How Underdogs Win

Written by Core Strategy Group
Big names, big campaigns

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The Driving Force of Change today

On the afternoon of Election Day, November 8, 2016, the decision rooms of the major news organizations were buzzing with activity and excitement. In these huge rooms their pollsters, analysts, news producers and many of the anchor-people would be reviewing the last polls they had done, and the exit polls conducted with real voters coming in from polling places around the country. It was a great scene of slightly controlled bedlam with small groups clustered around various computer screens around the huge room. And the same thing was going on at every cable network, every broadcast network, every major newspaper and online news source, even many local TV stations and papers.

All of the afternoon’s activity was in preparation for their crucial nightly broadcast of the election results. Accuracy would not just be a matter of pride, but of attracting an audience – the network or newspaper that made the right call first would be winner in this game. At just about the same time, around 4pm in the east, all of them were coming to the same conclusion, based on their two years of polling and the day’s exit poll interviews. When the California polls closed that evening, they would declare that Hillary Clinton had been elected President.

My late, great friend and colleague Pat Caddell was in the Fox News decision room. He left, shaking his head, and put in a call to me and Bob Perkins, his partners in our research company Armada Publishing. “They just don’t get it,” Pat muttered into the cell phone. “But it’s breaking just the way we thought it would. Trump wins.”

Of course, “TRUMP WINS!” was the headline the next morning that rocked the world and created shock waves that have never yet subsided.

For us, it had not been a shock, but a sure thing. We’d been doing voter research in the U.S. since 2011. We’d seen the rising tide of alienation and frustration at the establishment elites and status quo in Washington. In fact, we’d predicted a Donald Trump victory the same month he entered the Presidential race.

By Election Day ’16 this wave of voter anger had become a tsunami: for instance, by 2016, 84% of all voters of all demographics and all political persuasions agreed that “an elite of incumbent politicians, lobbyists, big banks, big unions, big business, big special interests and big media rig the system in Washington to protect their own power and prestige.”

We have all heard about the deep political divisions separating voters in the U.S., but we have found them to be overwhelmingly united on these key issues relating to dissatisfaction with the status quo, and their anti-elite and anti-establishment attitudes. And, clearly, this is a global change-wave now.

The elites themselves were completely thrown by the Trump election; indeed, the best description would be “dumb-struck.” From Election Day to this day, rather than deal with it, they formed a resistance to Trump that might also be considered a resistance to a new reality.

Insurgents Rule:

Although underdogs have won stunning victories throughout history since Goliath “lay down and dieth” (in the immortal words of Ira Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”), the success of underdogs, revolutionaries and insurgents has become commonplace in politics, sports, business and warfare globally.

What’s most important is how the successful underdogs win. Though some find inspiration in history, most do not have a playbook. The two books that David Morey and I wrote, “The Underdog Advantage” and “The Leadership Campaign,” are based on our analysis of the successes of military, political, sports and business insurgents. Just as desperation is innovation’s mom, we found that going for daylight, making the most of any opportunity and using surprise as instinctive strategic impulse were the aunts and uncles of insurgents’ success.

Those successes follow very similar principles – essentially the same, in fact, across all forms of endeavor and all playing fields and battlefields. Another similarity is the predictable character and strategic rituals of the incumbents they context, multiplied by the power of four or five for entrenched incumbents, those who’ve become accustomed to being top dogs.

Define the Win:

Most importantly, when you set out on a great journey, you must know where the hell you’re going. What’s the destination of this venture? If you do everything right over the next year or two, where will you be? What will it look and feel like? How will people (or specific targets) behave differently or talk differently about you based on that success?

Clearly define the win you want to achieve. Stick a push-pin into the future map at that point. The map to get there is your strategy. Read on to see how you will develop that strategy for success.

Do the Doable:

Insurgents almost always start with nothing or next to nothing. So, you must conserve resources. Two of the most important resources you must manage are the energy and emotion of your team. For their sake, you want to be direct (always on strategy and aimed toward the defined destination) and realistic (never setting a goal they can’t achieve).

Do the doable means taking on the easiest available objective first, as long as it aligns with strategy. It means never taking on the impossible, or even a “reach”, goal: failure only demoralizes your team and energizes the competition.

