Embracing Your Underdog Brand Identity


What is the brand strength hidden in your perceived weakness?

Does your company want to be branded as the market giant? Before you answer, consider the success of organizations that have sold themselves as giant killers instead. Most companies are not the dominant feeder in their category; for them, being a niche competitor can be very rewarding both in profitability and consumer loyalty.

One of the most well-recounted examples of this principle is the Avis “We Try Harder” campaign launched in 1962. Trailing Hertz, the top rental car company in the nation, Avis promised that as the underdog, they would provide better service with a try-harder attitude. The campaign, created by Doyle Dane Bernbach, is considered a classic example of embracing your perceived faults and making them brand strengths.

The courage to think differently.

Eclipsing the Avis effort is Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. In 1997, Apple was struggling against what seemed to be a tsunami of relatively inexpensive PC alternatives that were dominating the sales charts and had become ubiquitous in business offices everywhere. I remember having conversations at the time with my agency colleagues (all avid Apple users), worrying about the state of digital design if Apple belly flopped.

The “Think Different” campaign was a rallying cry, both to consumers and the Apple internal team, to embrace the “crazy ones” who dared to stand out, march to a different drummer, and be brilliant rather than common. The campaign inspired a resurgence of pride in the Apple brand, and the campaign posters, featuring black-and-white photos of brilliant iconoclasts such as Einstein and Picasso, were as popular among Apple employees as they were influential among consumers. It was cool to be Apple again.

Every giant has a weakness.

What is the superpower hidden in your underdog status? Such a question opens the door to imaginative ways of battling a market giant by taking a hard left rather than continuing to pound head-to-head.

We had reason to consider that question when the Houston-based Randalls food chain moved into Austin and asked for my agency’s help. The retailer’s entry into the Austin market was rockier than expected, and they faced stiff competition from the established market leader, H-E-B, one of the largest privately held supermarket chains in the country.

The H-E-B chain had tremendous buying power, making it the clear price leader in most of its markets (this was before the entry of Walmart into groceries). Randalls couldn’t do battle with the giant on price or number of locations, but after doing onsite visits, our team identified one key differentiator that had the potential to become a unique strength.

The H-E-B stores we visited were all bustling with shoppers during peak shopping times, to the point of chaos. Aisles were crowded and checkout lines were long. Meanwhile, our visits to Randalls stores were much more calming, with fewer shoppers (that was the problem) and speedier checkout times. A visit to Randalls was positive and relaxed, while H-E-B shopping was evocative of a roller derby.

Randalls Ellie RuckerOn July 13 of 1997, at the first break of the ten o’clock news on all three local television stations, Austin consumer advocate Ellie Rucker appeared in a two-minute commercial introducing herself as Randalls’ consumer liaison with a promise to listen and respond to consumer requests for better products and services. The campaign that followed was tagged with a new brand message,

“We get you home sooner.”

Rucker delivered a benefit that Randalls could fulfill in spades, to get shoppers home sooner with the products they want.

Company founder Robert Randall Onstead credited the campaign with turning the tide of acceptance among Austin shoppers. The brand message evolved over the next two years as the store’s market share grew, but Randalls is still a store that offers a more relaxing and personal experience than competitors H-E-B and Walmart.

And yes, they still get you home sooner.

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