Everyone loves it when a small competitor takes on a Goliath and wins. To understand how brands can accomplish that (and do so profitably), we’ve examined various streams of research and identified a few moves that are nicely illustrated by Leicester City FC’s rise to the top of the English Premier League (EPL) last season. This remarkable underdog story from the world of soccer provides a useful case study of sorts for businesses as well as sports organizations.
At the beginning of the season everything about Leicester suggested it would not survive in the EPL: a dramatic escape from relegation to a lower league the previous season; a negligible fan base; no glory days or trophies to speak of; and a new manager, Claudio Ranieri, who seemed a poor fit for the humble team, given his past appointments with high-profile, well-resourced clubs such as Chelsea, Juventus, and Inter Milan. At 5,000:1 Leicester had the longest odds to win the EPL of all 20 teams; according to various bookmakers it was more likely that Elvis would be found alive (those odds were estimated at a mere 2,000:1). So when the team actually won the league for the first time in its 132-year history, it defied all expectations.
Impressive as Leicester was on the pitch, its performance off the pitch underpinned its commercial success. Three moves served the club particularly well:
Frame the brand as an underdog — with a caveat. One temptation for underdogs is to imitate the market leader; another is to avoid mentioning them altogether. But marketing research suggests that openly acknowledging the top dog’s competitive threat can build brand support for the underdog — enhancing word of mouth and increasing sales while reducing support for the top dog.
How did Ranieri use this approach with Leicester City? When quizzed by the British media on whether his team could actually win the league — and this was after Leicester had played 24 of 38 games and was leading the pack — Ranieri reiterated what he’d been saying all season: “I’d like to say ‘Yes, we can!’ but I am not Obama….Of course we are underdogs.” Even when the title was within touching distance, Ranieri continued to highlight the club’s humble background: “Leicester are a small club.…We’ve already won, because next season we’ll be in the Premier League [again].” These quotes are great examples of what researchers call framing the game, or drawing attention to the status differential between underdog and top dog. Ranieri spoke directly to the media to remind everyone of his team’s underdog status, but research shows that framing the game can also be achieved through a well-articulated brand biography that emphasizes the grit required to overcome limited opportunities and resources. Leicester’s star striker Jamie Vardy’s life story (recently commissioned as a Hollywood movie) falls into this category. Vardy’s implausible rise from part-time amateur to England national team player neatly parallels the club’s own story.
Of course, not all small-share brands are underdogs that can bite. Before brands can effectively frame the game (publicly acknowledging their underdog status), they must first enter the frame — that is, be recognized by consumers as a genuine alternative to the top dog. The underdog is not a complete no-hoper, a barely visible brand whining about the competition; rather, the underdog is a worthy opponent, a challenger that manages to convey its own strengths and potential in the competitive marketplace.
During the 2015–2016 season, Leicester often was the highest-trending topic on social media. Celebrities including Tom Hanks (himself often cast as an underdog) were publicly declaring their affection for the club. Leicester had entered the frame. Fans began to recognize the team as possible winners, meaning Leicester could then frame the game both by emphasizing its underdog status, winning fans’ hearts and support, and by posting impressive financial results. The club’s share price value grew 63% during the season. Likewise, the fan base reached new heights domestically, with season tickets completely selling out, and internationally, with demand for replica shirts and other merchandise proving insatiable at times.
Be a more lovable dog. Consumers are attracted to underdogs, but there still are some perceptual hurdles to overcome. For instance, underdogs often are viewed as less competent than top dogs, so positioning the brand on performance and expertise could be challenging. But consumers also see underdogs as more passionate and determined. This can foster feelings of warmth and gratitude — which are equally important for building brand relationships and conveying brand image. That’s why, as communications research shows, persuasive underdog messages tend to focus on warmth rather than competence, whereas persuasive top-dog messages focus on competence. Underdogs that develop a warm internal culture should convey that to the public.
How did Leicester make itself more lovable? In February 2016, while fans of Liverpool FC staged several match-day walkouts over the spiraling cost of tickets, and former British prime minister David Cameron vowed to investigate the wider pricing problem, Leicester seized the opportunity to announce a price freeze on its 2016–2017 tickets. In other generous gestures, the club’s owner offered home fans complimentary beer and donuts to celebrate his birthday — and announced he would donate £2 million toward building a local children’s hospital. Such initiatives continued to endear the club to British soccer fans, who resoundingly voted Leicester their favorite second team, regardless of the primary team they supported.
Never stray too far from home. Finally, underdog success can be a source of tension between existing customers, who may have made sacrifices to support their brand, and any new ones who come along. Though a growing community may provide existing customers with social approval, affirming their brand choice, it may also cause discontent — especially if the brand previously satisfied their need for uniqueness. (Research shows that people want to diverge from the crowd in domains that are highly linked to their identity, such as their taste in music.) When more people join the community, early members may begin to look to other brands to satisfy that need. Finding an equilibrium — keeping existing customers content while courting new ones — is a conundrum that successful underdogs must resolve.
Leicester, with its small but enthusiastic core of loyal supporters, knows this challenge well. Following its success, the club found an increasing number of fans popping up across Southeast Asia, and particularly Thailand, its owner’s birthplace. To capitalize on this demand, Leicester organized a title parade in Bangkok and preseason fixtures in Asia and the United States provided opportunities for other international fans to purchase merchandise and fan club membership and to spectate at local matches. At the same time, the team had to ensure that its original fans didn’t feel marginalized or less valued, so a membership loyalty scheme was initiated that favored existing supporters. Leicester’s vice chair made open promises to fans that, given the new European competitive challenges ahead, the club would purchase new players without selling any of its stars to improve the team’s competitiveness. Discontent and division were avoided, and existing fans have welcomed new members into the brand community.
As a result of these three moves, Leicester’s brand is in a position of strength heading into the new season. It will be interesting to see whether the club continues to behave like an underdog or assumes more of a top-dog stance as it builds on its success.
Rob Angell is a senior lecturer on marketing research at Cardiff Business School in the UK, and a cofounder of the consultancy Angell Sloan Research. His research interests include advertising and sport sponsorship.
Paul Bottomley is a professor of quantitative methods at Cardiff Business School in the UK. His research interests are brand logos and weight elicitation methods.
John Doyle is a professor of quantitative analysis at Cardiff Business School in the UK. His research interests include judgment and decision making in marketing contexts.
Article first appeared on HBR.