So, pick up the fruit off the ground even before you reach for the low-hanging fruit. Never throw the “Hail Mary” pass on first or second down – just get four or five yards; just get some first downs and begin to create that magical force of momentum, which generates its own energy in time; the emotional equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.

Another principle that is important to “do the doable” is to “take what they give you.” This was the constant exhortation of our Defensive Coach Boyd Williams to my college football team.

Today, decades later, this is practiced best by the Pats’ Bill Belichick. If the defense is giving you the “quick out” pass by laying off your wide receivers, take it … and take it … and take it … and take it again, until they take it away from you by shifting their coverage. When they make that shift, they will expose another opportunity. Probe (skirmish), find that newly revealed weak spot, then take it and take it and take it again.

Businesses often set unrealistic or completely unachievable goals (and Elon Musk tweets them out). In doing so, business has accepted the model of politics and government in which “overpromise and underdeliver” is standard operating procedure. This intellectual corruption leads to cynicism and alienation. When any organization routinely lies to its stakeholders, those stakeholders begin to routinely lie to the organization. It’s a vicious circle and creates a toxic environment.

This results in adding to the alienation my colleagues and I at Armada Publishing have seen in our “Smith” research of U.S. voters from the political establishment over the past six years. They have much the same feelings toward the corporate establishment. And that’s why it has become a true “underdog advantage” for insurgents in politics and brand marketing.

Move the Movable:

The key to efficiency in any political or business campaign is knowing which voters you need to win over in order to win. In politics that means knowing which ones can be counted on to vote on Election Day. Business has multiple “elections” in terms of purchase decisions – and getting the win means winning repeat purchase decisions, getting to profitable usage (remember, most brands will buy your first few usage occasions through price promotion or ramped-up introductory advertising).

It’s not enough to know who might use your brand or vote for your candidate – too many consumer brands or general election candidates essentially target everybody in the marketplace or electorate. To be truly efficient, you have to target those who are movable – who can be moved by your themes and messages, your issues.

I use an attitudinal segmentation model for this purpose. In fact, it is essentially the operating system for my Core Strategy Group; because understanding how to focus resources on the movable targets in the market is the key to success for any brand or candidate. And we’ve tested this segmentation in every kind of marketplace: political campaigns globally and marketing campaigns for everything from software to soft drinks to securities to athletic shoes.

The segmentation looks like this:

HO SO Undecided SS HS

To spare you a long and detailed explanation, think left to right.

On the far left is the Hard Opposition (HO) – they hate you. Forget about it: they can’t be moved. Fortunately, it’s a very small group in most markets.

Next is the Soft Opposition (SS), which is about twice the size of the Hard Opposition.

They are almost as un-movable as the HO – they lean away from your candidate or brand, but they are not active or vocal in opposition. Just don’t do something that will take them up and turn them out on Election Day.

Then comes the huge and tempting Undecided segment. They make the difference on Election Day, and campaigns will do anything to move them for that one day. In marketing, though, they are pretty easy to move, but very hard to hold onto for profitable usage. I almost always recommend against targeting them. In the cola market this segment can be upwards of 40% of drinkers. They are moved with price promotion and other shiny objects – but very expensive to continue to hold; essentially a perpetual loss-leader.

More fertile territory begins with the Soft Support (SS). They lean toward your brand but require more reasons to come back more often to buy more. They’re about the same size as the Soft Opposition and are essential for their ability to help move the Undecided – their buzz and behavior are the key to developing market momentum.

Finally, there’s the Hard Support (HS) on the far right. Though a small group, these are your loyalists and can be counted on not only for sales or votes but also for leading the cheering section. You just have to make sure you arm them with the most compelling messages that will help make their talk resonate with other key groups.

Communicate Inside/Out:

I’ve always (waaaay too often) heard, “don’t preach to the converted,” but preaching to the converted is what turns them into disciples and missionaries. Teach them your creed and the words to your hymns. Then march them out to convert the un-converted (move the movable). When I worked on the Coca-Cola brand for many years, I developed an important theme: “Move the system, the system will move the Coke.”

