5 Underdog Brands who Turned the Tables with Clever Marketing

5 Underdog Brands who Turned the Tables with Clever Marketing

How do you create killer campaigns when your products are high-quality, great value and… just not that sexy? Here are 5 brands who used smart marketing to become unexpected heroes.

1. Skoda: owning a bad reputation is the best way to bury it

In the late 20th century, Skoda was a byword for poor-quality vehicles nobody wanted to be seen driving. The Czech brand pulled a remarkable volte-face when it was acquired by VW and began producing high-quality vehicles at low prices. But it wasn’t just improved products that made it a phoenix of brand success.

The 2000-era ‘It’s a Skoda, honest’ campaign met the slurs head-on, boldly admitting to its not-so-flattering reputation and challenging viewers to discover how things had changed. Coupling head-turning visuals of its cars with the surprise of a Skoda logo created mystery as well as humour. Today, the brand routinely takes home a boat-load of ‘best car’ awards each year and sells in over 100 markets.

2. ALDI: from discount depot to sensible supermarket

Once known as the place to go for bargain groceries and a rather depressing atmosphere, ALDI has transformed its brand image during the late 2010s, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis. Historically ALDI’s focus had been on price, with customer service, store environment and product range all taking lower priority.

While its fresh and packaged foods are still among the cheapest around, ALDI has shifted its messaging towards product quality and ethical sourcing, hot topics for the more affluent customer base who are now choosing it above the Big Four supermarkets. The ‘Everyday Amazing’ campaign messaging paints ALDI as the logical choice for quality produce, and the customers of more upmarket supermarkets as old-fashioned and un-savvy.

3. Squatty Potty: weird, wacky, taboo-busting viral success

While not exactly boring, Squatty Potty’s toilet accessory is far from glamorous, and its purpose too delicate a subject for a straightforward by-the-numbers marketing approach. The solution? Go all out with a psychedelic video campaign starring a wacky but scientifically knowledgeable fairytale prince and a unicorn that poops ice-cream.

Squatty Potty used a 3-minute informative video (which has garnered 34 million views I might add) to explain the benefits of its product while keeping viewers engaged with edgy humour and surreal language and imagery. Naturally, its videos went viral and were widely shared by bemused and amused viewers alike. Bizarre marketing and a solid, scientifically backed product were a well-balanced combination here.

4. Yellow Pages: using emotive stories to bring out product benefits

A list of phone numbers in a big book… it doesn’t get much drier. But Yellow Pages was an early adopter of the storytelling marketing trend, rolling out its legendary ‘J.R. Hartley’ ad in 1983.

The ad, and the many that followed its format, showed a seemingly-unremarkable product taking centre stage in a moving human story. By placing a utilitarian item at the heart of a narrative, Yellow Pages were able to amplify its value and generate warm associations with the brand that have lasted decades, despite the seismic shifts in telecommunications making the landline phone all but obsolete. 

5. Post-It: showing value and versatility with customer stories

3-M, the inventive company behind the Post-It note, decided to market their product’s value by handing the microphone to its users. ‘Go Ahead’ was a US campaign fuelled by user-generated content and listening data.

It focused on the ways its products can enhance work, creativity, relationships and daily life. The brand made a conscious choice to move away from utility and features, like adhesive quality or colour, and towards the benefits users achieve by combining the humble Post-it note and their own imaginations. Empowering the consumer and inspiring creativity and invention is a powerful association for this unassuming square of sticky paper.

What can you learn from the underdogs?

So what do all of these stories have in common? Despite the potential negatives, each brand has created a positive and inspiring campaign.

  • Listen, learn and respond

All these campaigns are grounded in listening to what people are really saying. There’s the good, like Post-It’s celebration of customers’ different ways of using its product, and the bad, like Skoda’s past reputation. Customer sentiment towards a brand, positive and negative, is the insight powering each of the campaigns.

  • Give creatives a long leash

For Yellow Pages and Post-It, lateral thinking and a creative exploration of the stories around a product have been used to develop campaigns that bring their value into focus. A creative-led approach like this requires free reign for creatives to find the hook that will embed their message in a memorable way.

  • Move beyond your context

These brands have challenged themselves to break the boundaries of their contextual setting and make a leap for new ground. There’s none of the ‘me too’ mindset that creates similar campaigns across a product category. Each of these examples is disruptive in its own way.

  • Use humour to soften challenging ideas

Skoda’s ‘It’s a Skoda, honest’ challenges viewers in a way that could be confrontational if it weren’t for the humorous delivery. ALDI adds just enough tongue-in-cheek not to make us feel called out for being grocery snobs. For Squatty Potty, plunging into a psychedelic fantasy world with a good dose of humour is the way to get around a potential embarrassment factor.

At the tree, we have extensive experience turning complex brand challenges into success stories. If you’re brave enough to put your head above the parapet with a campaign that breaks the rules, we’d love to hear from you!