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Marketing Disruption

How and why your brand should adopt an underdog mentality

By Mel Edwards, CEO

May 23, 2016 | 6 min read

Everyone loves an underdog, which is why I decided to support Leicester City as my second favourite in this year’s Premier League. Their winning the league is a perfect example of David beating Goliath. Truth be told, underdogs aren’t such a rare breed as popular belief would have us think. We see them finding their paths to victory more often than not, with the likes of the home cook who beats Gordon Ramsay, or the brand that’s punching above its weight by creating something remarkable. Look at Snapchat, which launched in 2011 to modest interest, but was able to achieve similar heights of fame as Facebook with 100m monthly users by 2014.

Mel Edwards Wunderman

In business today, we all fit into that underdog category. It doesn’t matter if you’re a little startup running on fumes or a huge legacy brand – with digital disruption, you’re no longer automatically favoured to win. Chances are, some Leicester City equivalent is going come out of nowhere and take its sector by storm. It happens all the time, with the likes of Uber disrupting the ‘safe’ cab industry and Spotify the music sector. Put simply, to succeed, we need to rethink how we’re doing things. We need to adopt that underdog mentality. But where does one begin?

Hire underdogs

Frankly, it’s time we hired more underdogs. Besides, we live in a world of constant change and continuous mobility. A business needs a team with different cultural and geographical backgrounds, so they can identify and reach unique solutions to global issues.

We should also start hiring against the grain. Diversity isn’t merely about race, sex, and geography. We need to find the kid who taught himself to be the best coder on the planet. We need that shop clerk who has the fashion sense of Anna Wintour. New research by McKinsey finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. We also need to start hiring outside our industries, looking for those hard-to-find perspectives that ensure we’re not missing out on something.

Smash hierarchies

Everyone talks about silos, but the biggest problem today is insulated management. You can easily miss something important when you’re only looking from the lofty perspective of the C-Suite. Underdog companies don’t have star cultures where prima donnas sit in corner offices and issue orders from up high. Managers need to get a grip, grab a chair, sit in the middle of the room, and be part of the team. They need to make everything totally transparent so that everyone knows that their ideas can get heard. Digital disruption has made business a team sport like it’s never been.

Win with data

Data is the underdog’s best friend. It can deliver truth to companies, but only if you’re willing to accept that truth in an unvarnished form. Too many companies today look at their P&L statement and assume they are the king of their category, while ignoring the true insight that says they are ripe for disruption.

Underdogs never do this. They always know they’re not expected to win, so they look at every possible angle in order to do so. It’s not surprising that underdog teams, like the Oakland Athletics of Moneyball fame, first adopted data-driven practices and used them to great effect. Smart businesses have done the same. Under Armour may not have the resources and legacy of Nike, but it has made up for that by acquiring a massive database on fitness users. That gives it the insight to be just as nimble as its larger rival. Companies like Chobani yogurt have also beaten much larger rivals through data-driven tactics like targeting non-related keywords. Data works. Underdogs thrive on it.

Focus on what’s important

Many have said Leicester City were lucky in their quest for the Premier League championship in that they did not have to compete in the Champions League as well. This was doubtless a huge advantage. Underdogs figure out what’s important to them and ignore the rest. We have too many reasons today to get distracted, but so long as we read the data and set the right objectives, we can stay focused on the prize. Underdogs never do busywork and don’t waste time on things that aren’t going to catapult the brand forward.

Above all, around my office, we like to say, “crack on.” For those of you unfamiliar with the British term, it means get going, stop talking, and start moving. The truth is that underdogs can’t afford to stand still; they adopt a mentality of movement. If we want to mimic the underdog we need to shift our mindset in order to get us there. Like most of you, I cheered every time Leicester City got closer to their goal. Now it’s time to get closer to our own.

Mel Edwards is CEO, EMEA at Wunderman

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