How to disrupt

How to disrupt

Being disruptive increases your brand value. But you can only define your approach to disruption once you have understood both the enemy and yourself.

The word “disruption” has echoed persistently throughout the business world ever since the 1990s, when its long-held negative connotations were flipped to become positive. In 1992, Jean Marie Dru coined the term “creative disruption”, setting out the blueprint for TBWA that still holds true today.

Later, in 1995, The Innovator’s Dilemma was published by Clayton Christensen, in which the idea of “disruptive innovation” was popularised. Fast forward to today and now everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences and disruption seminars. The University of Southern California even offers a degree in disruption.

No wonder, when analysis from Kantar’s BrandZ has shown that, over the past 12 years, brands that consumers perceive as being disruptive increased their brand value by 123%. For brands seen as being both creative and disruptive, brand value increased by 154%; and if the brands are seen to combine creativity and disruption with great advertising, then average brand values increased by 265%.

These findings are echoed in research released this year that leverages the IPA Databank, showing that brands can gain a competitive edge and achieve significant business outcomes by disrupting media behaviours.

The Databank figures suggest disruptions can provide brands with a “relative advantage” against their category and competitors, leading to a 9% increase in “very large” business effects. Additionally, the average return on marketing investment is reported to be around 500%.

Disruption might involve reaching underserved audiences, exploring new distribution channels overlooked by competitors or employing unconventional media channels for the category.

Triple-digit percentage increases are certainly a marketer’s dream. You may well be phoning your agency right now asking for some disruption. But being disruptive without proper strategic rigour can lead to chaos.

As such, it’s worth looking more closely at how TBWA’s “creative disruption” is developed around a three-stage system.

What are the conventions of the category?

As Sun Tzu said in The Art of War (essential reading for any strategist): “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The first step is therefore to assess the category you operate in and understand everything about the competition. What are the things that are taken for granted or the existing ways of doing things? What’s holding you back? What’s the status quo? What is the culture of the category? Which category entry points do the competition have stronger linkages with? What is the box you need to think outside of?

Only once you understand the conventions can you really disrupt them.

What is the brand vision?

Understanding the enemy is one half of the battle. The other half is understanding yourself.

This is where your brand onion or pyramid (or other such shape) comes into play — so what is your archetype or brand strategy that will guide how you should disrupt?

Many of you will be familiar with Carl Jung’s work on common personality archetypes that can be applied to brands; there are 12 of them and they help establish consistency and a way of behaving. Whether it’s “the creator” for Apple or “the innocent” for McDonald’s, they can act as a key part of establishing the “how”.

Or you could be a challenger brand, as popularised by Adam Morgan in his book Eating the Big Fish. More recently, Morgan has updated this approach into a practical set of books called Overthrow, which looks at the 10 challenger brand archetypes and the strategic principles and media behaviours they practise. There’s even a handy quiz so you can work out what type of challenger you are.

This isn’t just about understanding the present, though, it’s also about understanding emerging signals and future behaviours. At Hearts & Science, we call these forces of change.

These forces represent the undercurrents shaping society, technology, the environment and the global economy, and they have profound implications for how brands are perceived today and what they could represent in the future. By attuning to these signals, brands can proactively adapt, innovate and align their strategies to not just meet but anticipate the needs and expectations of their audiences.

The importance of identifying and interpreting these signals cannot be overstated. They serve as a compass for navigating the future. For brands, this knowledge is power — to innovate, to differentiate and to craft strategies that resonate deeply with their target audiences. But, more than anything, they provide the power to disrupt and create a vision for the future that is both aspirational and grounded in potential reality.

How can we disrupt the conventions with the vision?

Only once you have understood both the enemy and yourself can you really define your approach to disruption.

Disruption, as defined in the dictionary, denotes a disturbance, interruption or discontinuation. Originating from the Latin dis- (apart) and rumpere (to break), it vividly conveys the act of breaking or destroying. Disruption can also be used almost interchangeably — category disruption or creative disruption; sometimes it’s swapped with innovation; sometimes it’s swapped with challenger.

If you have distilled the conventions of the category and have a brand vision the business believes in, this is where a clear articulation of disruption becomes important. What it is and — crucially — what it isn’t.

Then everyone across the business and the agency partner needs to buy into this before each specialism and discipline can colour it accordingly.

From a media perspective, the most effective way to do this is to look at how you can disrupt the core building blocks of media strategy.

So, how can you disrupt your target audience approach? How can you disrupt the timing of activity? How can you disrupt your seasonality? How can you disrupt your channel strategy? And so on.

Needless to say, trying to disrupt everything all at once would be a recipe for disaster. There needs to be a hierarchy of disruption, aligned to testing and learning. The priorities will be different for every brand and should be established in the very first stage of the creative disruption process.

This structure, it turns out, can be simple. The hard bit is filling it in; but that’s for you to do now. So go forth and disrupt!

Three ways to disrupt in media

Target an audience underserved by the rest of the category: Don’t chase the whole market. Identify a specific audience underserved by existing brands. Focus your message and offerings on their unique needs and become their champion.

Identify new distribution channels to reach consumers neglected by competitors: Explore innovative ways to reach your target market, whether through unconventional partnerships, niche online communities or even entirely new delivery methods. Whatever you choose, move beyond the status quo.

Make use of media channels otherwise atypically used in the category: Stand out from the crowd by utilising media channels neglected by others — perhaps through emerging platforms, less obvious influencers or celebrities, or by creating disruptive content experiences that challenge traditional formats.

Simon Carr is chief strategy officer at Hearts & Science

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