That meant making sure our marketing would motivate employees and their families, suppliers and their employees, bottlers and their employees, retailers who stack the Coca-Cola on their shelves, the restaurants and their employees who hand it out the drive-through window, the kids who carry it up to Row ZZ in the stadiums and the brand’s own Hard Support consumers. If those groups are moved and reinforced in their loyalty, they will move others with their demonstrative preference for the brand, their buzz to support it. This word-of-mouth communication from the HS and SS comprises the most credible and powerful channel of advertising on the planet.

Play Offense (Never Play Defense):

Most of us have accepted the need to control the dialogue in any election or market competition. What too many business and political leaders miss is that you must be actively a part of that dialogue if you want to shape it your way.

If you hope to shape the arguments in the campaign, your communications must be both relevant and different (after all, relevant differentiation is how you create value in any marketplace). Those messages must be meaningful to the lives of those you want to reach and move and must be different from the competition. That explains the rise of insurgent brands in commercial markets, and the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Most experts will say that Trump won because he effectively disrupted the campaign of his Republican and then Democrat opponents. What they miss is that Trump’s messaging was not only different, it was relevant to a majority of Americans – in fact, an overwhelming majority, many of whom still couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him, based on his often obnoxious personal style. 

We were contacted by one of the many 2020 candidates. “What are the issues you’re running on?” We asked.”

“No issues,” they replied. “We’re going to run a campaign like Donald Trump … all personality and disruptive tactics.”

It was easy to see Trump would be disruptive when he took on the lowly Rand Paul in the very first Republican primary debate in ’16. But the fact is that Trump waged the most clearly issue-focused campaign in memory – immigration, trade, foreign policy, taxes, economic opportunity and gun rights.

He was clear and consistent on these issues throughout the campaign and into the White House. I honesty can’t remember a candidate from either party (the independent Ross Perot came closest) running with such clarity on the issues (and then delivering on them like a contractor’s punch-list once elected).

Trump played offense throughout the campaign in driving the issues that became the total campaign dialogue. Immigration hadn’t been on anybody’s radar screen pre-Trump. He raised it because it was not only relevant to a hell of a lot of voters, but also because it showed the isolation of the elites and incompetence of the political establishment in D.C. Again and again, Trump dictated the terms and timing of the campaign debate. That’s what it means to play offense – you dictate the issues, the pace and the terms of the game. 

The only times he failed to play offense were the incomprehensible self-inflicted mistakes: attacking Judge Curiel after his big win in Wisconsin; going after the Gold Star Khan family after the flatter-than-a-pancake Democratic Convention; taking on Miss Puerto Rico; “Access Hollywood” (holy Moley!); and various think-skinned “counter-punches” for perceived slights, always “punching down.”

Use Change to Gain and Maintain Control of the Dialogue:

Your takeaway should be to play offense and never play defense. Control the dialogue and dictate the terms of the debate.

Your key tactic must be change. Use change to keep your opponents off balance. Use change to keep the voters/consumers awake to your campaign. Voters and consumers in America and all over the world love choice and change as a way of giving them a greater sense of control. When change is relevant and seems customized to their wants and needs, it’s all the better. 

If you make a mistake, you can control the damage and recast the debate by admitting it (which changes the dialogue – this is certainly not a Trump tactic) and turning the dialogue with more changes. When most companies get into trouble with an individual customer or with the world, their first reaction is to stonewall, shut up and hope the problem goes away. That just makes the problem worse – because silence communicates “inside/out” to important audiences, “we’re guilty”, or at the very least “we’re scared.” Both are unacceptable responses.

Celebrate Every Win:

Even the smallest victories and the shortest progress toward your ultimate goals should be recognized, rewarded and celebrated. Make sure to recognize the team, but don’t hesitate to recognize and reward individual achievement (as long as the measurements are objective and clearly on strategy). They aren’t burdened by expectations. They value and use speed and mobility to overcome size and scope (which act as ballast for the entrenched incumbents).

Speed wins in politics, business, sports and warfare – but, remember, discipline creates speed. Insurgents in any field have an attentive and receptive public (we love underdogs). 

And if you want to win, you’ll become one.


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