Learn how brands use disruption and win

Nowadays, it’s all about disruption which has become the new template for success. Being different and doing things differently which means creating differentiation isn’t enough anymore – you need to set heads spinning to get noticed.

Disruptors are not regular businesses. Disruptor businesses create seismic shifts in their sectors that go beyond the legal, financial and social infrastructures. They are businesses that have the potential to alter how we think and deal with different aspects of our lives.

If we look at CNBC’s Disruptor 50 Companies list for 2017 not all the businesses listed have household name status but they do hold one commonality. They have all redefined their sector and created a new business model and a new way of doing things.

CNBC’s Disruptor 50 Companies list for 2017

Let’s take one of the well-known disruptors – Uber. Uber is entering their seventh year of business in 2017, Uber has expanded to more than 440 cities across nearly 60 countries. But it isn’t the scale of growth that is remarkable in this context, it is the way in which Uber redefined the taxi industry, forced it to take steps to protect itself, and for the paying customer, introduced a new degree of choice and freedom that didn’t previously exist.

What does it mean to be a disruptor? How challenging is the journey to disruptor status? Can a disruptor ethos filter through into all types of business – both B2C and B2B? And what are the right communications channels and strategies that are reflective of disruptor businesses and beneficial if a disruptor comes knocking at your door?

What does it mean to be a disruptor?

Disruption explained

Disruption Versus Innovation

Let’s start at the beginning for clarity

The term challenger and disruptor explained, when talking about businesses or brands, they are not interchangeable terms. Challenger brands are innovative businesses that have scaled quickly from start-up status and brought new thinking or enhancements to an existing marketplace.

Disruptors in comparison enter a marketplace and completely redefine a category. They are a disruptive force that rattles the status quo and ultimately sets new rules. To be a disruptor in an evolving world you really need to not be afraid to take a risk at all. Some of the best innovators and disruptors globally have had that passion, tenacity, and vision, yet have never deviated away from the true core of their business.

Nowadays competition has never been fiercer. Those who have been known to disrupt are watching their backs because they know the business world is a cyclical one, and they know that their cycle will someday give in to younger, nimbler, leaner, more creative and more innovative companies.

Does adopting the mentality of a disruptor provide a competitive advantage?

In strategy we look for competitive advantages and hone it down to look for a sustainable competitive advantage (SCA).

There is a compelling argument to suggest that all businesses and brands should adopt some of the mentality of a disruptor, to keep their business fresh and relevant. But what does that look like and isn’t it just a distraction, particularly in the B2B space?

One of the critical challenges faced by any business is to ensure that they focus on meeting the needs of their target market(s) rather than just simply selling a product or service. This is by no means revolutionary, but it does reinforce what disruptors do best – approach a familiar scenario from an unusual angle and put the customer first. Rather than simply selling to them, the disruptor is providing them with something of value beyond what currently exists in the marketplace.

This premise is never more important than in B2B where thinking about the customer journey and customer experience is of the upmost importance. Ensuring relevancy, authenticity and satisfaction in that journey or experience becomes the starting point of growing a truly successful and long-lasting customer relationship. Simply put, be customer orientated and not product orientated.

How do you create a disruptor story?

A disruptor has a very clear story that is at the core of the brand’s purpose. Disruptor brands understand business and consumer trends and have mapped their customers journey from a need to a sale with exact accuracy.

Importantly, disruptors are very sensitive to trends and emerging technologies. This is the key to a disruptors success. This is so evident while we live in the digital revolution. The original disruptors, PayPal is seeing new start-ups and even traditional banks joining the trend away from physical cash business models.

PayPal views the leaps and bounds in innovation being made as an overall net positive for the industry. This demonstrates that change happens in an incremental or tiered fashion – what went before doesn’t just disappear, it is built upon. It is this transformational quality that is key to the longer-term success of a disruptor business, as is the ability to consistently reflect on the following three key questions:

1.      Why am I here?

2.      What is my purpose?

3.      What is the nature of my relationship with my desired audience?

Being able to provide solid responses to each of these questions will help an organisation to build the foundations of its business story and distinguish at what point in its history it disrupted against the status quo. “

How can PR play a role in communicating disruption?

Disruptor brands tend to be very sensitive to interruptive messaging and as a result often steer away from traditional advertising as a major component of their marketing model. By their very nature disruptors are organisations that cause change and develop a new way of thinking, which means that the key to great communication for these businesses is flexibility.

PR fits well with this need because it can quickly generate creative bravery and enhance disruptiveness, whether it is for an entire business vision or just a streak to be shown off as needed. PR can ensure a consistency of message and business value in an otherwise inconsistent market and deep dive into the purpose of a business way beyond social or above the line channels. A PR strategy, however, should always aim to look at understanding the wider business ambitions and combine it closely with a nimble and creative programme that pushes the message through the correct channels to the right audiences.

The dynamic nature of disruption requires a far more visionary communications strategy that builds over time and exercises the art of delight to keep audiences engaged and feeling valued. The key is not being deliberately provocative for the sake of it. While this may work for some, the reality is for many B2B businesses, it simply isn’t the right route to go down.

How to respond when a disruptor comes knocking at your door?

Firstly, don’t panic. Disruptors are a threat and responding reactively is critical, but radically altering a business model in response or even trying to imitate the disruptor could cause more harm than good. It unnerves those closest to your business and sends a message that the disruptor is more than just a competitive threat, it is an actual crisis situation.

Continuing to act with confidence and working with your corporate communications team to play out your agreed strategy and approach is key. Ensuring that the concerns of your key stakeholders (including employees) are being answered in a way that makes sense and resonates will ensure that trust perception remains high. An effective communications team that can act as the mediator between business and the outside world is important at any stage or time of year, but when a disruptor comes knocking it is critical.

Knowing there is a dedicated resource on hand that understands your business vision and the marketers that can communicate that vision is reassuring when a threat comes knocking at the door. As is having that critical eye that monitors the external context and how your business plays into it. A strong communications team will also be able to advise you as to your best existing assets – be that your experienced staff or your unequivocal heritage in the field you operate in. Ultimately it ensures that you are responding appropriately to the threat and mustering up bravery and consistency in equal measures.


Change is constant. And the need to stay ahead of that change is constant, too. This, in turn, means a business that remains stagnated is at greater risk of becoming devalued. Being a successful disruptor means taking risks and being a visionary, but equally being critically self-aware. Effective disruption is not about gimmicks or doing things in a different way. It’s about changing the game from the chasing pack, to doing things in a way that resonates and feels true to the business or brand and the core value that is being delivered to the audience.

The notion that there is “no downside to disruption” is arguably short-sighted and boundary-breaking for the sake of it. What disruption does is open a new way of doing things and allow businesses to step outside of the mould that they know. If a disruptor does come knocking and enter your space, while it is undoubtedly a threat, it is also a huge opportunity to exploit and communicate your greatest business assets. The true measure of success is a business’s ability to take calculated risks, explore and innovate and really embrace the rich canvas of experimentation. So, in seeing the opportunity of taking on the disruptor elements that suit your business and competitive vision, you are opening yourself up to achieve real business breakthroughs while remaining true to what stands at the heart of your business.