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The overused label of the disruptor

02 July, 2019

The term disruptor is overused, partly thanks to Donald Trump.

The term was coined to describe the Ryanairs and Teslas of this world, and today some genuine disruptors continue to do that which has never been done before. At a small scale, Rootwave zaps farm weeds with electricity not chemicals, and Macrebur turns plastic waste into a durable asphalt additive to fill potholes. These seem strong offers to me as they address real needs in multimillion dollar markets while also and meeting an important ‘pain’ by being greener than competing offers.

The overused label of the disruptor

Elsewhere, financial services and insurance are seeing some disruption. Apps and emerging technologies from graphene to AI should power real disruption as they make the previously impossible (or unaffordable) work. For example, after years of health-sector AI and blockchain hype, personalised medicines and tumour treatments are now a reality for some, and AI is helping overloaded radiographers spot cancers faster.

A quick analysis of Fast Company’s 50 most innovative companies this year shows three distinct categories:

First movers inventing a category, addressing a real customer need or pain point in a new way, for example Apeel Sciences’ coatings to extend the life of fresh fruit and veg (now backed by Bill Gates).

Many more are ‘integrators’, bringing together two or more existing offers. Hema Xiansheng in China is one example, with bricks and mortar stores that cover the buying spectrum from Deliveroo-like ordering to enhanced in-store buying and fulfilment, and even personalised in-store dining. Bricks-and-mortar wizards Hema (for UK readers – imagine a Dutch M+S or John Lewis) working with the online-and-fulfilment might of Alibaba will be a strong experience. The data captured in the app is also extremely powerful as the stores are cashless and most customers use Alibaba Pay. Unity Technologies is another interesting example. It takes gaming technology and applies it to designing cars, movie sets and buildings. Lanza Tech removes CO2 from steel plants and other polluters and turns it into bio-based ethanol for fuel. CO2-removal technologies have been around for decades, but using environment-friendly bio tech, and offering the manufacturers CO2 capture that pays for itself in green jet-fuel sales, is probably their magic recipe for success.

A much bigger category covers those who are ‘doing the same thing but better’ – I guess I’d put most Apple products in this box - incremental improvements in one category, often inspired by developments in others. Interestingly the word ‘innovation’ barely appears on Apple’s websites, let alone ‘disruptor’. Critical here is starting from what we call pain points or ‘jobs to do’, focusing strongly on a great, fast UX that gets things done and hopefully makes the customer feel better too. From Airtable’s data analytics to Modern Fertility’s home test kits, Rocket Labs’ low-budget satellite delivery or Oatly’s oat-derived milk substitute, these are incremental improvements in a known category. And they are rarely overnight successes: Oatly, for example, began in Sweden in 1994 and it wasn’t until sales rocketed in the US in 2016 that they could fund their current marketing push.

Many of the 50 are software offers that speed up ordering, integrate previously separate platforms or enhance security (sometimes all at once) and they may be successful, but I’d hardly call them disruptive.

One tactic I might call disruptive is to say the previously unsayable (people have started calling Donald Trump the Disruptor-in-Chief - use this tactic with caution!) or to speak using a channel your competitors don’t (here at KISS we’ve put posters above urinals and dressed people up as celery…!). Although Trump has been prepared to genuinely disrupt things like the Iran nuclear pact, Trump-style disruption seems to be mostly verbal: he is the first President to tweet directly to millions from his bed and say the previously unsayable to disrupt the political establishment.

It seems to me that the label of ‘disruptor’ is over-used and incremental innovation often masquerades as disruption. The real ‘disruptors’, especially in B2B, seem to be actually powered by what the Guardian called tinkerers or toilers, people combining and clashing existing ideas to improve them, or people toiling away for many years on something truly new that meets a clear need, quietly sticking to a strategy until their product is taken up by their market.

So, while we always look for fresh ways to craft and deliver your message, ‘disruptor’ may be an overused label. It’s the old hare and tortoise – ongoing R+D, incremental improvement and logical partnering can deliver innovation just as powerfully as an apparent disruptor.

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