Telling Your Brand’s Truth: The Power of the Underdog Brand Biography
- April 4, 2018
- Posted by: Holly Lawrence
- Category: Featured
Underdog love was in the air at New York City’s iconic Strand Bookstore on the evening of January 26th. A group of Strand devotees—literary heavyweights, famous journalists, city officials, store customers and employees—joined the Bass family to pay tribute to Fred Bass, the Strand’s owner, who passed away on January 3rd at age 89. The event, affectionately named Fred Bass: Celebrating A Life Well Read, was filled with endearing stories about Bass, who has been credited with transforming his father’s once-struggling used-book shop into the “18 Miles of Books” emporium that it is today.
An Immigrant Entrepreneur With $600 and a Dream
Bass’ New York Times obituary reads like a synopsis for a bestseller. It’s a story about struggle and determination. The Strand story began in 1927 when Benjamin Bass, an immigrant from Lithuania, scraped together $600 and opened a small used-book store on New York’s Book Row. Hard times, destitution and high rents ensued. At age 13, young Fred Bass started working in his father’s business and made it his life’s work. More external threats followed, but the Strand survived and thrived. At the public memorial, Fred Bass’ daughter Nancy Bass Wyden, who is now the sole owner of the Strand, told the group:
“The store has been in business for over 90 years, surviving the Depression, the competition of Book Row, online sellers, big box stores, Amazon and e-readers. My dad loved people. He loved his customers and he loved seeing their book collections and hearing their stories. His spirit radiates from the buying desk. His dream was to have a big bookstore and grow the Strand into a cultural center of New York. His legacy lives on every time anyone gets lost in the stacks.”
Having achieved size and success as a brick and mortar, the Strand has evolved into a beloved brand. Even the Strand’s merchandise sales now account for about 15 percent of total revenues, according to the New York Times. However, the owners have remained true to the Strand’s underdog biography. The story is shared widely, through digital content and images, media, interviews, marketing campaigns and brand evangelism.
Strategic Benefits of the Underdog Brand Biography
The Strand’s story is the quintessential underdog brand biography, a concept that scholars Anat Keinan, Jill Avery, Juliet B. Schor and Neeru Paharia examined in their article for the Journal of Consumer Research, in 2011. The authors described two essential dimensions of an underdog biography: external disadvantage, and passion and determination. “We demonstrate that such a biography can increase purchase intentions, real choice, and brand loyalty,” wrote the authors.
In an interview with Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge, Keinan, a HBS associate professor and co-author of the study explained that underdog narratives “highlight the companies’ humble beginnings, hopes and dreams, and noble struggles against adversaries.” Keinan noted: “Through a series of experiments, we show that underdog brand biographies are effective in the marketplace because consumers identify with the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them.”
Everybody Loves Underdogs, Even Sharks
According to Keinan, the underdog effect is: “(a) mediated by a consumer’s identification with the brand, (b) greater for consumers who strongly self-identify as underdogs, (c) stronger when consumers are purchasing for themselves versus for others, and (d) stronger for consumers who are from cultures in which underdog narratives are part of their national identities.”
The American Dream, the pursuit of upward mobility, is clear and present in our national identity. Here, we believe that the underdog has a chance of success. ABC television’s “Shark Tank” sells the American Dream to viewers through the stories from aspiring entrepreneurs and the self-made Shark investors. Entrepreneurs with well-articulated underdog brand biographies tend to win favor (and investments) with the Sharks, who blatantly reject pitches that do not convey passion and determination. Our American Dream is inextricably linked to the underdog.
Love for the underdog was apparent during speeches at the Fred Bass memorial. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman declared the Strand “the greatest bookstore in the world.” Like others during the event, Krugman recognized the challenges that an independent bookstore continues to face in the midst of big brand competition and technology. “It’s a miracle that this place continues to exist,” Krugman commented. “What a monument, what a resource for this city and for the world. Long may it persist.” Krugman nodded to the Bass family, “Thank you, Fred Bass. Thank you, Nancy. Keep that flag flying.”
Consumers are intuitively aware that small underdog brands—independent bookstores like the Strand, and startups—are at risk of being destroyed by big brand competitors. But what happens when the small underdogs grow up to be these big brand competitors?
When Small Dogs Grow Up to Be Big Dogs
Starbucks, Snapple, Nantucket Nectars, Google, Hewlett-Packard and many more. Consider Apple’s underdog origins: born in a garage of Steve Jobs’ childhood home. Apple’s story is as American as apple pie. During his 2005 Stanford commencement address, Jobs told the graduates: “I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love.” Underdog brands, big and small, communicate their story best by first becoming comfortable with their truth.
Brand underdog biographies have strategic benefits even for large competitors, according to researchers. As Keinan explained to HBS Working Knowledge, big brands can use their biographies strategically, “to avoid anti-corporate consumer backlash and mitigate the curse of success.” Keinan said, “People may have an easier time identifying with a large company when they understand the journey the company has had to endure along the way.”
Here’s an example of a brand that does this well. Virgin chairman Sir Richard Branson is a storytelling powerhouse. In documentary style, Branson has chronicled his underdog story, his challenges with dyslexia, and Virgin’s brand biography through digital content, video content, extensive images, anecdotes and interviews. Virgin stays on the story. Keinan and her coauthors wrote: “Even large corporations, such as Google and Apple, are careful to retain their underdog beginnings in their brand biographies.” As the authors suggested, developing a brand biography “gives brands the ability to develop, grow and change their personas over the course of their lifetime, in much the same way as their consumers do.
How to Articulate Your Brand’s Underdog Narrative
A Framework to Pressure Test Your Story
Let’s say you have decided to embark on a fact-finding expedition, attempting to piece together an underdog biography for your company. You collect facts—dates, times, places—and even a vintage photo or two. What next?
First, proceed with caution. A brand’s biography should never be artificially induced with an underdog narrative. This must be undertaken as a biographical work of non-fiction. Truth is the only path.
Second, non-fiction involves the facts. However, your brand’s underdog story should not be listed as a plain, flat dateline on your company’s website. Truth and story, please.
If you find that your company has a legitimate underdog brand narrative, you will want to find a better way to tell the story that can hold up over the course of the brand’s lifetime. Content Advisory’s Robert Rose developed a valuable tool to Pressure Test Your Story. Rose explained:
“Put simply: A great story is a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging, and (ultimately) convincing argument. With a fulfilling story, if I’m successful as an author, I’ve taken you on a journey and you believe (or are at least open to believing) something different at the end of it.”
Rose presented a three-act “approach that helps marketers pressure test a story to see if it has all the components that make it a good one rather than just an outrageous situation or a collection of facts.”
In developing a brand biography, you need to get at the heart of the story. According to Rose’s framework, “Every great story has four parts: human hero, a goal, resistance, and the truth.”
As Rose reminds: “The truth is your argument – what you believe in and what you are arguing. Some might call this the “theme” or “message” of the story, but at its core the truth is simply the belief you are trying to inspire in the audience of your story.”