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For a period in 2014 and 2015, it was hard for us marketing pros to escape the latest buzz concept doing the rounds; disruptive innovation in business. By extension, disruptive marketing is (or as I will argue, has been) to marketeers what shell suits were to chavs in the early 1990s. That is; a bit over used, a tad overrated and a wee bit tacky.

But before we get to that, and for the uninitiated, what is disruptive innovation?

The concept is based on the definition put forward by Clay Christensen, author of the disruptors go-to guide,The Innovators Dilemma.  In his book, Christensen defines disruptive innovation in business as the process through which mature companies are brought down by cheeky little upstarts who, in offering cheap and quirky alternatives to established products and services, are effectively disrupting the markets in which they operate.

Often, these mad-genius disruptors start their success stories by attracting low-value customers from the establishment, before steadily moving upmarket to steal their high-value customers. The final nail in the coffin for the incumbent monoliths is when the disruptors infiltrate the whole market. If you need an example, Uber is as good as any, snatching as they do a vast proportion of the cabbie’s business. (To be fair, Uber is a massive success and a great example of authentic disruption) I suppose that not ALL disruption is bad.

Christensen’s disruption innovation theory goes, that if the lumbering giants (as they are perceived) were clever and responded to the threat posed by the disruptors fast, they would stay in the game. If not, their success would dwindle until they eventually died.

But is the theory of disruptive innovation, and by extension, disruptive marketing, all it’s purported to be? Are so called disruptive business models REALLY that different from what’s gone before? Is a disruptive marketing strategy ALWAYS the golden ticket for success? Hmmmm. I’m not convinced.

Last year, I was interested to see that the renowned Harvard Professor Jill Lepore openly criticise disruption doctrine when she said, “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It’s not a law of nature. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.”

Moreover, she described how, in her view, examples that support the theory were unconvincing, whilst the logic on which disruption theory is based could be disputed. For example, she pointed to the outcome of one of the most diabolical disruptions in recent times; that which saw financial-industry disruption take down the global economy in 2008.

We heard her criticism loud and clear, and I can’t help but take her point. The companies doing the disrupting don’t always profit. And neither does anyone else. So, despite being heralded by West Coast bigwigs as the only sensible way to do business these days, Lepore cut the disruption model down to size in one fell swoop. I must say, I tend to agree with her.

For me, I have two issues with the theory of disruption innovation. Firstly, I find the term irritating, overused and misleading. Surely disruption practices in business are nothing new? If it were, how the heck have we come this far? Every time a business innovates or evolves a product or service, they are effectively shifting the paradigm. Shifting it to something better. These innovations might be slow and incremental (evolution versus the disruptive holy grail of revolution), but they are disruptions all the same. Why do we feel the need to find a badge for something the successful businesses have been doing since the dawn of time?

My second issue with disruption is how those that purport to be disruptive (or who others have decided are disruptive,) are not always so great after all. For example, Apple iTunes is often given as an example of how disruption innovation should be done, offering consumers a new and innovative way to buy music. However, be that as it may, all the insight indicates that consumption of digital music downloads are in steady decline.

Meanwhile, the G-Whizz, that hideous looking electric car that was going to eliminate pollution and cull travel taxes for millions of city centre dwellers absolutely bombed (this point serves to remind us all that disruption innovation is nothing new; anyone remember the Reliant Robin?)

More than impacting on business owners and shareholders, badly executed disruption can wreak havoc on a much bigger scale, too. Take disruptions in the publishing, retail, electronics and banking industries, all of which have seen the gradual (or not so gradual in some cases) degradation of income and the employment. And whilst there is no doubt that social media is allowing us all to communicate in a new and unfettered fashion as never before, there can be no doubt that its role in terror and the exploitation of the vulnerable is truly terrifying.

In my line of work, the disruption of analogue advertising caused by digital advertising has not really made the waves we all assumed it would. In fact, according to Nielsen data, consumers are known to trust TV, print and radio ads, billboards and movie advertising more than social media ads. To compound this, the way in which Facebook now manages its users news feeds is impeding brands ability to reach their followers. According to one report, more than half of respondents asserted that digital advertising had far less influence on them than the analogue alternative (I should point out at this stage that I feel strongly that digital advertising most certainly does have a role in the marketing mix…when used correctly, we know it to be incredibly powerful.)

So, what’s the point I’m trying to make? In a nutshell, I would have to surmise that whilst it’s hard to dispute that successful disruptive business models are rare, when they are good, they are very, very good. However, all too often I see businesses hang their hat on the disruptive peg, only to find out that their products and services are either repackaged versions of what’s gone before (but with beanbags and pool tables for staff,) or worse, BADLY packaged, ill-conceived and doomed to fail. Sadly, the impact of this failure can go far beyond those who would otherwise be set to profit.

So, what’s the solution? If a business is a genuine disruptor, go forth and succeed! If it’s not, don’t pretend otherwise. There’s nothing wrong with not reinventing the wheel. Chances are, if you’re not a disturber, you’re an innovator who is keen to provide great products and services that you continually strive to improve. Nothing wrong with that! Focus on quality, and stack your business and marketing models up based on best insight; that is, use tools and tactics to run and promote your business that will work! You don’t have try and disturb anything to succeed. It’s not always the path to success.

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This post was created on 8th January 2016
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