We’ve been writing a lot of brand narratives lately. Kevita, Native Shoes, Marvin, Alibaba Group, Google, even IBM, just to name-check a few. And whether these are startups or blue-chips, B2B or B2C, or anywhere in between, there’s been a pattern to these brand stories: embracing the underdog.
There’s no argument that becoming—and staying—the frontrunner in a marketplace is still paramount to business performance, reputational power and stakeholder value. Yet, some clients are choosing to frame their brand character and organizational mentality as David rather than Goliath.
And maybe this isn’t a surprise. After all, for people to invest themselves in a story, the tale has to have narrative tension—a force to confront, a wrong to right, a cause to advocate, internal doubt to overcome, an enemy to vanquish. If all a protagonist presents to us is towering strength and infallibility, then there’s nowhere for the story arc to go, and no path for that character to grow. No learning, no personal journey, no discovery, no rally cry.
The Little Engine that Could is a lot more interesting than the Big Engine that Always Does.
So when VSA builds a brand narrative through the traditional elements of setting, plot, character and motivation, we encourage clients to look for imperfections and unfulfilled aspirations in their nature, along with their character strengths. The result is a richer and more recognizable story of overcoming—and more motivating for all audiences to be a part of.
Sometimes, that means releasing your inner underdog.
So what defines the nature of the underdog? There’s no shortage of odds-defying character models to choose from: Rudy, Rocky, Frodo, Jane Eyre, Norma Rae, Ponyboy, Hamilton, Dalton, the Chicago Cubs, Matilda, Lawrence of Arabia, Tiger Woods 2.0, and virtually every Disney hero.
Regardless of your literary or cultural touchstones, here’s a collection of factors that we’ve used at VSA to build underdog mentality and add bite to a brand narrative:
Underdog status begins when a narrative character faces an uphill battle—a challenge, burden, setback or inequity that at first seems unsurmountable. Underdogs are outgunned. They start out facing a plot and setting that presents a low probability of success—what’s referred to in organizational psychology circles as a “just-manageable difficulty.” But we’re careful not to set the underdog up for failure; if you’re swimming upstream for too long, something is wrong, and the challenge is too overwhelming for anyone to believe in a positive narrative resolution.
Piling on to the long odds are the “you’ll-never-do-this” voices that are emblematic of an underdog story. Naysayers personify the challenge and provide us narrative authors a tangible “enemy” to trigger the underdog’s transformation. They are all the more motivating because they tend to have established credibility and influence in the underdog’s world.
Underdogs by nature have shortcomings that obscure their latent strengths. These Lloyd Doblers engage the world with naivete, emotional availability and modesty. The vulnerable underdog can be identified—and inspire empathy—when their personal kryptonite is revealed. They gain humanity and acceptance by showing universally recognizable imperfections, psychic scars and trauma, secret desires, shyness and outsider status.
Before they pivot to self-confidence, underdogs typically exhibit self-doubt and a feeling of being underestimated and misjudged by the outside world. Being an underdog means facing your own questions of worthiness, strength and individual will—inner conflict that can be resolved through achievement and reconciliation with an antagonist.
Drive, determination and resilience, basically. Desire in an underdog appears as untapped strength or discoverable calling—an irresistible need to pursue what’s seemingly out of reach or impossible. It’s motivated by desire for validation among peers and to prove the naysayers wrong. We especially find narrative power in the underdog’s a sense of individualism and exceptionalism: “I am the only one who can address this.” Desire alone is not enough, however; underdogs have to believe they have the capacity and autonomy to succeed. Which leads to…
The essential tools to overcome obstacles. Beyond drive and self-belief, these are the skills, pillars of behavior and intellectual capabilities that enable underdogs to fulfill their calling. If these strengths and abilities are latent or need to be acquired elsewhere, underdogs find catalysts—a Yoda or Mr. Miyagi—to recognize, encourage and channel their hidden powers. Ability also assumes the underdog has “permission” from others to apply their strengths and autonomy to act.
Underdogs are especially appealing to us when they follow a moral imperative, crave a better way, sacrifice, and pursue a superior purpose toward a common good. Because of their belief system, rising underdogs often speak truth to power, advocate for the marginalized and seek justice. Sometimes, this moral clarity is underpinned by the innocence of youth, a sense of honor or an awakening to the human condition.
Like running onstage to sing “Shallow” with Bradley Cooper, achievement and acclamation can be their own reward in an underdog story. But in the resolution of a brand narrative, we can’t ignore the tangible business results that come with an underdog’s moral victory. So we build in story resolutions like marketplace impact, economic outcomes, or behavior shifts—objectives that are no different than those of a frontrunner character. It’s often these external and internal rewards that combine to form a brand narrative’s strongest character motivations.
So what do you do when a brand turns from David into Goliath? What happens when BackRub the search engine turns into Google the “organizer of the world’s information”? Most underdogs don’t want to be scrappy forever, right?
In reality, very few brands are so inherently, perpetually, monolithically dominant in their categories—Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Facebook and Nike quickly come to mind—that they can’t credibly claim some DNA of the underdog in some aspect of their brand story. Arguably, even Amazon and Apple (for now) project a degree of nonconformist humanity and upstart attitude despite their scale and reach.
For former underdogs who are now at the front of the pack, there are ways to change your narrative to maintain an outsider mindset and character: Find a new flaw to address (Uber Eats). Uncover an adjacent problem (UPS). Redefine the “enemy” and what your character opposes (Domino’s). Raise the bar for success (Netflix). Bet on the unprecedented (Red Bull). Leverage cultural passion (Southwest Airlines).
And don’t forget to go out there and win one for The Gipper.
If your business or brand has an untold story—underdog or not—that could shape organizational understanding and competitive direction, get in touch with Andy Blankenburg (firstname.lastname@example.org). We can talk about VSA’s strategic narrative process and how to put it to work for your organization.
Andy Blankenburg is Partner, Content Practice Lead at VSA Partners.
Andy has typed for a living for about 30 years now, and leads VSA projects in strategic narrative, messaging, naming and brand activation. He’s a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications lead at a Fortune 100 company, and leads VSA’s integrated staff of writers and content professionals.