Published in Jan-Feb 2021
We are living in the age of disruption, where competition among brands is stiff and challenging the status quo seems like a breakthrough. Every brand is bent on breaking the clutter by uncovering new insights to form deep and new connections with people. From brands with a cult following to those that entered the market and changed the way their categories are perceived, I have pondered over what gives some brands the power to not only take on giant competitors, but shape the future of the industries they operate in as well. There is a commonality in the way disruptor brands are marketed and in the proposition they make to their customers. Learning from these brands and applying their methods requires not only expertise in marketing but a strong business acumen that can drive success by developing the brand as a disruptor.
What is a Disruptor Brand?
Disruptor brands are those that take on an entire category by coming across as new and different. Their offering is positioned on the basis of innovation and is initially perceived as niche, gradually attracting mass audiences by appearing as the only one that can cater to their customers’ changing needs. Once customers are exposed to the offering of disruptive brands and realise their relevance, other players begin to be viewed as outdated. Brands like Airbnb, Netflix and Uber are the best examples of contemporary disruptors. They were based on the idea of new possibilities when they came into the market and did not aim to ‘challenge’ the status quo; rather, they proposed an evolution in customer behaviour – which caught on fast. Challenger brands, on the other hand, are focused on changing the conversation altogether and consciously downplay the competition’s offering. At a time when Facebook and Instagram were leading the social media scene, Snapchat entered with an entirely new format based on sharing photos and videos – in the form of stories. Needless to say, it was an instant hit. Other social media brands eventually caught on and now feature the story format to retain their audiences’ time and maintain relevance. Disruption took the social media world by storm yet again when TikTok entered the market and look where it is now.
Creativity and Innovation
Disruptor brands are built on the vision of making life easier and offer a different perspective to people in the way they interact within a category. Their popularity results in the decline of established business models because disruption breaks existing patterns by challenging the category’s status quo. Even if businesses do not have the potential to disrupt through their offering, some marketers will devise ways to change how customers perceive their product. These brands are the game changers of an industry and the flag bearers of progress in any category. They spot gaps in the market and develop better ways of delivering what customers want, while instilling new behaviour and bringing the positive effects of this change to the forefront. Although they may not be the first to do something sometimes, they usually make sure they are the best at it, while giving the perception that they are somehow ‘new’ or the only brand in the category that can give customers what they want – whether in terms of functional utility or emotional fulfilment.
Rethink. Reimagine. Reinvent.
To be disruptive, brands need to become the beacons of a brighter future. Many brands had the opportunity to ‘disrupt’ the market, but were either unable to position themselves to achieve disruption or were unable to explore the potential of what sets them apart. In other words, the USP needs to form the basis of the disruption. Business owners cannot rely on marketers to build brands as disruptors unless they offer something innovative to their customers. Brand disruption challenges our notions about how we approach business and brand building; it is not a marketing tactic but the bedrock underpinning the business and the brand belief. Integrating elements of disruption in a brand’s DNA is critical to a company’s success as a disruptor.
Start Small, Emerge Big
Instead of going mass market from the outset, disruptor brands should begin by focusing on audiences with high potential and target early adopters to build brand love and get the ball rolling. It is easier to change consumer behaviour in people who are receptive to change. By setting their sights on a core group of people who are frustrated with their major competitors, baseline utility and perception of the brand will be ensured, setting the stage for larger audiences in later stages of brand development. Increasing advocacy and building momentum in the change will require disruptor brands to dial up their aggressive stance, after which they can then go mass market using their core group of influencers as a testament to the effectiveness of their disruption. As the brand continues to grow, increased resources must be used to take on a challenger brand strategy that can overthrow the market leaders by positioning their competitors’ strengths as weaknesses in the face of the disruptor brand offering. However, achieving this status is only one battle. Disruptor brands are expected to bring innovation to the table constantly – either in the form of products/services or brand beliefs – and risk losing share if their pace slows down.
Consistency in Differentiation
Developing a disruptor brand is a challenging task, but maintaining its perception as a disruptor is the real deal. The reason these brands are hailed as successful is because they establish themselves as thought leaders in the categories they operate in. Strong disruptor brands are constantly challenging the status quo by moving to the next big thing. While they disrupt in the present, their focus is on the future. Their vision is what drives their success.
Brace for Impact
Disruptor brands are not only building themselves up as future market leaders, they also develop the category further. This means that the Goliaths these brands take on will not hold back on following in their footsteps to maintain relevancy and avoid becoming obsolete. Although not the first to launch touchscreen phones, when Apple launched the iPhone, it overthrew the popular cell phones of that time and developed a niche for their phones, raising the bar for user experience and forcing other mobile phone manufacturers to follow suit. Today, the market is highly competitive with disruption transcending the borders of simple product innovation. The same thing happened when Uber entered the market – conventional taxi-hailing was replaced with app-based ride-hailing and other players entered the market with similar offerings. Today, Uber are not just a ride-hailing service, they have expanded in order to maintain relevance and retain their disruptor status. When Careem launched in Pakistan, similar start-ups followed suit and thus began a race for disruption, with each player introducing something new to cater to changing consumer needs.
Disruptor brands are the leaders of tomorrow, working to create a new market that eventually transforms the existing market, something that cannot be achieved without creativity and innovation every step of the way. In building a disruptor brand, long standing obstacles need to be eliminated to provide solutions of higher perceived value that enhance the lives of people and gives them the confidence to put their trust in disruptor brands.
In building your brand as a disruptor, here are five steps to consider: Identify how your brand fulfils the criteria to disrupt the category. Devise a strategy to change the way consumers view or interact with the category by identifying and leveraging hidden consumer insights and behaviour. Introduce the disruption to the low-hanging fruit aka early adopters. Use the trust of the early adopters to introduce this disruption in early mass audiences. In the process, reposition the way consumers look at your competition and finally, slowly and steadily (it usually takes years), achieve brand leadership status.
Muhammad Ali Khan is Associate Director Creative & Strategy, Spectrum VMLY&R. He also teaches in the Masters of Advertising program at SZABIST-Karachi.