘underdog effect’. The bottom five building blocks are under the direct control of the brand and collectively build the underdog brand identity. The top two blocks represent what happens in the consumers’ minds and are collectively called the underdog effect.

For your benefit I include in the framework, for the first time, a summary of what needs to be done during each building block within the framework.

Let’s look at what needs to be done during each step to build an underdog brand:

Step 1: Philosophy

To deserve consumer support, as an underdog brand, you need to adopt a philosophy of working hard while facing challenges. So, don’t just complain about your main competitor; if so, you will be seen as a loser. The point is that consumers need to believe you are exerting greater effort and are facing great challenges.

People support the underdog brand if the underdog shows that it does not want to lose. The underdog brand strategy is not easy to bear because the only successful strategy for an underdog is head-to-head competition with the market leader in full view of current and potential customers.

Step 2: Offering

As an underdog you need to personalised, customised and localised the products and services you offer, which demonstrate dedication to meeting customer expectations and offering alternatives to big players.

This approach also reflects the underdog’s willingness to exert greater effort.

Step 3: People

As can be expected, the success of underdog brands is closely linked to the people involved.

As a team, you should deliver excellent buying experiences, be hard-working, and have an appreciative attitude.

Tip: These are the characteristics to look for in people as you expand your team. Also, sharing stories about the people associated with the brand can help position the brand in consumers’ minds.

Step 4: Target

Specifically target people:

  • that self-identify as underdogs – meaning they see the underdog in themselves;
  • with low materialism – they do not acquire possessions to enjoy status positions;
  • with a need for uniqueness – leaders often support a broad audience which makes it difficult to provide uniqueness;
  • with nostalgia proneness – with a need to belong;
  • for whom balance maintenance is important – who do not want one dominant player but rather a balanced society;
  • with top dog antipathy – as a principal, they do not like dominant players and
  • emphatic concern – showing empathy or other-oriented emotions.

As you can see, these are not typical demographic (age, gender, etc.) considerations, but these characteristics positively influence consumption.

Speaking of demographics, targeting those with lower socioeconomic status may be beneficial. And direct consumers should be targeted, not those who purchase for others.

Step 5: Position

Underdog positioning using brand stories (called brand biographies) can enhance consumer preference, purchase intention, and loyalty. You should communicate your brand’s passion, determination, humble beginnings, and external disadvantage (emphasize the mayor competitor’s size and threat) in order to induce compassion.

You can make third-party endorsements available, focus on the pleasurable aspects of consuming your offerings and show that your brand has sufficient consumer support (adequate crowding (as it’s called in the framework).

You can come back later to learn more about brand positioning strategy in general.

As mentioned, the first five brand-building blocks are under the direct control of the brand owner and together build brand identity.

If brand identity was built properly the underdog brand should benefit from consumer affection and support, which we discuss next:

Step 6: Underdog affection

Consumer underdog identification leads to positive emotional responses towards a brand, known as ‘underdog affection’, which is characterised by a positive attitude, compassion and attachment.

Step 7: Underdog support

The underdog affection hopefully leads to underdog support, the ultimate goal of the underdog brand management framework.

Consumers support underdogs due to empathy, to promote equal opportunity, and for personal inspiration. Support for underdogs can be a form of purchase activism that motivates consumers to express their views and impact their marketplace through their purchase choices.

It is often challenging for smaller businesses to compete against well-established leaders in their respective industries. Underdog brand management could be a beneficial strategy specifically for smaller businesses, non-profits, and new brands., even though bigger brands can also tap into the underdog effect.

Let’s look at an example of a brand that applies the underdog brand management framework.

I will reference the building blocks in brackets.


The Fritz-Kola case

The German soft drink company Fritz-Kola was founded in 2002 in Hamburg, Germany. Fritz-Kola’s management considers the brand to be an underdog (Philosophy – we are an underdog). This is communicated through their marketing material and website content and was confirmed in an interview with Fritz-Kola’s chief brand officer (Target – those with underdog self-identification).

The study found that Fritz-Kola’s motivations were to create an alternative to Coca-Cola (Philosophy – head-on competition with leader), focusing on recipe, sustainability, and positioning (Offering, Targeting, Positioning). The brand’s advertising often celebrates its rivalry with Coca-Cola, demonstrating it’s proactively competing with an industry leader (Philosophy – head-on competition with leader). Fritz-Kola’s culture also emphasises product excellence, interpreting the term “quality” holistically, including packaging, bottlers, ingredients, and bottlers. Fritz-Kola experiments with special editions of their bottle labels, such as rainbow colors and influencers on their bottles (Offering, Philosophy).

The company’s founders, who had no money to design a professional logo, used their faces on the labels of their bottles, showcasing their passion for the brand (Positioning – humble beginnings). The company’s success is attributed to the open and strong support of people and partners, who have been instrumental in the company’s early success (People). Fritz-Kola emphasizes its superior, ethical, and sustainable offering, focusing on the environment and society. The brand’s core is described as a “positive rebel,” fighting for positive change (Target).

