TECH::The Underdog Effect


There’s an interesting trend that’s been happening for a while now, but I’ve only recently started paying attention to it.

Hate the big guy and root for the little guy, regardless of logic or evidence to the contrary.

It’s called the “Underdog Effect.”

We introduce the concept of an underdog brand biography (UBB) to describe an emerging trend in branding in which firms author an historical account of their humble origins, lack of resources, and determined struggle against the odds. We identify two essential dimensions of an underdog biography: external disadvantage, and passion and determination. We demonstrate that a UBB can increase purchase intentions, real choice, and brand loyalty. We argue that UBBs are effective because consumers react positively when they see the underdog aspects of their own lives being reflected in branded products. Four studies demonstrate that the UBB effect is driven by identity mechanisms: we show that the effect is 1) mediated by consumers’ identification with the brand, 2) greater for consumers who strongly self-identify as underdogs, 3) stronger when consumers are purchasing for themselves vs. others, and 4) stronger in cultures in which underdog narratives are part of the national identity.

This trend crosses mediums. Sports, politics, music and even tech. I can remember when I was in college, how much pride I took in knowing all the small indie bands and turning my nose up at any artist who had corporate radio airplay, mostly because they were successful and lots of people knew about them and liked them. I never took it as far as some others, though, where they would spurn the band they once raved about and pushed on all their friends once that band became successful. The irony was that they were part of the problem. Their favorite indie band got big because they (and people like them) created a buzz and generated free word of mouth marketing.

Warriors come out to play


For a more recent example of this, just look at the 2015 NBA Finals.

You have the Golden State Warriors, who won 67 games in the regular season and were favored going into the Finals. And you have a Cleveland Cavaliers team that is hobbled by injuries and have the feel good story of “hometown boy comes home” going for them.

Except that hometown boy is LeBron James.

James is a perfect example of the underdog effect at work. Most people who hate them can’t verbalize *why* they hate him. They’ll mumble something about “The Decision,” but that point is moot now that he came back to Cleveland. The root of the reason they hate him is his success. Even though the Golden State Warriors were favored over the Cavaliers *before* they lost Kyrie Irving for the season, people still consider the Warriors the underdog. They’re the startup (or upstarts, for the relevant sportball term).

Tech hate

This is not unlike what happens to tech companies that get large and successful. Microsoft has endured this for decades, and, until only recently, has had trouble recapturing some of that “cool” tech company vibe. But before they were hated, Microsoft was generally well-liked. But they got too successful. Rumors and FUD spread like wildfire. And, to be honest, they made some very public missteps (looking at you Windows ME and Zune).

We’re also seeing former tech darlings Apple and Google start to see some of that hate trickle in. People wonder when Apple will “innovate” again and scoff at the iWatch. And iPad. And iPhone.

They still haven’t predicted Apple’s demise correctly.

Sometimes, the hate is somewhat justified, especially when you put a target on your back like Google did with the “Don’t Be Evil” slogan. Those are lofty (and unrealistic) standards to hold up when so much money is at stake. The larger you grow, the louder your critics will get. The warts become obvious and your audience is much larger and diverse, so it’s harder to please everyone.

“You can please some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you cannot please all of the people all of the time” – Abe Lincoln

Storage Wars


What really started me on this thought has been the recent anti-NetApp sentiment. Now, I work for NetApp, so I have a vested interest in their success. But I don’t “bleed blue” or have some sort of blind loyalty – I just think we do good stuff. I understand what’s most important in life is not my career, but everything outside of that. But I’m a HUGE proponent of justice and fairness, and I feel like some of the anti-NetApp sentiment has been unfair and unjust – and uninformed.

A lot of the misinformation has been spread by NetApp’s competitors in the form of FUD. It happens – it’s how salespeople without a good story to tell about their own products sell their stuff. But that FUD evolves into some weird bastardized fact that gets repeated ad nauseum and it just gets… old.

It’s now en vogue to bash NetApp, especially in light of their recent struggles. It’s “kicking a man while he’s down,” so to speak. Some of the criticism is certainly justified, and in some cases, completely on point. But there’s never any honest discussion. The criticisms are one-sided podcast monologues or blog posts. Sometimes, they’re in threads soaked in click-bait headlines like OMG IS NETAPP DEAD???

In the meantime, the new guys are reaping the benefits of it. Sure, they have some good products for specific use cases. And it’s nice and new and shiny. But there are warts – there are always warts. Over time, we will start to see them. And for those startups that survive long enough to become successful enough to hate, the warts will become common knowledge and the same people who were singing their praises will be writing the next IS [STARTUP HERE] DEAD??? article.

Everyone loves the underdog… until they aren’t the underdog.

This is the lesson in all of this. If you are looking to purchase from a company, or apply to work for a company, or even write about a company, be sure to do your homework. Read the negative articles. Read the fluff pieces. Then do the math – the truth is somewhere in the middle. And if you feel like you are starting to love or hate a tech company too much, go on vacation. There are better places to focus those emotions.

To drive the point home, I leave you with this video from “The Interview”:

One thought on “TECH::The Underdog Effect

  1. Pingback: Why Is the Internet Broken: Greatest Hits | Why Is The Internet Broken?

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