How Do Brands Grow While Keeping Their ‘Beloved Underdog’ Status Intact?

Mike De Luca

In a digital world where businesses are expected to deliver personalized journeys for each customer, the concepts of traditional marketing are being shattered and rebuilt. The customer journey is now much more complex, with more touch points, and it takes a combination of traditional and digital marketing techniques for companies to truly understand and act on the full context.

Brands today need to have a purpose, and they need to recognize how that purpose fits into the new digital world. That’s the foundation on which they connect with consumers and on which obsessive fan bases are built. Perhaps the biggest shift triggered by the digital economy is that successfully marketing your brand as an outsider and an underdog with a philanthropic purpose, regardless of its size or growth rate, is increasingly seen as an advantage. Creating the sense of being a morally superior underdog pitted against larger, more established brands brings numerous advantages.

Many of today’s customers use their choice of brands as a reflection of their own individualism, and they are drawn to those brands that seem to reject the status quo, have independence of choice, and are free to innovate. As the customer’s relationship with established corporations changes, and more mistrust creeps in, the “underdogs” are seen as putting in more effort to satisfy the customer. They arouse a sense of fairness and justice, that their mission is not purely cold-hearted growth but about making the world a better place. For this, outsiders are given free rein and are even encouraged to break the rules of establishment.

As we’ve seen with companies like Uber and Airbnb, competitors initially don’t worry about the perceived underdogs, giving them time to find their feet before they cause a real shakeup. Being a deliberate outsider is also associated with the idea of being smaller and more nimble, making it easier to pivot and dive on opportunities, compared with unwieldy corporations.

So how are brands portraying themselves as underdogs and outsiders, even when they are anything but? Vice, a media business born in Montreal that is now one of the world’s largest digital entertainment companies, is a prime example of how this is done. Vice transitioned from actually being an outsider to thriving on preserving the idea that it is.

From Vice’s start as a print magazine to its becoming one of the first companies to deliver quality original content online, it has maintained a conscious effort to keep hold of that outsider status. The company wanted to create the feeling that it is not playing the same game as its competitors, even though it was in fact playing on the same field.

Vice’s chief digital officer Mike Germano explains that that’s exactly why the company is launching a TV channel at a time when traditional networks are rapidly losing viewers. More and more young people are turning away from TV because that media offers very little that satisfies the craving for great content that speaks to their individualism. After analyzing consumer context data, Vice saw this as an opportunity to be the “cool outsider” that brings these consumers back to watching TV.

For companies not currently viewed as outsiders and those seeking to preserve their outsider status, digital technology and Big Data present both the biggest opportunities and the biggest threats. The greatest challenge is figuring out how to deliver an individual, streamlined customer experience on a mass scale, a task that takes in-depth analysis of available data. It’s about using that data to grasp the full customer context and map out routines. This kind of algorithmic marketing is how companies like Vice will continue growing while keeping a firm hold on that “beloved underdog” tag.

Vice’s Mike Germano was speaking at The Gathering, where Canada’s best cult brand-builders revealed their secrets.


Mike De Luca

About Mike De Luca

Mike De Luca is a senior account executive for SAP Hybris in Canada. He works with brands, retailers, and wholesalers in both B2C and B2B to improve their customer experience through unified commerce. His focus is on helping brands and companies offer customers a holistic shopping experience no matter how or where they want to shop.