The Power of a Brand’s Shadow

Brands that stand tall for something have many advantages, the most important of which is a strong emotional connection with their audiences. However brands that garner the spotlight also cast a significant shadow, a dark side that can be attacked by competitors for their own gain. Underdogs can use the shadow of established brands to gain traction. Established brands can undermine those same underdogs by calling attention to their shadows and going on the offense by dulling the outlines of their own motivational shadow before another brand attacks.

An Underdog’s Approach

Whether in sports or in business, Americans love an underdog. We root for those who disrupt a category or who bring a fresh option to a predictable industry, but it takes time for a brand to establish a clear emotional position in the minds of consumers. While gaining their own emotional footing in a category, emerging brands can use the shadow of competitive brands to establish themselves in a competitive marketplace.

Audi is a great example of this. Despite being part of the American market for decades, Audi had never established its emotional footing in the luxury segment. With a host of new models ready for launch in the coming years, Audi began in 2010 to caricaturize the stalwarts in the luxury car category. After understanding the emotional appeal of BMW, Mercedes and Lexus, Audi and its agency went about attacking the shadows each of these brands cast.

BMW stands as a “Hero” brand with its emotional appeal grounded in feeling accomplished. BMW drivers want a vehicle that performs as well as its owner does, a promise that “The Ultimate Driving Machine” makes. However the emotional shadow that the brand casts is that BMW drivers are overcompensating for something. People often mock BMW drivers, like this poster from who wrote, “your BMWs not on the autobahn and won’t ever be on the autobahn so cool it over there…what the hell are you guys trying to prove anyway cause we all know it isn’t just about your cars acceleration?”

Mercedes embodies the “Ruler” brand that feeds on feeling important. Their drivers want to be part of an exclusive group and enjoy announcing their status to the world. This emotional appeal casts a long shadow that can generously be described as ‘pompous corporate jackass.’ “if the goal was to tell everyone know you belong to two different private clubs, climbed the company ladder and have never done a single interesting thing in your life, then sure a Mercedes is the car for you!” wrote on poster on

Lexus is all about making their drivers feel responsible, delivering something reliable and trustworthy. The Lexus shadow makes the brand appear offensively boring, predictable and suburban-safe. Audi masterfully personified these brand shadows over the course of the past five years as it worked to define itself by what the brand wasn’t rather than what it was. Using competitor emotional shadows to highlight the caricatures among brands in the luxury automotive category, Audi was able to gain traction in the space at a much quicker rate than they had in any previous decade.

Here are examples of ads that emphasized the brand shadow that can be embedded in the post.



We’ve seen clients effectively attack competitors for their motivational shadows in industries ranging from apparel to technology, but that doesn’t mean that caricaturizing shadows is the best approach for every category. Even in the automotive space, we’ve seen that what works for one segment doesn’t work for another.

Another automotive client partnered with LRWMotiveQuest to understand if a particular vehicle segment would be open to messaging that caricatured its competitors. LRWMotiveQuest’s analysis showed that while brand shadows existed in the category, owners were happy when people joined the vehicle segment regardless of the model they purchased. Personifying brand shadows in this vehicle segment would not be a message embraced by the community. While this approach works in some car segments – like luxury vehicles – it doesn’t work in all.

Any brand in the spotlight casts a shadow. Understanding the shadow’s outline helps brands attack challengers or proactively defends themselves from the slings and arrows of competitors.

Do you know the impact of your brand shadow?