A marketer’s perspective on why disruption has had its day

I’ll fess up: in my career I’ve talked about “disruption” a fair few times (and sometimes it was even my choice of word). Recently I got tweeting on the subject of with my mate Gary Williams. He’s an IT expert who’s fed up with jargon, and was taking marketers to task for suggesting that disruption was desirable to IT buyers like him. You can read Gary’s own eloquent take on disruption here.

It got me thinking… With the “d-word” being flung about like confetti at a wedding, is it time to stop? Are we marketers making a considered choice, or just kowtowing to expectations and a me-too attitude? Is anything really “disruptive” anymore?

After 15+ years as a marketer, I’m making a call: it’s time to ditch the d-word. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s virtually meaningless, and there are very few instances anymore in which using the term will have a materially positive impact on revenue growth.

But I know what it’s like as a marketer – you’re under pressure to use the term because it’s so ubiquitous. And with everyone from the C-suite to Sales bringing you examples of what the competition are saying, and asking why you aren’t saying the same things, it can be tough to push back. And if you haven’t had to consider disruption before, it’s not always easy to figure out whether it even matters if you use the term or not.

So how do you decide whether you should label your product or service as disruptive? Here are 4 things to consider:

1. What does disruption mean (internally) in your company?
It’s critical to understand internal appetite for being seen as disruptive, and the motivations behind it – ultimately, this will have the most impact on either kickstarting or killing use of the term.

If you’re a startup, disruption is (in theory) the name of the game. How can your new product/ service upset the current market, stealing market share from the incumbents, and ultimately change the face of the technology/ product/ market? It’s a startup founder’s dream scenario, and all about creating the perception that you’re a mighty force to be reckoned with. So it’s unsurprising that startups generally have a strong appetite to be seen as disruptive: it’s part of the standard pitch for these kinds of companies, and a key part of the vision that gets buy-in.

In established companies, calling your products “disruptive” is about creating the perception that your approach and/ or technology is cutting-edge. It’s stepping away from your brand being perceived as comfortable, staid… or even boring. It says you’re not behind the curve – you may have history and stability, but you’re also forward-thinking and cool.

In these companies, appetite to be called disruptive will vary, depending on the volatility of the markets and industries you’re in, the value that the company places on heritage, and senior leaders’ appetite for risk. If you have strong commercial results already, you’re more likely to see appetite for “innovation” than “disruption”.

2. What does disruption mean to your prospects and customers?
It all depends on what you’re selling, and who you’re selling it to.

If you’re dealing with people and industries who are either early adopters or generally tech-savvy, you’ll experience more openness to disruption, especially if what you’re selling isn’t mission-critical (yet). For example, marketers are now accustomed to an avalanche of new tools and apps, and are more likely to think disruptive = cool and interesting.

On the flip side, if you’re dealing with more conservative folks, disruption can be a turn-off. For example, if you’re pitching to be a mission-critical system in healthcare or financial services, a disruptive technology can mean new, untested and high-risk – and a surefire way to get left off the shortlist. And if the person purchasing the product is actively opposed to disruption, it’s going to kill your chances of being part of the consideration set. In these cases, disruptive = risky and likely to fail.

3. How will press, analysts & investors perceive claims of disruption?
Next up, factor in the press, analysts and the investment community. The extent to which you weight this in your final decision will vary, but it’s safe to say that most companies do care about these audiences.

Really great journalists and analysts aren’t moved by the disruption argument anymore, because everyone’s made it so many times that it’s really just another buzzword. Claiming disruption is just noise, which is a big turn-off for busy journos. So instead of keyword-stuffing, I’d recommend demonstrating what you’re doing and its disruptive impact without mentioning the d-word. If you have data and real-world examples to back you up, journalists will be able to draw their own conclusions. If you’re really disruptive, let them say it about you – it’ll carry more weight than your own claims anyway.

The investment community loved disruption in days of yore, but as it has matured, so too has its approach. They’re making decisions based on their assessment of a product or service’s ability to create value. Some of that may come from an ability disrupt a market – but not all of it; and any VC or investor worth their salt has been there, done that with “the most disruptive…ever” and “the Uber of…”.

Again, more important than the d-word is demonstrating the business case for (or actual evidence of) market disruption. And yet again, let them use the term about you if they feel it’s justified.

4. Gut check: are you actually disruptive?
The final consideration is the toughest one: telling the truth. Is the product or service actually disruptive? Is it really new, or a game-changer? Are you fundamentally changing the market?

As a marketer, you have to take a step back for a moment. Remove the sentiment, the aspirations and all the feelings that you and your colleagues have. Focus on the facts: are you disruptive?

If you’re not – and let’s face it, most companies aren’t – then don’t make the claim. Why? Because the backlash can be significant. Press, analysts and investors are smart – knowing the market is a critical part of their job. Claiming to be disruptive when you’re not creates the impression that you’re naïve about the market you’re in, which may lead to questioning the company’s ability to create a competitive product and value.

Prospects and customers are also increasingly savvy – and quickly becoming immune to me-too marketing. If they perceive that you’re making one claim simply for the sake of ticking a box, it may undermine the validity of other claims you’re making.

So what’s the verdict?
As a marketer, the challenge is bringing all these different perspectives together, then creating messaging that works. Ultimately, your job is to communicate the value to prospects and customers in a way that drives and supports revenue growth.

There are so many words that you could use to describe your product or service – words that explain its value and differentiation. Unless you really are the one in a million, I challenge you to ditch the d-word in favour of something more meaningful.

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© Laura Lilienthal, 2021. All rights reserved.