The Underdog Narrative: A Brand Biography that fits Buffalo Businesses

In January 2016, I launched R1 Sports Mgnt, after being certified by the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA) as an agent. I plan to continue working in my law firm but did not expect my partners to financially back a business idea with long odds of success; and, for many reasons, one in which I would be considered an underdog. I structured the company so the success or failure of R1 Sports Mgnt would not affect the profitability of our law practice.

Since founding our law firm in January 2013 and now with R1 Sports Mgnt, developing marketing and branding strategies have obviously been a priority. Thinking about attracting clients necessarily involves thinking about who we are and the identity of the company. Would the success I’ve had practicing law translate to being successful as an Agent? If I was an underdog, how would that translate into my company’s biography and marketing plan? After a lot of thought, for me it comes down to a simple question: Are we “Nike” (inspirational, elite and exceptional) or are we “Under Armour” (no expectation for success but beating the odds through hard work)?

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Last week the Boston Celtics played the Memphis Grizzlies at TD Garden. I was lucky enough to sit in the first row behind the media. When the players made their entrance, “IT4”, Isaiah Thomas, looked even shorter than he does on television. The height differential with other players is shocking when you see him up close. How could someone at such a disadvantage because of his size have achieved all-star status? Playing in a sport where lack of height is almost an insurmountable disability, Thomas must have been considered an “underdog” his entire career. Yet he was the one we were there to watch. He got the ball for Boston’s first possession and I rooted for him, this small man among giants to succeed against such odds. And he did. In fact, he took over the game because he is so fast—he gets out on the break and even when outsized moves so quickly its hard to see everything he’s doing.

A few days after the Celtics game, the University at Buffalo Men’s and Women’s basketball teams won the MAC Championship and earned bids in the NCAA Tournament. With simultaneous victories in the MAC championship by the men’s and women’s teams, local sportscasters were proclaiming a “historic day”, “the best day in Buffalo basketball since the Braves left town”, and on ESPN Sportscenter they were referred to as “Buffalo Buzzer beaters”. For the men, it was a back-to-back conference championship and national tourney appearance. The Women had never played in the NCAA tournament.

No one had high expectations for either team at the beginning of the season. The UB basketball program had suffered a black eye in 2015 when the MAC player of the year was suspended from school, former Coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State with another of the standout players, and Athletic Director Danny White left for a job in Florida. First year head coach Nate Oats and newly appointed Athletic Director Allen Greene were left trying to right the ship without any big name players. By any definition, UB would have earned the title “underdogs”.

In 2010, Harvard Business School researcher Anat Keinan published the results of a study[i] of how companies intentionally communicated their humble roots to consumers as part of their underdog brand biographies[ii]. These researchers wanted to see the application of such constructs specifically in the area of consumer marketing and product branding. The question was whether consumers would identify with the disadvantaged position of the company and its passion and determination to succeed. Not that those companies were never successful or met with less success than competitors; rather they highlight humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and struggles against adversity in terms of a disparity in resources; economic, educational or personal obstacles; or other external factors in the process of achieving success. In other words, their marketing highlights their journey toward their goal instead of the attainment of the goal itself.

We are familiar with numerous other iterations of this theme: David vs. Goliath, loser vs. winner, rags to riches. Underdogs show qualities of perserverence and resilience, determination and defying others’ expectations. Examples of underdog marketing run the gamut from Oprah Winfrey’s success after overcoming abuse, sexism and racism; to Apple, a company started by Steve Jobs in his garage; to Under Armour taking on Nike[iii].

Kevin Plank founded Under Armour in 1995 in Baltimore, Maryland (see http://www.ua.com). Less than twenty years later the company is second in market share to Nike, having displaced Adidas, and its products are sold worldwide. Plank was 23 years old and started the company in his grandmother’s basement. He maxed out his credit cards to get about $40,000 for start-up costs and had spent through nearly all of it in a year. He sold clothing out of the trunk of his car. His first team sale was for $17,000, took almost a year, and came right before his business was poised to go under.

Under Armour didn’t find success by imitating Nike, but rather by focusing on what differentiated them: “We work with athletes who most people wouldn’t or didn’t draft in the first round, or who they wouldn’t traditionally give a prima ballerina title to. We pick that athlete with a chip on their shoulder and their desire to win because it aligns with their own attitude”.[iv] For example, Steph Curry, someone who attained success by training every day to become a better shooter and keeps working at it even after a record-setting season (seemingly the incarnation of their slogan “It’s what you do in the dark that puts you I the light”).

Other examples that would fit Under Armour’s brand might be Herb Brooks and the US Olympic Hockey team. Closer to home, Randy Smith of the Buffalo Braves would seem to be an ambassador for Under Armour rather than Nike. Smith went to a Division III school, wasn’t drafted by Buffalo until the seventh round, 104th overall, and was a longshot to even make the team. Not only did he make it, he was the MVP of the 1978 All-Star game. He set the NBA iron man record playing in 906 games and it took 14 years for that record to be broken.

Nike partners with the most successful athletes and they urge consumers to “just do it” –there are no excuses for not reaching your potential. Under Armour looks at what happens after that initial effort, after “just do it” and partners with athletes who embody qualities of hard work, with a “things don’t come easy” attitude, to sustain success. Where Nike is inspirational, Under Armour is reality; its about the dirty, sweaty work that goes into actually being successful.

I think its an interesting dichotomy – why people find themselves aligned with the underdog who is expected to lose, when most people would say they want to associate themselves with winners. The Harvard team included researchers in marketing and psychology. They found that there were not many studies about the underdog narrative, especially consumer-related models. They theorized that these types of stories resonate with people more during difficult social, economic and political times, giving people hope when the outlook is otherwise bleak.

For the past thirty years, financial crises and income inequality have become mainstays in American life. People are working harder and more hours for less money and few find their jobs rewarding enough to justify the effort. Buffalo, a small city, has struggled – it has been economically depressed and faced an unequal playing field in business, leading to difficulty attracting companies and keeping younger members of the workforce from leaving. In Buffalo there is at least a perception of a lack of social mobility, blue-collar values are a strong undercurrent in the local culture. Buffalo may be particularly well situated for this type of marketing. In other words, the more a person perceives himself/herself as struggling against the odds, the more appeal for the underdog brand.

 

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Whether we are talking about a company finding the right athlete for its brand, or thinking about a marketing campaign for a university or our city, the underdog narrative is one that will continue to play well in Buffalo. One thing I’ve learned is that to be successful you have to know who you are and be authentic. I am a Buffalo gal through and through. For me, if its between “Just Do It” or “Protect this House”, I believe its not enough to “just do it”, you have to plan and prepare for how you’re going to be successful. It takes hard work and grit and determination; not just today but everyday. It takes perserverence and thick skin, your own under armor. I may be an underdog but at R1 Sports we know “opportunity doesn’t have an offseason”. You have to keep working. Just ask the members of the UB basketball team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] “The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination through Brand Biography”, journal of Consumer Research——-

[ii] refers to the story of a brand’s origins, experiences and evolution

[iii] see “Under Armour’s underdog strategy to becoming the anti-Nike”, Mallory Schlossberg, Business Insider 9/8/15

[iv] Id.