Scrappy. Hardworking. Willing to go the extra mile. Not afraid to take on the traditional powerhouses.

Sound familiar? Did we just describe the latest darling of March Madness or your favorite challenger brand?

Either way, it’s no secret that Americans love an underdog story. 

Whether it unfolds during the sacred springtime tradition of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, on a movie screen, or in how a brand positions itself – we seemingly can’t get enough of this timeless tale of David besting Goliath.

The classic story of the “little guy” rising up to defy the odds and defeat the favored opponent is ingrained in our history, our culture and it’s very much present in the business world.  

So, as another year of March Madness plays out, let’s dig a little deeper into the “underdog” phenomenon and understand how everyone — from that out-of-nowhere 16-seed (shoutout FDU!) to a brand marketer looking to go big — can take advantage of it. 

A Brief History of the underdog

The underdog mentality is undoubtedly a part of our country’s collective mindset, dating from the time that “13 scrappy colonies went up against the largest empire in the modern world”, according to historian Ed Ayers

From the actual Revolution to the Industrial Revolution and beyond, Ayers goes on to note that America was powered by the idea that everyone had a chance to achieve the “American dream.”

Whenever we hear a story of humble beginnings followed by success through dedication, hard work, and defying the odds… we naturally latch onto the protagonist, as it reminds us not only of our national pride, but it gives us hope that one day we could be in that very same position.

If the concept feels foreign, here are a few good examples of famous historical underdogs:

  • Abraham Lincoln: according to historians at Northern Illinois University, Lincoln started out as a humble laborer, working for mere pennies a day. Nearly 200 years later, his face is literally engraved on the penny. Not a bad turnaround.
  • Harry S. Truman: Anyone hear from Dewey lately?
  • Underdog: Throughout 62 episodes spanning 1964 to 1967, the iconic cartoon dog transformed from the humble Shoeshine Boy to the caped hero we all know and love.

An Underdog Story = the Best Story

In addition to history and culture, an affinity for underdogs is, according to experts, hardwired into our brains. 

One theory from researchers at UC San Diego suggests that our love of underdogs is “basically an expression of schadenfreude — pleasure we experience due to the misfortune of others”. 

Whether it’s a schoolyard bully, a team that is stacked with All-Americans, or a company that’s become a little too dominant, we love to see a little poetic justice in the world.

As a New England-based agency, Tiny Bully wholeheartedly embraces this theory as it confirms what we all knew — the Yankees do indeed suck.

Others, like psychologist Matt Johnson, write that underdog stories evoke one of the most powerful human emotions – empathy. 

 “We love underdog stories because we feel like they need us. It creates that gravitational bond between us and the underdog because we love to feel needed as social creatures.” Matt Johnson, Psychologist

With so much affection showered upon underdogs, it’s no wonder that brands will go to great lengths to emphasize their “us against the big bad establishment” bona fides. 

Picture the brand origin story you skimmed on that bag of organic pretzels or the label of your favorite natural juice blend.

How many tech companies can you name whose founders love to remind us that they dropped out of college and started their company from the garage? (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk… we’re looking in your direction)

How to Win Big as a Challenger Brand

So how can your brand turn that hard work, hustle, grit, determination, and every other underdog cliché into real-world success? 

Here are a few tips from a crew who knows a thing or two about going up against the 1-seeds of the world.

Harness the “nobody believes in us” mentality

A study from Samir Nurmohamed of the Wharton School of Business showed that in certain business environments, “people who believed that others did not expect them to be successful were more likely to receive higher performance evaluations from their supervisors.” 

In other words, being told that others expected them to fail, helped increase motivation, and as a result, overall performance improved. 

When your brand is up against the odds, instilling this mentality can help achieve the impossible.

Know Your Role

Underdogs don’t need a roster stacked with blue-chip recruits to be successful. 

Instead, they can excel with a roster of role players who know what their job is and aren’t afraid to execute it on the biggest stage. 

This is what’s known as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Well-defined roles and seamless communication are crucial to any organization, as well as strict adherence to your brand’s vision. 

To take down a Goliath, you need to tune out the hype, know who you are and have confidence in your ability.

Take a Risk

When you’re the top dog, why would you mess with success?  But the underdog?  We’re playing loose, carefree, and are not afraid to try something new. 

Before he was a two-time NBA MVP and four-time Champion, Stephen Curry was an undersized sophomore leading 10-seed Davidson to the Elite Eight. 

With a fluidity and shot-making ability that took the college basketball world by surprise, Curry would go on to have a major influence on how the game is played worldwide, not to mention signing a $1 billion lifetime deal with Under Armour. 

Had Curry stuck to the traditional shots and style expected of him, he never would have become a global icon. 

On the court and in the marketplace, sometimes you have to pull up from halfcourt and drain a three.

want to embrace the underdog?

Like your favorite March Madness darling, underdogs in the business world have a tough road. And if we’re being real, many more Cinderellas turn back into pumpkins than make it to the ball. 

At Tiny Bully, we’ve assembled a team with the experience, knowledge, and yes… scrappiness… to bust a few brackets and leave your competitors wondering what hit ‘em.