How To Beat Competitors With An Underdog Marketing Strategy

Throw away the notion that “if you’re not first you’re last” and learn to exploit this perceived disadvantage to rally customers and gain more market share.

“Find a weakness in the leader’s strength and attack that point.”
(Rise & Trout, Marketing Warfare)

The story of David and Goliath is as old as time, but every generation loves to hear it. Why? Because we instinctively root for the tenacious trier. We champion the underdog, we feel connected to them as they mirror the underdog aspects in our own lives.

Discussing The Underdog Effect, Avery et al. (2011 ) suggest we are drawn to “the disadvantaged position of the underdog and share their passion and determination to succeed when the odds are against them.”

Underdog stories inspire us; there is emotional power to the underdog narrative.

So what makes a great underdog brand message? According to Avery et al., the two main dimensions of an underdog are:

1) External Disadvantage
2) Passion and Determination

To see these two dimensions utilised in their full glory, let’s take a trip down memory lane to the golden goose of underdog marketing.

Avis Underdog Marketing, 1962

In the 1960s, the car rental company Avis found itself miles behind the outright industry leader, Hertz. How could they compete with Hertz, the ‘go-to’ car rental company? Well, by clarifying that they weren’t the ‘go-to’ car rental company, and what that meant for their customers.

Avis on why being 2nd best benefits customers who choose them over Hertz

Being the underdog, Avis had to try a lot harder. They were hungry for market share, and were willing to work tirelessly to get it. Their brand messaging focused onwhy their underdog status actually benefitted their customers. Avis turned a perceived weakness on its head, while taking Hertz’s strength of being number one and using it against them.

“When you’re only №2, you try harder,” went the new tagline. “Or else.”

The incredible thing is, Avis weren’t out to get Hertz. They were attacking their closest competitors, companies like National and Budget Rent-A-Car. The companies who were also vying for second best. It was clear Hertz were number 1, Avis was trying to establish itself as the best of the rest.

Avis was neck-and-neck with National before this marketing campaign cemented their position as number 2. Over the next decade the company’s market share would increase from 29% to 36%. How did they do it? They focused on customer pain-points, and made it all about the perks that were passed on to the customer by going with second best.

Wait times and queues were a typical pain-point of car rental customers

So don’t be afraid to be bold with your marketing strategy. Your target market naturally wants to champion the underdog; if you are one, talk about it. Creating marketing messaging that points out your perceived ‘flaws’ conveys honesty to consumers, a trait that is imperative in creating long-lasting relationships. Take your apparent weaknesses and turn them into strengths, and build a loyal customer-base in the process.

Need help dialling down your brand positioning? Read this.

Takeaway Questions

Who is your company the underdog to?

Can you position yourself as the best of the rest?

Where are you trying harder than competitors? How does this differentiate you and benefit your customers?

- Avery et al. (2011) : ‘The Underdog Effect: The Marketing of Disadvantage and Determination Through Brand Biography’




Brand Voice Specialist. Amateur Ethnographer. Curious blogger. Check out my website at, or say hi at

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David Cowan

David Cowan

Brand Voice Specialist. Amateur Ethnographer. Curious blogger. Check out my website at, or say hi at

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