Throughout history, time and again, the underdog has seized victory from the jaws of defeat. In Biblical times, the bookies made Goliath an odds-on favorite over David, but we know how that contest turned out. From Truman’s upset over Dewey in 1948 to the Outback Steakhouse victory over the big casual-theme restaurants that stunned the foodservice world, underdogs have been turning preconceived notions upside down throughout history.

But these victories were not flukes. They were the result of careful preparation. Outback orchestrated its win by building an indomitable force from within its four walls. Every merchandising zone inside the restaurant became a potent marketing weapon loaded with points of persuasion. Outback gave each of its general managers equity ownership in their own stores, generating an esprit d’corps that turned Outback’s internal customers into fierce warriors whose only mission was to vanquish their foes by dazzling their guests. People thought Outback was just another steakhouse with no guarantee of victory. But the owners knew what nobody else knew—that they would win.

Underdog Marketing is so basic that it can’t be considered a discipline that’s separate from neighborhood marketing. It’s the whole business seen from the point of view of its final result—that is, from the customer’s perspective. It is a business philosophy, a management discipline for running a business with one prime objective: to satisfy the needs of the customer. I’ve developed 35 principles of Underdog Marketing to serve as a guiding philosophy for success. Here, I’ve condensed them down to 20 principles, and I invite you to peruse the complete list in PMQ’s digital edition at

It’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters; it’s the size of the fight in the dog. If the Underdogs want to run with the Big Dogs, they must get off the porch and have the discipline to prepare. Feisty and independent by nature, they can make up for their smaller size by becoming fiercely aggressive and highly disciplined, especially when defending their home territory.

Underdog Marketers look, act and feel like leaders. They cast a larger-than-life shadow across the path of the nearest Big Dogs and watch them shrink. If the Underdog can project the image of a Big Dog, everyone will soon be pointing to him as the Big Dog instead of the other guy.

Underdog Marketers are Olympic thinkers who settle for nothing less than gold-medal results. They will not accept second-place finishes. They don’t make excuses and, to them, mediocrity is a dirty word. They know they cannot achieve a world-record performance unless they set their standards far higher than anyone else’s.

Underdog Marketers don’t mourn the death of mass marketing; they celebrate it. They pronounced mass marketing dead long before the competition realized it was ailing. While these competitors keep blasting away at the market with everything in the Madison Avenue arsenal, Underdog Marketers are conquering their own neighborhoods and winning the war.

Underdog Marketers know the power of persuasion begins in their places of business. Realizing that their restaurant is the most powerful selling tool of all, Underdogs use every inch of their property to convey important messages to the thousands of customers who flock through their doors. From the exterior signage to the four walls inside, they divide the restaurant into persuasive merchandising zones. They never miss an opportunity to tell guests what makes their pizzeria special.

Underdog Marketers use their forces wisely. They have the wisdom to fight the battle where they can best win the war—within their four walls and in their own neighborhoods. They know that there are only four ways for sales increases to explode the top line: bringing in new customers; attracting more repeat purchases; raising check averages; and increasing party size. These sales targets are the focal point for the Underdog’s prime marketing objectives.

Using eyecatching graphics and bright colors, Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Lupi’s features several merchandising zones throughout its property. (photo by Tom Maynard)


Underdog Marketers know that what’s right at home is what’s best. They spend at least 60% of their marketing dollars at home, within the four walls of their pizzeria. They take control of their four walls and their message centers or zones to create messages that zero in on the minds of their best customers, turning the zones into point-of-persuasion money machines. Underdog Marketers don’t have to begin comparing drive time and weekend insert costs before announcing that they’ve added flatbreads or a new line of local craft beers to their menu. Their message centers—including table promotions, tent cards, posters and menus—will convey these messages first.

Underdogs use “trickle-down marketing” in reverse. They know how quick and easy it is for the entrepreneur to put a new idea to work compared to Big Dog marketers, who must start with big ideas that cost big bucks, then rush to justify the expense. Working from the bottom up, Underdogs expand their marketing effort by taking small steps first, then lengthening their stride until they’re at full speed and on their way to accomplishing their goals. Meanwhile, the Big Dogs continue to develop their strategies while gazing downward from Mt. Olympus, hopelessly out of touch with the local marketplace.

“From exterior signage to the four walls inside, Underdog Marketers use every inch of their properties to convey important messages to the thousands of customers who flock through their doors.”

Underdogs may not bark the loudest, but they bark more often. They target their audiences with more personalized communications compared to the Big Dog’s broad-based messages.

Underdogs conceptualize their battle plan. Whenever they think of a new promotion, menu item or service, they first recognize the value of their own property. Underdog Marketers put their advantages to work by devising an overall marketing strategy that starts within the zones of their four walls and property line before extending themselves into the neighborhood.

