Disruption as a branding discipline.

by John Furgurson on January 26, 2010

The word for the day is Disruption, with a capital D.

In our society there’s a stigma against all things deemed disruptive. When you’re in elementary school you learn to not be disruptive in class. Sit still in church and don’t disrupt the service. By the 6th grade it’s “don’t cause a scene or call attention to yourself. Don’t be different. Be the same.”

Write like everyone else. Dress like everyone else. Behave like everyone else and you’ll get along just fine.

That’s the message we got, and it’s the message our kids are getting. Loud and clear.

Maybe that’s why so many business owners and executives flee from the idea of disruption like a fox from a forest fire.

Jean Marie Dru, Chairman of the advertising conglomerate TBWA, has written two outstanding books about Disruption, but it’s still a hard sell. To most executives distruption is bad. Convention is good. And the results of this mentality are everywhere.

As Tom Peters says, “we live in a sea of similarity.” Social convention and human nature lead us into a trap of conformity where all websites have the same basic layout. All sedans look the same. All airlines feel the same. All travel ads sound the same.

And it works to some degree, because there’s comfort in conformity. (Vanilla still outsells all other flavors of ice cream.) But in the long run, conformity is the kiss of death for a brand.

Great brands do things that are disruptive. Rather than shying away from the word, the executives embrace the idea of disruption and they make it a part of their everyday operation. They consider it productive change.

But even when they succeed with disruptive products, disruptive technology and disruptive marketing campaigns, it’s tough to sustain.

When Chrysler first launched the Plymouth Voyager the Minivan was a groundbreaking idea that threw the auto industry into total disruption. It was a whole new category, and everyone scrambled to copy the market leader. Within five years, minivans were — you guessed it —  all the same.

There used to be a Television network that was radically disruptive. MTV launched hundreds of music careers and shaped an entire generation, and now where is it? Lost in a sea of mediocre sameness.

When they first burst onto the scene in the 80’s, the idea of a micro brewery was very disruptive. Now, in Oregon, there’s one in every neighborhood and they’re all the same. Good, but the same.

Successfully disruptive ideas don’t last because its human nature to copy what works. This process of imitation homogenizes the disruptive idea to the point where it’s no longer different. No longer disruptive.

So if you want to sustain a competitive advantage, you have to keep coming up with disruptive ideas. Not just incremental improvement on what’s always worked, but honest-to-goodness newness all the time.

Avatar is a disruptive movie that will surely spawn numerous knock-offs.

The name “Fuzzy Yellow Balls” is brilliantly disruptive in the on-line tennis market.

The American Family Life Assurance Company was utterly forgettable until they changed their name to AFLAC and launched a campaign featuring a quacking duck. In the insurance business, that’s disruptive!

According to an interview in the Harvard Business Review, AFLAC’s CEO Daniel Amos risked a million dollars on that silly duck campaign. Amos could have gone with an idea that tested incrementally better than the average insurance commercial, but he didn’t. He took a chance and went with the duck.  He chose disruption over convention, and everyone said he was nuts.

But it turned out to be radically successful.

The first day the duck aired AFLAC had more visits to their website than they had in the entire previous year. Name recognition improved 67% the first year. And most importantly, sales jumped 29%. After three years, sales had doubled.

AFLAC’s success was based on disruption in advertising and naming. But for many companies, there’s also an opportunity to stand out with disruptive strategy. In fact, Dru contends that breakthrough executions are not enough, and that the strategic stage demands imagination.

Here’s an example…  When Apple introduced the iPod, the strategy wasn’t just about the superior product design. It was about disrupting the conventions of the music business. It was about introducing the Apple brand to a whole new category of non-users and establishing Apple as the preferred platform for all your personal electronic needs. The release of the iPhone was the perfect extension of that strategy. And now, the Apple Tablet.

That’s good, disruptive strategy. And the beauty of it is, no other company is in the position to copy Apple’s strategy.

Of course Apple also has brilliant advertising, but you can get away with mediocre execution if your strategy is disruptive enough. And vice-versa…  if your execution is disruptive, you can get by with a me-too strategy.

But if you want to hit a real home run like Apple has, start with a brilliantly disruptive strategy and build on it with disruptive product and disruptive marketing execution.

It’s kind of ironic… In business, no one wants to cause a disruption, and yet they’re clamoring for good ideas. And good ideas ARE disruptive. They disrupt the way the synapses in the brain work. They break down our stereotypes and disrupt the business-as-usual mentality. That’s why we remember them.

Richard Branson said, “Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.”

Steinbeck once said, “It is the nature of man, as he grows old, to protect himself against change, particularly change for the better.”

Ask yourself this: What are you protecting yourself from? What are the conventions of your industry?  Why are are you maintaining the stats quo? What are the habits that are holding you back? Are you copying what’s good, or doing what’s new?

What are you doing to be disruptive?   Class dismissed.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Judy Shasek January 27, 2010 at 1:17 pm

Play on a computer using your feet while you stand on the mouse. I am launching that weird and disruptive concept. Just being disruptive isn’t enough. We also need to have a great quality product and fills a need – but YES! To get the first look disruption is important. Great article.

Andy Cingolani February 23, 2010 at 6:23 pm

Another thought: At what point do we become saturated with disruption. There are times I feel like we are all so much harder to impress with something new and disruptive than we were just a few years ago. We’ve been disrupted so many times that it’s no longer a unique experience. You mention Avatar, but I would contend that Toy Story was a lot more disruptive at it’s time, with much less to boast about, technologically. And this is why we aren’t as impressed with Avatar now. Maybe in today’s culture, to truly disrupt is to speak openly and honestly. Look to the Domino’s Pizza commercial where they admit to being bad, but not they’ve corrected the problem. Thanks for the post.

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