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Raymond Wilson

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Underdogs in business: how to score against bigger


As football fans will know, lowly Leicester City defied all laws of probability in 2016 to raise the English Premier League title, in what has frequently been described as perhaps the greatest underdog story of them all. You may not agree, of course; stone-cold classic tales of underdog triumph against all odds abound in the world of professional sport, not to mention in countless wider political or societal contexts.

What is undeniable about Leicester City’s triumph, though, is that they were grossly underestimated by many bigger rivals that season, and that their remarkable achievement illustrates how being the underdog can sometimes work to your advantage. We often see this sort of effect in business, too – but what are the key ways to use your underdog status as a competitive business strength?

Mixing your approach: underdog vs. alpha tactics

A famous quote attributed to Apple founder Steve Jobs asks: “Why join the navy when you can be a pirate?”. Although line was originally a reference to Apple infighting during their startup era, it’s now more commonly used to symbolise the company’s pioneering, maverick, voracious spirit.

Taken in this adaptive sense, the Jobs quote implies that by making use of an under-the-radar approach, sharpened with just the right balance of cunning and aggression, smaller companies can in fact level the playing field against a bigger rival. Indeed, Apple’s cheekily combative, somewhat left field approach to branding and marketing eventually saw the company make massive gains against Microsoft, despite the latter being a seemingly unassailable rival back in the day.

Ultimately, gaining leverage from your underdog status is largely about understanding what it really means to be an underdog – both in terms of how it positions you in a skirmish, and how outsiders will perceive you. Below, we’ve outlined a few key tactics for achieving the right mix of underdog and assertive strategies that can spur a business to improbable victories.

1) Rethink the strengths and weaknesses of size

Noted author and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell’s 2013 book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, outlines several effective ways to reassess what constitutes an advantage or a disadvantage. In it, the author makes repeated reference to the titular Old Testament battle between a small man with a slingshot and the hulking, fully armed giant he famously defeated.

Gladwell is quick to point out that, while we mainly use the analogy to denote a surprise win today, it’s unlikely that onlookers at the time would all have betted against the little guy. From their perspective, several of David’s ‘weaknesses’ would in fact have been obvious strengths: he was more mobile, wielded a reloadable ranged weapon, and had a lot of rival to aim at.

Goliath, by contrast, was slower, less agile, and aiming at a much narrower target that wasn’t well suited to his more powerful arsenal. Applying this sort of thinking to business rivalries can work wonders for the underdog in any fight.

Are you, for example, a boutique company with far fewer staff? Then you’re in a stronger position to make adaptive changes on the fly whenever a situation or market shift calls for it. Do you have a much smaller customer base than a rival? You’re probably better placed to deliver a personal, individually tailored level of service, and customers love that. Are you newer and less well established that those battle-scarred giants with decades of market dominance behind them? You get to craft your brand story on a blank slate, while avoiding and capitalising on mistakes made by others.

It’s all about working out which of your supposed size disadvantages can be used as a strength, and which aspects of being bigger aren’t necessarily better.

2) Harness underdog favouritism

It’s well documented that most people generally prefer the romance of backing an underdog. In business rivalries, just like in movies and sporting contests, neutrals will frequently pull for the little guy simply because he’s the little guy. However, turning this to your advantage can seem a vaguely counterintuitive process in business, where it’s broadly assumed that people always like to back a winner.

That’s true to an extent, but they also like to gamble on longer odds if the rewards (better service, say, or a less generic product) are greater. Numerous studies show that championing your outsider status, rather than denying it, can be hugely effective in bring people over to your side, especially in the early days of building a company.

Starting out from the position of underdog gives you a great platform for telling your own heart-warming story of dedication, belief, vision, and resolve in the face of adversity. However, there’s an art to telling that story in a compelling way. Always be mindful of the fact that, in siding with the underdog, people are essentially pledging allegiance based on a sense of propriety and equity – so it’s vital to be proper and equitable yourself. Avoid brand-building tactics that involve any finger-pointing, self-pity, or are overly focussed on the negativity of a struggle.

In short, you’ve got to be likeable to be liked, so concentrate on articulating the elements of your journey that show off universally prized team traits like determination, passion and cohesion. As quickly as people might flock to back you in an uneven fight, they’ll just as quickly abandon your side if your story isn’t told in an attractive and uplifting way. Do it well, though, and you’ll be surprised by how quickly others will want to get on board.

3) Use long odds to sharpen your appetite

That prized ‘plucky outsider’ status can give a huge boost to the morale and hunger of any team with a shared goal. Moreover, an apparently slim chance of achieving that goal needn’t be spirit-crushing if it’s framed in the right way. In any office or on any shop floor, uniting a staff to take on a long-shot challenge can bring about a powerful give-it-a-go attitude and engender a widespread ‘can do’ culture, allowing the underdog to embrace edgier tactics and rapid response strategies.

Larger operations with longer chains of command tend to be inherently more risk-averse, so always keep a lookout for situations where your smaller size and agility might offer an advantage through quick-fire reactions. Effective use of social media can play a key role here, allowing more streamlined operations to make speedy policy adjustments (and broadcast them publicly) in scenarios where bigger businesses are slower to change course.

Be aware, though, that certain sectors are fundamentally risk-averse for a good reason – the medical health industry, for example, is not one in which fleet-footed unpredictability or a willingness to throw out the rule book will win many supporters.

In summary then, smaller businesses can leverage their underdog status by remembering that:

  • Bigger isn’t always better; increased size can slow you down
  • Being the underdog is often seen as a virtue in itself
  • Long odds can sharpen performance and reduce complacency
  • A positive spin on a struggle is more likely to win support

The sort of thinking outlined above can help smaller companies find inventive ways to use their competitors’ size against them, and land a few key blows on the bigger guys as the contest unfolds. Just as importantly, finding the right mix of approaches can gain you many friends along the way – and, if you play your cards right early on, they’ll happily stick around when that playing field starts to level out.

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