Underdog Marketers know that four-walls marketing begins with the people who share their foxholes. Their programs don’t start with a thousand fliers in Walmart’s parking lot; they begin with the pizzeria’s employees. They energize their staff by keeping them focused on the strategies that keep customers coming back and by exploring new opportunities. In return, they are rewarded with their employees’ loyalty.

Underdog Marketers know there is a secret marketing revolution going on. Expensive advertising campaigns may dazzle and distract. Underdog Marketers, however, quietly sneak up on their competitors. Without fanfare, they identify the best prospects and customers by name and address and gain their deep loyalty through direct communication. They do not treat a loyalty program as a mere add-on; building a highly loyal customer base is an integral component of their business strategy. They know that building one-on-one relationships will make them the customers’ first choice when deciding where to spend their food dollars. It’s much easier to bring in current customers 10% more often than it is to increase new visits by 10%.

Underdog Marketers know that the ability to sustain a large base of loyal customers is a powerful key to the success of the pizzeria. They know that loyal customers are the marketing apostles who spread the good word about their pizzeria. A 5% increase in customer loyalty can produce double-digit profit increases. Word-of-mouth, still the most effective form of advertising, can generate exponential numbers of new customers!

Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge, located in Stowe, Vermont, uses its outdoor signage to describe its various offerings, including pizza by the slice, wi-fi, live bands and delivery. (photo courtesy Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge)


Big Dogs with deep pockets can generally win a war of attrition. Unless the Underdog can sell what the Big Dogs sell for less, he should not challenge the Big Dog to a price war; that simply puts the fight on the Big Dog’s terms. Even the most persistent Underdogs know they cannot match the Big Dog’s bankrolls. So, to put the odds in their favor, they keep backyard battles manageable. The Big Dog’s standardized price structure provides a foundation based upon which a service-savvy or quality-obsessed Underdog Marketer can charge a premium. The Underdog’s best effort will always outstrip that of the Big Dog’s because the Big Dogs are tied down by limitations and procedures dictated by chain-wide red tape. Unlike the Big Dogs, Underdogs are free to take their best shot whenever it serves their interests.

Practice “corporate judo” when challenging a leader. Underdogs think smart (and get the most for their buck) by out-maneuvering the Big Dogs in every way they can, from promotional events to the purchase of product lines. If the Big Dog offers a coupon for $1, the Underdog Marketer should make his coupon worth $2. If the Big Dog offers free dessert for birthdays, the Underdog should offer a free cheese pizza. Always embarrass the Big Dog by turning his weight and size against him; then out-deliver him with product excellence and friendly service that he cannot hope to match.

An Underdog counteroffensive is doubly offensive to Big Dogs. Big Dogs don’t want to become increasingly involved with the Underdog’s counteroffensive tactics, but these tactics will win the Underdog many allies. The public loves a good fight. Brand yourself effectively as the Underdog, and the public—as well as the media—will be more likely to take your side. Everyone loves the Underdog!

Underdog Marketers make innovation, service, pricing or quality their strongest attribute. Once the Underdogs make their choices, they stake their reputations on it. They never pass up the opportunity to tell the public why they are the very best pizza makers in the area.

Getting your share of stomach means elevating products and service over the Big Dogs. Underdogs know what they’re best at: quality of food, service and know-how. They get on top because Big Dogs tend to sleep a lot, miss much and haven’t yet figured out how to motivate their staff to match the loyalty the Underdog commands among his employees. It’s the point upon which a battle often turns.

Underdog Marketers create a distinctive personality. They are youthful, hip, and often a bit irreverent. They bark a lot and keep clamoring for attention. Brash personalities are always more engaging and memorable than those that you’d find inside corporate boardrooms. A bright and energetic attitude is what the public expects but seldom finds in a typical chain operation. Underdogs create a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and let prospects in their area know about that USP at every opportunity. The Underdog’s USP is the reason customers should eat at his pizzeria rather than the competitor’s. The USP becomes the badge that Underdogs place on all of their marketing messages. This may be higher quality, better service, customization, lower price or a combination of all of these things. The USP tells the Underdog’s customers—and the world—why the Underdog’s pizzeria is the only pizzeria for them!

Underdog Marketers practice transcendental marketing. They know that human desire transcends time, language and culture. Since the beginning of time, people have desired health, happiness, status, security, beauty and prosperity. The specifics of these desired qualities may change in different areas and times, but the basic desire transcends all. Underdog Marketers make sure all of their marketing speaks to these basic human desires.

Tom Feltenstein is a restaurant marketing consultant and the CEO/Founder of Tom Feltenstein’s Power Marketing Academy.

To read an expanded version of this article, “35 Principles of Underdog Marketing”, check out our digital edition at