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Fearless Idea 13: Play the Underdog Card

Mar 13, 2017
World Class Faculty & Research

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SMITH BRAIN TRUST — Brands like Nantucket Nectars, Ben & Jerry's, Toms Shoes, Burt's Bees and Lifeway have thrived against bigger, longer-established competitors. They’ve emphasized modest roots and played up virtues like product health benefits and their social consciousness or environmental consciousness.  Appearing resource-modest, but highly moral, they’re tapping into the adage “consumers gravitate to underdogs.”

Can this formula work for a newly launched personal service provider going up against established competitors? Yes, but with some extra work, according to a recent study by marketing professor Amna Kirmani at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

People shopping for a car mechanic or landscaper simply want the job finished. First and foremost, they seek proven competence. The provider’s level of morality gets pushed to the back or lost in the equation. “This was a disappointing conclusion — until we found a way to reverse the effect,” Kirmani says.

The answer: Instead of just being an underdog, play the underdog card.

Upstarts lacking a proven track record can offset this disadvantage by explicitly promoting themselves as highly moral. The researchers observed that service seekers tended to react to such an appeal with empathy and by selecting the provider — “such as when the accountant or real estate agent was described as an underdog: passionate and determined but with limited resources,” Kirmani says.

Specifically, these providers on their websites could ask prospective clients and customers “to rate dimensions that favor the provider, such as environmental consciousness if they invest in being green, or social responsibility if they do a lot with charities,” Kirmani says.

More broadly, she adds, “the more evidence service providers can offer about their morality, for example through customer testimonials or ratings, the more likely it is that customers will focus on morality in the decision process.”  

Read More: Doing Well Versus Doing Good: The Differential Effect of Underdog Positioning on Moral and Competent Service Providers by Amna Kirmani, Rebecca W. Hamilton, Georgetown University; Debora V. Thompson, Georgetown University; and 2016 Smith PhD graduate Shannon Lantzy is published by the Journal of Marketing

Amna Kirmani is a Professor of Marketing and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology

Research Interests: Morality, persuasion knowledge, behavioral signaling and branding. In terms of morality, she is interested in examining how thinking and acting in the marketplace make us behave less morally.

Selected Accomplishments:  Papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising and the International Journal of Advertising, and Article of the Year at AMA TechSIG.

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2017 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, culminating with the sixth annual Women Leading Women forum on March 30, 2017.

Other fearless ideas from: Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  |  Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Rachelle Sampson  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  Cynthia Kay Stevens  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang  |  PhD Candidates

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, specialty master's, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.