A Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And the Art of Battling Giants

… And What Brands Can Learn from his latest book

An edited version of this appeared in Advertising Age on October 23rd, 2013


Malcolm Gladwell made a valuable contribution to marketing with his book The Tipping Point, which got us to think about how brands catch fire and the power of influencers.  Remarkably, despite being published over 11 years ago, it still ranks #1 on Amazon’s best sellers list among advertising books, and #2 among marketing books.

So I was curious to review his latest effort, David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And the Art of Battling Giants [Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group] to see if this might evoke an epiphany for me in the business.  For those expecting a marketing textbook, they might be left wanting.  No such cases studies of how Hush Puppies shoes was able to become cool again.  In fact, I sense Gladwell has become too famous to pander to us simple marketing folks.  His book showed less research, rather many stories – dozens’ of stories from the far past to modern day.  Mostly, they are stories of everyday individuals who have overcome extraordinary disadvantages or adversity.  For example, David Boies, who became a brilliant attorney despite his dyslexia.  There was also an account on Wilma Derksen and how she dealt with the violent murder of her thirteen year old daughter.

As advertisers, we love stories.  We love them, because we remember them.  They cause us to identify with the message at a personal level.  And such is Gladwell’s craft of storytelling that they provide a persuasive medium to get his ideas across.

The story I was particularly drawn to was of Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian national working in Silicon Valley, who decided to coach his twelve year old daughter’s basketball team.  He grew up a fan of cricket and soccer, and didn’t know the rules of basketball.  The girls on the team were daughters of nerds and computer programmers and were often overmatched by opponents that were taller and who were much more schooled in basketball skills.  Yet he devised an unconventional strategy and an approach that took his daughters team to the national championships.  Gladwell described Ranadivé as “an underdog and misfit, which gave him the freedom to try things no one else had dreamed of.” 

So what can brands can learn from David And Goliath?


Changing the Shape of the Battle.

Playing by the same rules as the established brands is a losing proposition.  When Ranadivé’s daughter’s basketball team played their opposition’s game plan, they lost.  This was the lesson I took, when the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas needed to promote themselves against bigger, better known hotel properties.  Instead of competing with the noise, they created a sophisticated campaign for a sophisticated traveler promising a smaller more intimate experience.  The hotel continues to command some of the highest room rates on The Strip.  If you have the same strategy as another brand that’s outspending you 2-1, then you simply will lose.


The Act of Overwhelming Odds Produces Greatness and Beauty.

Being a David brand is so much about attitude.  Gladwell described how David Boies and Wilma Derksen talked about not accepting the inevitable.  So what if the establishment brands have bigger budgets, more resources and wider distribution.  Having judged at the Effie Awards, the campaigns that overcame the odds made the most compelling cases.  Sometimes the best ideas have come when our clients have challenged us to develop a media plan with no budget.   Dove’s global brand director, Fernando Machado briefed his agencies with exactly that task, out of which Dove’s Sketches campaign evolved.  (Oh, and by the way, they found budget to support it as so often clients do when confronted with great thinking.)


Substituting Speed and Surprise for Strength.

Bigger firms have scale over challenger companies.  But with scale, comes complexity in organizations to make decisions and act on them.  David brands can succeed by seeing opportunities early and gain an edge by securing them faster.   Urban Outfitters gained kudos for being the first major brand to employ Vine.  I’ve written in the past about Adaptive Marketing, and how marketers such as Interscope Records to Obama were able to move quicker to win in the marketing stakes.


Gladwell’s David and Goliath deserves to be on your bookshelf or Kindle library if only to remind you that success is so much more sweeter when beating the odds.




About Brand Media Strategy
This site is a resource for communications planners, brand marketers and media professionals. Brand Media Strategy [published by Advertising Age, Palgrave MacMillan] explains how brands today are employing advertising and media communication strategies to grow and build their brands. It explores the value of advertising in mass media; activation of digital media programs; and employing non-paid or non-traditional media vehicles. It's author is Antony Young, President of Water Cooler Group. A brand media communications company. http://www.watercoolergroup.biz

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