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Pssst... You’re an Underdog. Start Behaving Like One


We are now living in a world of underdog brands. Unless you're first-to-market with a truly novel compound, a clear path to market access and solid reimbursement, then winning without a differentiated marketing strategy is simply not possible, writes Bill Drummy.

One brand marketer I know actually said this out loud, “We don’t need marketing strategy; our products sell themselves. All we need is a sales force with good access and reimbursement and lots of repetition of our core messages.”

If that statement were ever true, it’s not anymore.   

Increasing competition in virtually every therapeutic category; movement to outcomes-based measurement; price pressure from payers; rising patient influence; and decreasing authority of individual physicians - all these factors add up to make succeeding in today’s market a high-risk enterprise, one where the traditional approach to sales and marketing is no longer enough to succeed for anyone except (possibly) the market leader. And yet, in almost every therapeutic category, we see competitors still playing “follow the leader” - applying the tried-and-true marketing and sales-rep centric playbook established by the market leader and hoping that - despite having fewer resources, smaller budgets, and lower market awareness - they can imitate their way to success.

But the reality is that we are now living in a world of Underdog brands. Meaning that unless you are first-to-market with a truly novel compound and a clear path to market access and solid reimbursement (a rare breed indeed), then winning without a differentiated marketing strategy is simply not possible. You can only succeed if you behave like the Underdog brand you are; that is, if you refuse to fight like the Top Dog, and instead take a distinctly different approach: an Underdog approach.  

In case you think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect (something I’ve been accused of before), let me make the point about the unimpeachable importance of Underdog strategy for Underdog brands, by drawing lessons from a world closely related to marketing.  

I mean, of course, the world of warfare - historically a good place for marketers to learn, whether it’s from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” or Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”  But in this case, I direct you to a much more contemporary but less famous source, Assistant Professor Ivan Arreguín-Toft, the author of “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” published in the journal International Security. For those unlucky few whose subscription to International Security may have lapsed, I will here summarize Mr. Arreguín-Toft’s findings.

Arreguín-Toft studied the outcomes of war over the last 200 years, and this is what he found: in conflicts where the stronger opponent and the weaker opponent followed a similar strategy, the stronger opponent won 78% of the time.  

No big surprise here, right? You would expect the contestant with the bigger army and deeper war chest to win. But, here’s the thing: in conflicts where the weaker opponent refused to follow the stronger opponent’s strategy - where he fought like a guerrilla or, in civilian terms, like an Underdog, the success rate was almost completely reversed: the weaker opponent won 63% of the time.

How can this be? How can the weaker opponent win most of the time? Well there are lots of factors, but the central one is this: the weaker opponent wins by rewriting the rules of conflict.

But back to the business of marketing life-saving medical products. When you think about marketing your brand when you’re an Underdog, you need to apply a mindset similar to that of those guerilla fighters; you must do what your stronger opponent will not or cannot do. Arreguín-Toft (and, after him, Malcolm Gladwell in his latest book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” where I first heard of “A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict”) points out that, despite the stronger opponent’s obvious advantages, they are also encumbered by not-so-obvious disadvantages that you can (you must) exploit.

•    The market leader is spoiled by too many resources and has a hard time committing to a single-minded strategy. The Underdog must practice discipline and focus on strategy, executing only those initiatives that have the greatest impact on the most important customers in the shortest time. In this environment, one must understand that choosing what not to do is as important as choosing what to do. 

•    The market leader has much to lose, so they are fearful of trying anything new. That means that you Mr. or Ms. Underdog, must be bold and deploy novel, “unproven” tactics.

•    The market leader is large and slow-moving; so you must be fast and nimble - get to market more quickly than the market leader can even imagine, and then run circles around him once you engage in battle.  

“Underdog Strategy” boils down to five key behaviors - focus, the discipline to make trade-offs, boldness, the use of unconventional tactics, and speed of execution. Deployed together, they provide a new game plan for success in today’s market.
For the classically trained marketers among us, an important point to note: Underdog Strategy is not really different than classical marketing strategy, as articulated by Michael Porter in his 1980 classic, “Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.” Underdog Strategy is classical marketing strategy applied to the specific market conditions the Underdog encounters.  

Underdog Rising: Lessons from the Consumer World

Consider this specific market condition (far outside of pharma, but illustrative of the value of Underdog thinking). You are a brand that has fallen into a deep ravine of irrelevance and you face two competitors that have (each in their own way) succeeded at taking mega-bites out of your market share for the last twenty years or so, primarily by establishing unique positions in the market and sticking to them consistently. I’m speaking of Kmart, which at one point back in the Reagan administration was a pioneer in the “big box” retail space. (Remember the “Blue Light Special”?) But in recent decades, both Walmart and Target had blown past Kmart, leaving the company a poor third, with low consumer affinity and declining sales.

