Maryland Smith Research / August 7, 2017

Empathy for the Benevolent Underdog

Empathy for the Benevolent Underdog

Consumers Respond When Upstarts Tout Their Morality

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 is featured in the Journal of Marketing.

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