Do you really want to disrupt me? Why ‘disruption’ is a misused and often unhelpful term

Today a hundred marketing or innovation discussions will happen and many of them will include the word ‘disruption’. But often the term ‘disruption’ is misused – in fact misused in a way that undermines the ambition.

Over the years in many categories, leading brands emerged and amassed significant market share. Until comparatively recently, these giants seemed unassailable – certainly in the eyes of would-be entrants. But today, the businesses growing their share are often smaller players or private label – often considered disruptive.
But let’s be clear. Disruptive describes commercial impact – and often on the bigger players. In terms of consumer behaviour, they are often far from disruptive – and that is often the key to their success.
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Humans are creatures of habit. A growing body of work challenges the notion that you first need to change someone’s attitude or motivation before you can change their buying behaviour. In fact, most buying decisions are made without active thinking, many are post-rationalised and certainly the power of habit is often underestimated.
It is easier to change a consumer’s habits by attaching your brand to existing behaviours or expectations, or substituting the new habit for an old one. This is where limiting disruption can lead to disruptive results.
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Totally Wicked is a fast-growing vaping brand. Vaping is often – though not exclusively – used by smokers to replace cigarettes. As well as substituting one habit (smoking) for another similar behaviour (vaping); the marketing mix facilitates the switch. For example, prices are comparable to a packet of cigarettes and packaging uses many of the visual codes of cigarette packaging.
Own label snacks – OL products nearly always borrow the packaging and visual cues of the brand leader. The proposition is very simple to understand: comparable product quality, but lower priced.
Graze helped develop the healthy snacks category, initially selling exclusively via a D2C online model. They later went into supermarkets and the format became mass market. Tesco and M&S have both recently introduced healthy snacks (nut and seed mixes) in shallow plastic trays, choosing to adopt the category rules to make the switch to private label as smooth as possible.
Starling Bank – one of a new breed of so-called fintech challengers, Starling is an app-only bank account, similar to Monzo. If you’re Barclays or Lloyds and have an army of staff and branches, then these new players feel hugely disruptive. But I’d argue what they have operationally done is far from revolutionary.
Instead they have used sharp consumer insights to tackle the pain points people experience with traditional banking. The experience has been designed around reducing friction, not disrupting (although that could be the commercial outcome).
Monzo is another ‘challenger bank’ – it’s opened over a million current accounts (Starling’s customer base is currently around 300,000).
In both apps it takes 5 minutes on apps to open a fully-operational account using electronic verification; you automatically see your spending categorised by type; you click a button in the app to suspend a misplaced debit card and click again when its found.
Most features are simply making call centre tech available directly to customers through a friendly interface. But the impact on the banking industry is truly disruptive – between them Starling and Monzo have opened around 1.3m accounts already (that’s a bigger figure than the total number of current account switches that happen between all UK banks every year).
So, the next time disruption is mentioned, make sure it’s a statement of commercial ambition, not require unrealistic behavioural changes by consumers. Statements of ambition are great, but of course there’s a lot of heavy-lifting required – from insight to execution – before any disruptive results are achieved.

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