What business can learn from the underdogs

Bilbo Baggins the original little guy
Be positive, and remember that you could be the game changer

FROM unlikely World Cup winners, to politicians and Harry Potter – everybody loves an underdog. A 2010 study by Anat Keinan, Jill Avery and Neeru Paharia looked at the sway the underdog business holds with consumers over the big players. Their hypothesis was that an underdog brand would be preferred because people would identify with its characteristics more. Respondents were given a choice between a veteran chocolate company and a small, new entrant with an unlikely story. The researchers were proved right. An impressive 71 per cent of consumers chose the latter.

But Keinan, Avery and Paharia argue that not all disadvantaged businesses can become successful underdogs. It also takes “passion and determination”. So what can the underdog success stories teach those on the back foot about how to win in the end?

It’s pretty obvious, but being at a disadvantage often makes people more ambitious. In his 2013 book David and Goliath, business guru Malcolm Gladwell goes further, saying that, when somebody is strong, “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness”. But for the weak, “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty”. According to Gladwell, one of the upsides of being the little guy is that you’re forced to learn skills desirable for business – how to listen, negotiate and think creatively. But you have to be aware of your weaknesses in the first place.

He considers dyslexic businessmen who have turned their disability to their advantage. Eminent lawyer and business founder David Boies, whose childhood was dogged by dyslexia, had to compensate for not being able to read well by developing acute skills of observation and memory, which he then used in the courtroom. Gladwell says a nearly impossible task is the best opportunity to do something well: you’ll have to concentrate harder and learn more thoroughly, but that’ll mean a better outcome in the long run.

And frequently, the underdog mindset can be cultivated into a personal or business edge. Gladwell re-casts the Bible story of David and Goliath by suggesting that it’s not an impossible challenge for David to kill the giant. Rather, Goliath represents the tried and tested – but also the traditional and inflexible – and David the novel and the unconventional – the wild card.

Writing for Entrepreneur.com, Richard Branson explains how his dyslexia has shaped his empire because it meant doing things differently. “When we launched a new company, I made sure that I was shown the ads and marketing materials. I asked those presenting the campaign to read everything aloud... If I could grasp it quickly, then it passed muster -- we would get our message across only if it was understandable at first glance.”

Starting from a position of difficulty means you’re actually the best placed to change the rules – indeed, change the game itself, says Gladwell. Great innovators have never conformed to convention or required the approval of peers, he adds. And those individuals almost always “come from having nothing.”

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