Fritz-Kola’s strong attachment to their brand as an underdog has led to a higher growth rate than the average within the product category and a small but remarkable price premium (true brand – price premium and preference, underdog support). The brand has a strong loyalty among its young, active, communicative , and low-income customers (Target, underdog affection, underdog support).



This article provides a comprehensive overview of the underdog brand, a topic that has been underresearched but is crucial for brand management. The research suggests that brands relying on underdog support will find new ways to engage and satisfy global customers by exploiting consumers’ underdog affection. For once, we have an underdog brand management framework to guide brand management practice.

The framework can be used as a blueprint for brand building by start-ups and newer companies.

One of the underdog brand management framework’s most important practical implications is the importance of underdog brand biographies/stories. Managers should reflect on their organisation’s origins, translate this into a dramatic founding or origin story, and present it excitingly on the website, social media etc. to increase perceived authenticity.

Underdog brands often seek to improve their products or services by offering superior value to customers. This can be achieved through emotional or social claims, such as the Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely, which focuses on fighting against “chocolate giants” and modern slavery. Customers are declared allies by calling for support for the movement and enabling a “sweet solution to chocolate’s bitter truth.”

Underdog brands should be proactive, not wait for the leader to make strategic moves. During hiring, focus on aligning job seekers and applicants to company values rather than focusing solely on their competencies.

With the right people/employees, the focus should be on clearly identified customer demographics and satisfying specific needs, with psychographic approaches being more promising than demographic ones.

Communications should focus on making success visible, as successful underdogs are valued. This can be achieved by publishing information about the organisation’s growth, pointing to the underdog’s positive image, or using testimonials in advertising and social media.

As a cautionary note, even though the underdog effect is generally positive, it is only advisable for some underdogs to actively count on it. For example, when quality is paramount, consumers prefer top brands, and when targeting individualistic consumers, being a top dog is more effective.



Our study found that brands need to do the following five things to build an underdog identity to compete with bigger brands which could evoke the underdog effect and support from consumers.

First, adopt an underdog Philosophy and demonstrate a fighting attitude and take the mayor competitors head-on. This evokes the need in consumers to support the underdog to persevere.

Second, the underdog should localise, personalise and customise their Offering as this demonstrates to the customers that the underdog goes beyond what the leader offers.

Third, the People of underdog brand are crucial and they should try their utmost to deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Fourth, the underdog brand needs to Target end consumers that see themselves as underdogs.

And fifth, the underdog should Positioning themselves by telling their underdog narritive. The underdog brand stories shared on social media and through traditional media should refer to the underdog’s humble beginnings, disadvantages that the underdog had to overcome and the passion and determination of the underdog.

It is not often that we find a strategy that smaller brands can use to compete and which leading brands have not already implemented. This article defines an underdog brand and proposes a conceptual brand management framework to help underdog brands compete against better-resourced leaders.

Therefore, your underdog status can be your brand strategy.


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Frequently asked questions


Q: What is a brand strategy blueprint?

A: A brand strategy blueprint is a roadmap that outlines the step-by-step process of creating a brand strategy. It serves as a comprehensive guide to position your brand effectively in today’s competitive market.

Q: Why is creating a brand strategy important?

A: Developing a brand strategy is crucial as it defines how your brand will be perceived in the market. It helps in creating a clear and solid brand identity, which is the key to successful brand positioning and achieving business goals.

Q: What should a pro brand strategy blueprint include?

A: A professional brand strategy blueprint should include what is discussed in this article, including a comprehensive brand story, a clear brand position, a solid brand awareness plan, and a detailed content strategy that aligns with your business goals.

Q: What is the importance of a brand strategy in marketing?

A: A brand strategy is essential in marketing as it guides all marketing efforts to ensure consistency and alignment with the brand’s positioning and objectives. It helps in creating an effective and cohesive marketing strategy.

Q: How does a brand strategy help in achieving business goals?

A: A well-crafted brand strategy aligns the brand’s positioning with its business goals, which in turn helps in creating a roadmap for achieving those goals by effectively communicating with the target audience.

Q: Can a strong brand strategy help in creating brand awareness?

A: Yes, a strong brand strategy plays a pivotal role in creating brand awareness. It ensures that the brand’s message and identity are effectively communicated to the target audience, leading to increased brand visibility.

Q: What are the key elements to consider when developing a brand strategy?

A: When developing a brand strategy, it’s crucial to consider elements such as understanding your brand’s strategic identity (what your brand stands for), the target audience, defining the brand’s unique position, creating a compelling brand story, and aligning the strategy with the overall business goals.

Q: What if I don’t have a brand strategy for my business?

A: If you don’t have a brand strategy, it’s like building a house without a blueprint. Without a strong brand strategy, you can’t effectively position your brand, communicate with your audience, or achieve long-term success in the market.