Marketers should disrupt the small stuff, not stake everything on big innovations
Marketers should disrupt the small stuff, not stake everything on big innovations
A view from Rachel Barnes

Rachel Barnes: to disrupt, or be disrupted, that is the question

How many of us have the opportunity/dilemma/threat [delete depending on your outlook] of 'disrupt or be disrupted' on our minds for the year ahead? But...

In the February issue of Marketing, which we have dedicated to the theme of innovation, the same warning appears several times: guard against innovation for innovation’s sake. In an age where we have taken on the mantra of the tech world – fail fast, fail better, fail forward, gimme failure – change is everywhere and the prize that disrupt­ive innovation promises means that many marketers, and business leaders, are placing it high up the agenda.

As John Lewis’ Craig Inglis says in our Power 100 Voices column, it is vital for marketers and their brands to have an "in-built restlessness, a state of mind that drives them to embrace the new, different, untested and downright risky".

The word 'disruption' is problematic

I had taken to the concept of disruption as a way to think of businesses challenges in a different framework. However, I’ve recently found the word problematic (and a bit empty) – particularly the connotation that it’s all or nothing, it’s reinvention, it’s ‘game-changing’. As Helen Edwards writes in our February issue, it is almost impossible to identify when a bet-the-business change to your current business model is worth consideration.

While invention drives progress, it is worth remembering that no single innovation should be expected to transform the fortunes of a brand.

So, is it just fear of falling victim to someone else’s dreaded disruption that keeps the concept top of mind?

While invention drives progress, it is worth remembering that no single innovation should be expected to transform the fortunes of a brand. Incremental change across the business, from packaging to distribution channels, is highly valuable, explains Edwards. It shows you have a brand with a pulse, continuously evolving for your market – building momentum, not seeking world domination.

Maintain your own clear definition

And there’s another issue with the d-word. Disconcerting. Discontent. Discombobula­tion. As BT’s Suzi Williams highlights in our Hacked Off feature, ‘dis’-anything comes with negative associations.

Sometimes we obsess too much about words that enter the business vernacular – they divide opinion and often become meaningless through overuse. Call it what you like in your business, so long as you maintain your own clear definition of what ‘disruption’ looks like in reality. There is a risk that, in the drive to reinvent the ‘big stuff’, you fail to adapt and evolve the other parts of your business.

Take what’s happening at Marks & Spencer (profits are falling, despite £2.5bn of capital expenditure in the past five years) and Morrisons (the exit of the CEO comes despite his numerous attempts to reinvent the business through innovation) as cases in point. For some companies, the ‘small stuff’ is actually a pretty chunky business challenge. Forget that and, even if you do come up with a truly ‘disruptive’ idea, it is destined to fail due to neglected foundations and weak infrastructure. That’s a fail that will cost you dearly.