Underdog Marketing: How to Succeed When You’re Up Against the Big Dogs

March 10th, 2015

When I was a small child, one of the stories my parents read often (surrendering to repeated pleadings of “read it again”) was “The Little Engine That Could.” It’s a classic – heroically recounting the optimism of a little steam engine that conquered a steep hill by relentlessly puffing, “I think I can; I think I can; I think I can” until he succeeds.

As a marketing agency, we have had the privilege of working with companies that displayed that kind of optimism and persistence as they embraced the daunting challenge of starting new businesses, launching new products, entering new markets or re-energizing brands. It takes a steady dose of optimism – and perhaps even a sort of irrational belief in your own omnipotence – to start a new venture or to take a company in a new direction.

We celebrate these Underdog Marketers. For years we’ve enjoyed working with companies that are clearly underdogs in the fight for market success. These companies don’t enjoy the name recognition of their larger competitors, they don’t have an extensive sales force and they don’t have the resources to compete head on. So to survive in the marketplace, make a profit and grow, they need to do things differently.

Being smaller than your most troublesome competitor might mean you’re an underdog. Bigger can be a definite advantage. In spite of the old adage “the bigger they are the harder they fall,” the fact is that bigger can often fall right on you, drive you to the ground and knock the snot out of you (flashbacks to encounters with school yard bullies).

But nearly all companies, especially new companies, have to grow in spite of formidable competition.

Signs that you might be an underdog:

  • You are smaller than your most troublesome competitor, the one you worry about.
  • Your product/service solves a problem that prospects don’t immediately recognize they have.
  • Your story is complex, not easily understood.
  • You can’t spend as much on advertising, promotion or other traditional marketing programs.
  • You don’t have as many salespeople, dealers or retailers as your competitors.
  • You don’t have enough market share to be taken seriously by competitors.
  • You have not enjoyed as much sales success as a competitor.
  • You might have lost customers to the competition.

The underlying theme is that you are an underdog marketer if you are going after the same customers as your competitors with fewer resources. But successful underdogs don’t fight over the same bone. They learn to do things differently. They need to focus on market niches, differentiate their brands and relentlessly prioritize the prospects they pursue.

The fallacy of fighting fair

A friend who served as an Army Special Forces officer for 25 years insists that a fair fight is any fight you win. But in a fair fight the big dog usually wins… so in the battle for marketplace success, underdog marketers don’t make it a fair fight. They plan to have an advantage.

Successful underdogs pick the type of fight they can win:

  • Pick where to fight (right market segment, right distribution)
  • Pick what to fight with (right product, right brand promise)
  • Pick who to fight for (right customers, those you can best serve)
  • Pick who to fight against (right competition, even if it’s market inertia)

Resolutions for successful underdogs:

Limited resources is a reality with which we all have to deal. Successful underdogs forget about what’s missing and focus on what’s available.

  • Sharpen your brand position; differentiate ‘til you drop.
  • Focus on smaller market segments, ones that you can win.
  • Prioritize your customers. Not all customers are created equal. Successful underdogs don’t chase after every car.
  • Prioritize your product offering. What do customers really want that they cannot easily get from someone else?
  • Articulate your overall strategy to your team, your customers and your prospects. A strategy without implementation is just a daydream.
  • Spend enough, fast enough to win (you can’t save your way to market success).

Successful underdogs do things differently. Don’t follow the market leader. The leader might be wrong. The leader is already entrenched. And in any event “Me, too” is not a compelling brand position.

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