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Marketing for Underdogs: Lean Into Your Difference

7 min read2023-04-04

So, you don’t have the name recognition of your larger competitors. You don’t have a massive sales force, and you don’t have the resources to compete head-on with the big players. What you do have is a unique brand story and a damn good reason to be in the market. In fact, you already have an edge. Successful underdogs win by leaning into what makes them different.

Being an underdog forces you to find ways to stand apart from your competitors fast. Which means you can’t fight over the same bone as everyone else. You have to differentiate your brand and stay unapologetically focused on the people who want that unique thing you offer.

Here’s how to find your tribe and turn your difference into a market advantage.

Step 1: Find your diamond in the rough

These days, when everyone claims to be “different,” how do you stand out? For starters, don’t waste time and resources inventing ways to be different. Because if you have to try, then you’re not.

You need to find and leverage the things that make you unique—things you probably don’t consider as advantages. Things you might even be trying to hide. Start with what you already have: your team, offerings, mindset, values, branding, how you do business.

Put it all on the table, including things you think of as negative or that you might want to sweep under the rug. Now look for those diamonds in the rough, business traits that you see as negatives or mostly ignore. They might be the edge you’re looking for.

How does that work? Try flipping the script.

Let’s say you’re a tiny upstart in a field of giants, and you can’t offer the same resources as everyone else. On the flip side, you might be the perfect company for a more prominent firm to partner with because you’re faster and nimbler at adapting to market changes. Or, you might offer a superior customer experience because you’re more personable and responsive.

Maybe you’re a manufacturer who’s shy about not being global. Guess what? The pandemic made it painfully clear just how vulnerable global supply chains can be. You might be the perfect partner for companies scrambling to build a local supplier network.

You don’t have to change who you are. You just need to change your perspective.

Step 2: Polish that diamond

Once you’ve identified your competitive advantage, it’s time to find the buyers that resonate with who you are and what you’re leaning into. Those are the prospects to prioritize and pursue, the people and companies that make up your tribe. And, to rally them around your flag, your branding has to communicate your unique value in everything you do.

Keep in mind being different doesn’t automatically equate to being cutting-edge. Maybe you’re kind of old-school, and you still like doing business with a handshake. In today’s hyper-digital world, making personal, face-to-face interactions a priority will attract prospects who feel the same way as you.

A couple key questions can help you shape your brand message:

  • What unites your audience?
  • What do buyers want that they can’t easily get from someone else?
    Here’s a great example from one of our favourite underdog clients.

Calling all rebels

Diablo Nutrients has done a fantastic job of carving a unique niche in the highly competitive biotech industry. Relatively new to the market, Diablo offers high-performance marijuana growing products with pure nutrients delivered through their own Nano-Emulsion Technology. The company’s competitive edge is that proprietary tech. Their marketing edge is their unique brand.

diablo nutrients website

Diablo’s name and logo pretty much tell you what you need to know: this is a company for rebels. They’re for commercial growers who are tired of conventional suppliers that have been doing things the same way for decades. Diablo offers leading-edge technology for companies that want to expand what’s possible today. And their branding makes it very clear who they’re talking to.

Step 3: YOLO!

It’s not enough to talk about why you’re different. You have to walk the talk, too. So how do you find ways to connect being different with doing things that are different? Experiment and explore. Or, as Seth Godin puts it, bring a test kitchen mindset and get ready to fail.

Maybe, like Diablo Nutrients, you’ll launch a sunglasses-wearing demon dog of a brand into a conservative industry and earn the business of other unconventional companies. Or maybe, like 3M’s Post-It Note, you’ll combine two disconnected objects (like bookmarks and glue) to create one incredibly useful product—all because you paid attention to an unmet need.

Sure, experiments are risky. They don’t always pay off, at least not with a clear winner every time. But, as Godin points out, true innovation comes from diving headfirst into “this might not work.”

Why you should try things that might not work:

  • You’re not going to fall as far as a big company; your center of gravity is lower because you have less at stake. (compare what happened when Gap tried to rebrand vs. what would happen if you did).
  • You’re faster at learning from mistakes. Plus, you need to learn from mistakes. If you never mess up, you’ll miss out on the incredibly valuable lessons that failure loves to dish out.
  • If you never take risks, you’ll never really move the needle for your business. And, if taking risks is part of your positioning, you’ll attract prospects who are looking for companies like yours that are willing to push the envelope.

Ways to come up with new ideas:

  • Dedicate a small portion of your team and budget to innovative product and marketing ideas (à la test kitchen). Ideally, round up the most non-conventional thinkers you’ve got.
  • Look outside your industry, especially in analogous fields (think: inventory management and robot games). Those folks are drawing on different knowledge without the same biases as you. Just ask the Harvard professors who surveyed roofers, carpenters and inline skaters about making safety gear more wearable for workers.
  • Bounce ideas off of people who don’t know your business inside and out. Because when you’re living inside the jar, you can’t see the label. You need objective, transparent opinions on whether a new offering or campaign actually fits who you are.
  • As your products and services are used by other businesses, you can learn about things they need that they’re not telling you. Be more observant. Ask more questions. In your interactions (site visits, training sessions, etc.), look for clues about unmet needs.

Above all, remember that you might learn what not to change. Being different doesn’t mean you have to shoehorn people into new ways of doing things. It’s about taking everything that makes you you and making it work for you.

A last word of caution

Succeeding as an underdog requires sticking to your brand narrative. It means constantly demonstrating what makes you different, from your products to your marketing to your customer service. Just keep in mind that buyers are good at sniffing out authenticity.

If you’re going to wear the underdog badge with pride, it has to be genuine. This means that as you grow, gain on competitors and become an established player, you can’t keep playing up the underdog story. But you can help people remember your roots.

Remind your prospects, customers and employees what got you where you are. Remind your most ardent supporters about the shared values that united you in the first place. And use the original, tenacious mentality that drove your success to keep fueling your innovation.

Keep leaning into your difference. If you need help figuring out how, give us a call.

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