Secret Marketer: Brands need to adopt the mentality of a disruptor in order to keep their business fresh

Businesses are constantly open to the threat of disruption so rather than wait to be disrupted, why not do it yourself?

I had to give a talk to the rest of the management team about potential threats from disruption. Coincidentally, Marketing Week published an issue with the headline ‘The Disruptors’ that same day. The editorial pointed out that “disruptors have become the template for success”. Not dissimilar, in some respects, from our management team looking to see what we can learn, as a business, about disruption.

READ MORE: From disruption to domination – The three lessons for long-term success

One of my tasks was to differentiate ‘disruption’ from ‘innovation’. Disruption has been bandied about indiscriminately. Any new business or product is heralded as disruptive to lend it credibility with PR and investors. However, there is a distinction between innovation and disruption: the endgame of the former is not to disrupt existing businesses, it’s to create new value for customers.

This definition of disruption by Professor David Rogers at Columbia Business School is helpful: “Disruption happens when an existing industry faces a challenge that offers far greater value to the customer in a way that existing firms cannot compete with directly”. He says innovation is confused with disruption, pointing out that self-driving cars will radically alter the experience of driving, but without undermining the car industry.

I wanted to get across to the team that the real meaning of disruption is when a new product enters a new market with a new value proposition. When British Airways uses the ‘Know Me’ programme to offer a more personalised service, other airlines may aim to do the same. But disruption is different. The disruptor meets a customer need with a product, service or business that existing companies do not, and cannot offer. Think Airbnb versus the hotel industry.

READ MORE: 100 Disruptive Brands

This sounds similar to one of the basics tenets of marketing: the concept of ‘Marketing Myopia’. This term was first used in 1960 by Harvard lecturer Theodore Levitt. His thesis is that businesses should focus on meeting customers’ needs rather than selling products. Maybe not radical today, but this was 1960: knowing what business you are in means that you don’t fall into the trap of not recognising the value that the product provides.

The biggest problem is knowing how we’re going to be disrupted. This is more difficult to work out when we are cranking out the cash with the existing business model. Kodak designed and built the digital camera. It also built the first ever consumer digital camera on behalf of Apple – Apple QuickTake – in 1994, but Kodak would not put its name on it, as it believed it was in the film manufacturing business.

The question remains: who is going to drive an arrow in the heart of our business? Somebody will disrupt us so it might as well be us.


Find out about redefining customer experience to compete in disrupted markets at the Festival of Marketing, which is running on the 5 and 6 October at Tobacco Dock, London. For more information about the event, including how to book tickets, click here.

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