This blog post first appeared on Forbes.com
In my work helping large for-profit (and non-profit) organizations maximize their political influence, I’ve repeatedly witnessed powerful legislators make decisions based partly on the merits of a decision, and partly on the messenger. And when the messenger is a small business owner or principal, they are a mighty messenger. It’s an article of faith that helping “the little guy,” in this case small businesses, makes them feel better about themselves, as it should. (And all of us are subject to this, researchers call it the “just world” theory of behavior).
It’s not an accident that McDonald’s ads now feature their “little” suppliers, the farmers who grow their crops. Wal-Mart also used a similar tactic years ago with their ads which profiled the “ordinary” employees who came from humble beginnings, took entry level jobs and became store managers. This is a subtle and honest reminder that the massive corporation is a collection of ordinary people. It’s a good message for marketing and political influence.
A recent opinion poll commissioned by the Public Affairs Council on business engagement in politics backs this up. Some 88% of the respondents have a favorable view of small business, compared with 67% who have a positive view of major companies. A majority (53%) have a very favorable view of small business, in contrast to only 16% who say the same about major companies. http://thehill.com/blogs/on-the-money/1007-other/241219-poll-publicdoesnt-like-lobbyists-ok-with-lobbying
The report also finds that consumers have a preference (68% to 29%) for dealing with a small local company over a large national or multinational corporation. However, I’ll believe that when I see them leaving the big box stores and going back to the corner stores; I still believe consumers say one thing but vote with their feet. (This response could be an example of a typical research bias where respondents say what they know will make them appear more benevolent or kind.) Regardless, there is research showing that companies are using the underdog mantle as a marketing strategy.
Underdog Positioning as Marketing Strategy
Recent research has found that underdog positioning influences consumer behavior.
Researcher Jill Avery noted that an increase in underdog branding as a marketing strategy is happening. “We see brands across a wide variety of product categories (food, juice, beer, car rental, technology, etc.) using underdog brand biographies in today’s marketplace,” she explained.
Even if a company is now large, if they struggled to survive in the early days (Apple, Southwest Airlines, Oprah Winfrey) they have an appeal because underdog stories about overcoming great odds through passion and grit resonate, and especially during difficult times. Their stories inspire us and help us see that if you work hard and play by the rules, success is still possible.
Underdog Status = Political Persuasion
So what does this have to do with advancing your goals through the political system? Elected officials have power, and they usually don’t make the lists of the most admired professions. That makes them amenable to helping the “little guy,” because it makes them look good. That doesn’t mean that many of them don’t philosophically agree with the underdog, but when an authentic underdog comes their way, they want to help. It’s easier to help, for example, Balliets women’s clothing store vs. Target.
Bob Benham, the owner Balliets, an upscale women’s fashion store in Oklahoma City, www.bailliets.com was a retail underdog who several years ago teamed with stores like Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart to persuade members of Congress to change Internet taxation laws. The change would level the playing field for small brick-and-mortar retailers. He didn’t wave his underdog card, even though he could have easily done so. And that’s what got him noticed.
“When we would meet with members of Congress and their staff,” said Benham, “the guys from the big stores liked to talk a lot. Many times the congressional staff would cut them off and ask me what I thought. It happened enough that the National Retail Federation staff made sure that everyone from that point forward could articulate what was happening with Main Street businesses. It stunned me that powerful people listen more to the small business owners than the big guys.”
Not all small business owners are more honest, work harder, or rescue more abandoned kittens than executives from large corporations. But they are imbued with the underdog edge and that gives them a big advantage in the persuasion process. We feel better about ourselves when rooting for the underdog, and we want to help them. In politics that means that the legislator can say “yes” more easily to a small enterprise than a big one.
What’s the Bottom Line to Gaining Underdog “Street Cred?”
Big companies can have the small business underdog edge by emphasizing their risky, innovative, sacrificial roots. So many large businesses have fantastic stories of how they started from nothing, and are still engaged in difficult endeavors that require an entrepreneurial mindset. But are you telling those stories other than at your new employee orientation? And are they true stories, with flesh and blood characters, or examples with data? Large businesses have many of the same characteristics as small businesses, especially in their biography. There was sacrifice, risk taking, rejection, grit, etc. . . . but you aren’t telling that story.
I think of my friends in the pharmaceutical industry who have scientists and researchers that toil year after year with no immediate gratification from their research. We know of many big businesses that had to survive numerous lawsuits before they could open their doors—Southwest Airlines comes to mind.
The bottom line? It’s time for any large business that wants to gain goodwill and influence up the food chain to think small and embrace the underdog edge. Your elected officials will thank you for it.