We all know the story.
Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior, was defeated by the young David, who would later go on to become the king of Israel. David, being inferior in size and combat experience, used a slingshot to defeat the mighty Goliath from a distance:
Instead of fighting Goliath on his terms (strength and power), David used his advantages (speed and accuracy).
The legend endures since we find comfort in knowing that the strongest doesn’t always win. Now, the underdog strategy isn’t just useful for fighting; over and over again, it has proven useful when it comes to public relations as well.
Mind the Underdog
In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell outlines the dynamic between mapping both yours and your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. He goes on to suggest that underdogs have significant advantages.
One could argue that David’s disadvantages (being smaller and less experienced) actually forced him to outsmart his opponent. If David had been an experienced warrior with the physical size to match Goliath’s prowess, David would probably have decided to fight him on equal terms, right?
In The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday describes how choosing the path of the most resistance maximises our growth as both individuals and organizations.
For instance, it might not be such a bad idea to start a company in an economic downturn. It will force the organization to develop resilience, thus preparing the organization to reap even bigger benefits when the financial climate improves.
Having the odds stacked against you can make you — not only stronger! — but stronger than your competition, too.
The Underdog PR Strategy
For your underdog PR strategy to work, you must identify a minority and a majority. It’s a different approach than the typical SWOT analysis; instead of looking for positioning gaps based on strengths and weaknesses, you’re looking for minorities who are going against the mainstream and majorities that haven’t realised yet that they are … well, stupid.
Yes, David exploits Goliaths weaknesses (not being fast or accurate enough to beat David from a distance). However, David is still choosing to fight Goliath on “his” grounds — to steal away “his” audience. It’s safe to say that only a minority thought that David would beat Goliath before the actual fight. From a PR perspective, David was able to sweep in from nowhere and beat the market leader by exploiting an interesting social phenomenon:
The majority is sometimes plain wrong. Stupid, even.
Your Scientific Advantage
The conversion theory explains:
“In groups, the minority can have a disproportionate effect, converting many ‘majority’ members to their own cause. This is because many majority group members are not strong believers in its cause. They may be simply going along because it seems easier or that there is no real alternative. They may also have become disillusioned with the group purpose, process, or leadership and are seeking a viable alternative.”
The larger and more dominant the majority, the more likely it is also to consist of a substantial ‘silent majority’; people who are just along for the ride mainly because everyone else seems to be.
Now, imagine this majority, as a whole, being wrong. Heck, some in the ‘silent majority’ might then even feel betrayed by their own majority leaders, causing them to switch sides even faster. It makes sense to see a minority defeating a majority in a spectacular fashion — when the majority is also stupid. And from a PR perspective? Now, that’s a great story just begging to be told:
The big bad about to get defeated by the underdog ‘against all the odds’? Any semi-decent spin doctor could milk that story until the cows come home. But the question that lingers is:
Are there any stupid majorities out there for us to take on?
Identify a Stupid Majority
We celebrate the fact that David chose a better weapon when we instead should celebrate his successful manipulation of the stupid majority; from nowhere, David inserted himself into the top spot — in just one bold move.
We respect David not only for his wits, but for his guts. After all, the kid did bring a slingshot to a sword fight.
The fact that a staggering majority of bystanders — including one confident Goliath — never expected David to stand a chance, well, that was what gave him the upper hand. Goliath? He was destined to fall. And this is key for marketing and PR:
When leveraging an underdog PR strategy to beat a majority leader, it’s not about bringing better weapons (even though it certainly helps). It’s about taking on a majority that is stupid, incompetent, dead wrong, or preferably all of those things. Stupid majorities are to be found everywhere:
“Riding a skateboard isn’t a real sport!” (Red Bull)
“It doesn’t matter how technology looks on the outside!” (Apple)
“You watch television via cable networks or antennas!” (Netflix)
“Electric cars can’t compete with gas cars!” (Tesla Motors)
“Hotels must have hotel rooms!” (AirBnB)
Taxi companies must have taxis!” (Uber)
“Media companies must produce media!” (Facebook)
The list of stupid majorities just goes on and on. Now, stupid majorities exist in your industry, too. And now that you know what to look for, you’ll soon start finding them everywhere.
Your underdog PR mission, should you choose to accept it: