Top 5 ways to be a disruptor brand

There is power in being a disruptor brand, but how to embrace that mentality - even when you’re almost a century old? Jason Harris, Co-Founder and CEO of Mekanism hosted a panel discussion at Advertising Week that discussed disruptor brands, and key attributes. We’ve assembled the top five takeaways.


Panelists included:

Akanksha Goel, Founder, Socialize

James Gregson, Creative Director, Lego

Elizabeth Luke, Brand Communications, Pinterest

1. Challenge the status quo

There’s a challenger role to disruption. Not just in changing business models, but disruption can happen with language, communication, to make something better for the consumer, Socialize’s Goel said. “It can be the consumer experience that’s being disrupted,” she added. 

On her test of disruption, Goel said she looks to anything that changes our habits. She pointed to Pinterest as an example of a platform that has done this. It has now become the way we gather photos for the biggest events of our lives - think wedding days, impending parenthood, even school teacher gifts.

That can mean you’re putting yourself out there. You’re not working only to the virality of a social post, Pinterest’s Luke said. Sometimes the metrics aren’t there right away to show you you’re on the right track. (Think about Henry Ford’s infamous comment that if you asked people what they wanted before he invented the automobile, they would have answered ‘a faster horse.’)

2. Don’t abandon your core values to be disrupter

How is a 90-year-old brand like Lego a disrupter? The company stays true to its core value proposition to consumers: a building product. But it likes to be disruptive in how it messages itself, Lego’s Gregson explained.

At Pinterest, they’re focusing on how users feel while using the platform. “This is more about creating your own world, rather than being in a wild world you have no control over,” Luke explained. “If you think about how you feel on Twitter, it’s a different use case to how you feel on Pinterest.”

Inclusivity is important to Pinterest. The platform realized that users had to type in ‘black’ before ‘hair style’ and ‘make up’ and decided to fix that. Type in ‘braid’ to the search function will yield multiple patterns for all types of hair.

“It’s extremely empowering for voices who are represented and creates a space that is unique to us, and speaks to our audience,” Luke said. “People expect brands to speak up, and they are buying from brands that share their values.”

3. It’s okay to be afraid

“If it scares you, it’s probably going to last. I felt this way about web3, cryptocurrency, and NFTs,” Goel said. “If you’re looking at that space, thinking it’s scary as marketers, you have to know it’s something. You have to get in there and play with it.”

As marketers, it’s essential to play with tools to make disruption come easier. Goel referenced Plus Connect, the Plus Company NFT which evolved as employees connected with each other. This gamification made networking fun and taught many in the company about NFTs. (fun fact: Plus Company was the Connections Partner at Advertising Week, and offered NFTs to all in-person attendees. Almost 10,000 NFTs were generated.)

Gregson pointed out that Lego is loyal to its decades-old brand framework, with a physical/tangible building product.

“At the same time, our audiences and the world are more digital and we have to figure out what is the right way for us as a brand to live in the digital world,” he said.

4. Adopt a test and learn mentality

The bigger you get as a brand, the smaller you have to act. It’s so important to have a test and learn mentality, Goel said. 

“My advice for brands is to understand the consumer, be bold and create a culture where you are able to test and learn - especially with how technology is changing,” she added.

While almost a century old, Lego sets aside some of its budget for experimentation. Ten percent of the Lego budget is for the company to develop proactive and innovative ideas that will break the mold, Gregson said.

5. Don’t call yourself the ‘Uber or AirBnB of…’

So many brands love to say this when pointing to how they are disrupting. Yes, Uber and AirBnB are big names and exemplify the era of disruption we’re in, but they are also disruptors thanks to our everyday use of the mobile phones, Gregson said. Using our phones in a new way is relatively easy and leads to a quick adoption rate. 

But there are new brands out there solving different problems for consumers, he added. Consider the latest cycle of disruption with blockchains and web3. 

Luke advised against brands claiming they are the Uber or AirBnB of their sector. As a PR professional, they really shouldn’t. By comparing themselves to existing brands, these companies make themselves less than unique, she explained.

“We have to be careful how we label ourselves as disruptors,” Luke said.