Disruption Only Takes Brands So Far

Being a disruptor has long been a goal for many creative ad agencies and marketing firms. They seek to attract companies and brands that need help in standing out amid proliferating competitors and trendy start-ups. Marketing or brand disruption can help such brands push back… but the real disruption remains on the side of the trendy start-ups.

For agency creatives, disruption means coming up with an idea so engaging that it resets a category or competitive balance. Disruption changes customer perceptions, altering how people think about products or services… until some other agency comes up with a new disruptive idea to reset the category again.

Although the advertising industry is now very focused on disruption as an objective, there is debate about the value of grabbing attention vs. engaging over a longer term. Not every product or service requires disruption. Agencies must ask what is offered to customers that will make their lives easier, fill a need, or position them for greater success. If a disruptive campaign does not address any of the above, it should not be part of the creative brief.

Luck or Research?

Brand marketers tend to believe that they have achieved disruption whenever their brand breaks through. But often, a change in consumer behavior that happens to sync with a brand’s timing truly disrupts a category, with the marketing campaign tagging along. Yes, good research tips some agencies toward exploiting changing trends, but luck certainly plays into the mix.

After the 2008-09 recession, consumers became extremely frugal. Generic brands rose to greater prominence as shoppers sought products that would stretch their budgets. Since the recovery, many shoppers have not returned to premium brands; they discovered the generic products worked just fine. Now big brands are increasing their marketing efforts to regain customers who abandoned their products for generics.

Elsewhere, the locavore movement exploited a timely disruption of both the restaurant industry and the grocery business, especially in the consumer packaged goods category. Just as people started seeking ways to be more environmentally conscious, steering away from imported foods to support local growers, and reducing intake of chemical preservatives and additives, internet start-ups like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh caught the wave with ready-to-make meals and seasonal grocery offerings. The locavore trend also shifted consumers from chain eating establishments to newer options, including Panera Bread and Chipotle Grill, focused on fresher, healthier fare in smaller portions.

As attractive as these services sound, they’re not perfect. Some substitute ingredients, or fail to include them; others fail to portion out ingredients for the promised convenience; still others simply have average food at a high price. While these companies are riding a disruptive trend, they aren’t necessarily delivering a reliably good experience. If your promise is easy, convenient and healthy, and you drop the ball on any of those claims, customers aren’t going to flock back for another go.

When the Familiar Is Preferable

People lean to the familiar, trusted and reliable… the well known, vs. unknown outliers and category changers. The latter tend to come and go, or are quickly lost in a sea of desperate and opportunistic imitators. The former are here to stay, and simply keep delivering the good, trustworthy stuff their customers stick with for the long-term.

Disruption simply may not be the best tactic for the brand… nor for its customers. Seeking to always be disruptive should not be a priority. Instead, the brief should identify the problem and propose appropriate strategies leading to a solution. Sometimes, that may include disruption. But disruption for disruption’s sake may complicate customer-brand relationships, creating unanticipated (and unwanted) changes in perception.

If your agency marketing and branding includes the claim of disruption as a leading skill set, make sure the prospects and clients you serve need disruption. Be clear that your exploration and development of the creative brief will focus on stated objectives… and that disruption may not be part of meeting that objective. It’s our job as marketing consultants to guide clients to tactics and strategies that deliver on the brand promise and build loyalty and repurchase among customers. Knowing when to offer safety and familiarity versus disruption can mean the difference between growing a brand, and upending it.

Disrupt with care.


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