Kmart realized they had become an Underdog brand and, finally, began to act like one. In 2013, the company launched an edgy ad campaign seeking to truly differentiate the brand from its top dog rivals. The most memorable spot, “Ship My Pants” uses an implied scatological misunderstanding to promote a key Kmart customer benefit. This spot (and the subsequent, slightly off-color campaign iterations, such as “Big Gas Savings” made Kmart feel relevant again to a new audience of consumers. The campaign started in social media, broke through, and then was expanded to mass-market TV. It earned 12 million views on YouTube in its first week and has since driven a spike in product searches, an important early indicator of changing buyer behavior. Kmart still has a long way to catch up to Target and Walmart, but at least they are moving in the right direction.

Click to watch “Ship My Pants”

Other Underdog campaigns have helped reinvent brands like GEICO, Old Spice, and Dos Equis. But of course, you will ask, can it be done in the regulated, conservative pharma industry?

Underdog Success in Pharma Marketing

I realize I’m speaking to an audience of critical pharma marketers, so declaring the wisdom of a marketing theory without proof points from our particular marketplace would be foolhardy. But I also accept (based on bitter experience) that we work in an industry where citing actual marketplace results will invoke the wrath of the confidentiality police. So I will attempt to solve this puzzle by unlocking two real-world examples of Underdog success (one from a small company, one from a very big one), describing each with as much detail as I can, without actually revealing the names of these cleverly marketed brands. (If you are clever enough to guess what they are, more power to you.)

From Product License to In-Market in 90 Days

In 2013, a scrappy biotech company acquired the rights to a CNS product that had failed to gain traction despite the significant efforts of its previous commercializer, a mega-pharma company with vast resources but also bottomless reservoirs of inertia. To make things just south of impossible, this small company needed to get the product in market with brand new promotional materials - in 90 days.  

The leaders of this “little company that could” really had no choice but to eschew conventional approaches and think and act differently than any of these veteran pharma marketers had ever behaved before. Market research and positioning were developed and tested in a matter of weeks; all materials (print, digital, patient education, sales support) were designed, approved, and produced over the course of nine weeks. The 90-day goal was achieved with an alacrity that our clients admitted shocked even themselves.

And the results? Within six months of taking over the marketing, the product had eclipsed the peak sales achieved by the previous marketer - with a fraction of the budget and with a sales force one third the size of their big pharma predecessor. Now two years past relaunch, the drug is continuing to achieve record weekly sales through a highly-focused marketing and sales strategy that makes each dollar work extraordinarily hard. And they continue to run rings around their competitors.

Teaching an Established Category New Tricks

It’s crucial to realize that the application of Underdog thinking to gain marketplace advantage is not confined to start-ups or small pharma. Indeed, in many categories we see six or more very large pharma players all jockeying for the same position. But even if your brand is in the portfolio of a very large company, unless you are the market leader, you are still, fundamentally, an Underdog. And breaking through requires bold Underdog thinking and behavior.  

In one such situation, a company was entering an extremely crowded market and battling entrenched competitors with overwhelming advantages. Eventually, they became convinced that imitation was the surest path to failure. So clever marketers from this esteemed company decided they needed to focus their efforts around a single-minded marketing strategy, one that locked on to a truly differentiated positioning in this sea of sameness and applied it consistently, despite objections from their sales reps, who wanted to tell doctors whatever sales story each doctor most wanted to hear, without any connection to a core strategy.  

It took discipline, it took focus, it took guts. It meant leaving something on the table. But as a result of making hard choices about what to do, the brand established a unique and compelling position in this hypercompetitive market.   They took market share from the leaders and, ironically, saw their larger competitors seeking to imitate the differentiated positioning established by the Underdog brand. (But we know what happens when you simply imitate someone else’s strategy - you become a slower-moving follower.)

Underdog Behavior: Five Simple, Hard Rules

As I said at the start, if you are a healthcare marketer you are also (almost certainly) an Underdog marketer. So let’s get very practical here. What do you do to win as an Underdog? The answer is simple to understand, but difficult to implement: you do as the successful marketers described above did - you behave like an Underdog.


1.    Focus: You uncover a truly differentiated strategic position.
2.    Trade-offs: You make consistent choices based on that strategy and actually say “no” to things that are not consistent with your Underdog strategy.
3.    Boldness: You present yourself more boldly with a creative campaign that takes risks and doesn’t look like anything else in the category.
4.    Unconventional Tactics: You deploy newer, supposedly “riskier” tactics that are in fact far less risky than it would be to imitate the market leaders’ tactics.
5.    Speed: You move faster than your competitors (faster than they think it’s even possible to move in this industry).

That’s how you can improve your odds of success from 22% to 67%, just as other famed marketers and warriors have learned over the past two centuries.  

Or, as one of the most successful revolutionaries in history explained at a pharma marketing summit in Asia some time ago:

In guerrilla warfare…avoid the solid, attack the hollow; deliver a lightning blow, seek a lightning decision. When guerrillas engage a stronger enemy, they withdraw when he advances; harass him when he stops; strike him when he is weary. In guerrilla strategy, the enemy’s rear, flanks, and other vulnerable spots are his vital points, and there he must be harassed, attacked, dispersed, exhausted, and annihilated.” - Mao Tse-tung

About the AuthorBill Drummy is Founder & CEO of Heartbeat Ideas and Heartbeat West and a member of Pharm Exec's Editorial Advisory Board.



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