Doing Well vs. Doing Good

New research looks at the consumer psychology behind favoring the underdog.

Posted Jan 06, 2017

by Rebecca Hamilton, Amna Kirmani and Debora Thompson

Source: ArtsyBee/Pixabay

When you are first getting to know someone, are cues about their competence or their morality more important? Extensive research in psychology shows that when we evaluate other people or groups, we care more about morality than we do about competence. For example, psychologist Bogdan Wojciszke’s work shows that given a choice between interacting with someone who is a “sinful success” or a “virtuous failure,” most of us prefer the virtuous failure who has good intentions but is less successful. This makes sense when evaluating someone as a potential friend, romantic partner or even a co-worker.

Yet, when hiring a service provider, such as an accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic, we need this service provider to help us accomplish goals such as submitting tax forms, buying a house, or getting a car repaired. Having these goals in mind increases the importance of competence. In new research to be published in the Journal of Marketing, we find that self-interest drives consumers to choose more competent service providers who have engaged in immoral behavior (such as cheating on an expense account) even though they don’t like these service providers as much as highly moral but less competent providers. This was a disappointing conclusion until we found a way to reverse the effect: consumers were more likely to choose the moral service provider when they felt empathy for them, such as when the accountant or real estate agent was described as an underdog: passionate and determined but with limited resources.

Clearly, both competence and morality are important to consumers. When we analyzed reviews of five different types of service providers (doctors, hair stylists, house cleaners, mechanics, and masseuses), we discovered that reviewers mentioned the competence of the provider in 88 percent of the reviews and morality in 18 percent. Reviews were also rated by other consumers as more useful when they mentioned competence or morality than when they mentioned other traits such as the provider’s friendliness.   

How can service providers who are not as well known for their competence – perhaps because they are small companies or startups, or because they are not-for-profits – increase the likelihood that consumers choose them? One way to increase market share is to highlight their underdog status.

But, playing the underdog card does not help all companies and service providers equally. Although describing themselves as an underdog helps moral service providers overcome deficits in perceived competence, we find that it does not help more competent service providers overcome deficits in morality. In one study, modeled after the TV show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” participants earned 50 cents for each trivia question they answered correctly. They were offered two lifelines to help them: a competent lifeline with a higher success rate who had engaged in immoral behavior – and a moral lifeline who was morally upstanding but had a lower success rate. Most participants (64%) chose the competent lifeline when neither lifeline was described as an underdog. However, when the moral lifeline was an underdog “from a poor family” who has “a true passion for learning,” participants were more likely to choose the moral lifeline (73%) than the competent lifeline. Using the same words to describe the competent lifeline as an underdog did not make participants more likely to choose him.

Thus, for marketers looking for consumer psychology tactics, underdog positioning is likely to be particularly effective for brands known for being moral (i.e., honest, socially conscious, organic, or green). Indeed, in the marketplace we see that brands that emphasize their underdog roots, such as Nantucket Nectars, Ben & Jerry's, Burt's Bees and Chipotle, often seem to also play up their health, social consciousness or environmental consciousness, a successful positioning strategy for new businesses and non-profits to consider to stand out from their larger competition.

Rebecca W. Hamilton, Michael G. and Robin Psaros Chair of Business Administration at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business; Amna Kirmani, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business; and Debora V. Thompson, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, are co-authors of “Doing Well vs. Doing Good: The Differential Effect of Underdog Positioning on Moral and Competent Service Providers,” forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing.