DISRUPTIVE MARKETING What does it really mean?

By - CTL
March 7, 2017

By Dorothy Thompson.

If I have to sit through another marketing / ad agency meeting where the concepts we are discussing are rated on their ‘disruptability’, I think I might scream. With the seemingly endless number of new marketing buzzwords that infest these meetings, understanding their true meaning is indeed challenging. In effort to assist CTL readers, we have gone in search of the most definitive explanation available to help to understand what disruptive marketing means.

In truth, disruption is more a business model/tool rather than a marketing approach. Most companies still tend to market through traditional means, which provide plenty of opportunities for rival companies to disrupt current messages. However, consumers have become stubbornly resilient to shifting messages, thanks to an increasingly crowded market. To combat this, a company’s product or service must innovate and pay attention to consumers, delivering exactly what the market wants.

Disruptive Marketing has one of two goals: design its product or service to match the demand of an emerging market, or re-shape an existing product or service to meet the demand of customers unsatisfied by the current offering. From this starting point, a marketing team designs an advertising campaign with disruptive messages that either challenge the conventional thinking in an existing market or endeavors to speak to a new one.

Apple created a prime example of the latter approach when it introduced a truly innovative product through its online music store. When iTunes first launched, average music consumers wanted to purchase the songs they were hearing on the radio without necessarily buying an entire album from those artists. Singles were no longer available on compact disc and the government was regulating online file-sharing sites such as Napster. By introducing a brand-new approach, iTunes delivered on the consumers’ desire to purchase one song by an artist, as well as their desire to avoid owning hours of music they didn’t want. Steve Jobs was famous for saying:

“It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want. And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people, you know, what the next big [thing.] There’s a great quote by Henry Ford, right? He said, ‘If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘A faster horse’.”

Companies attempting to employ disruptive marketing need to be prepared to change their business model, their outbound product or service, and the message they send to consumers. Depending on the size of the company, this can be a risky venture. However, maintaining the same business model over time can be even riskier. Just ask Kodak, which in less than 20 years went from the fourth most valuable brand worldwide to bankruptcy. Why? Because they weren’t prepared for customers to stop buying film, and switch to digital photography. They did not see the disruption happening (or chose to ignore it), and Kodak failed to adjust.


Given the rapidly changing face of business—and the technology supporting it, every company should at least prepare to use disruptive marketing. The most prominent industry currently employing market disruption is the technology industry. Computers, phones, the web, or any electronic device or service can be shipped as a minimally viable product, and then be updated regularly while already in the possession of its customers.

A broader target for disruption marketers however, is any product or service that historically had only been accessible to consumers with either a lot of money or a lot of skill.

The key in finding a company likely to use disruptive marketing is to see who is targeting emerging markets and/or making a product or service more accessible to customers in an existing market.


Any business that’s serious about causing market disruption must be willing to shift or even completely change its infrastructure. Successful disruptive marketing requires a long-term commitment, and likely a fundamental shift in a company’s business model.

The first step in launching a disruptive marketing campaign is obtaining internal buy-in from top to bottom. Whether a company is simply trying to change the message about its brand or is completely redesigning the product, everyone must commit to the change in brand perception.

Next, the marketing team will need to collect all the current data about the target or emerging market. Determining spending patterns and the profiles of existing customers is important, but the disruptive marketing team must discover more, such as why a customer purchased a particular product or service. In order to do this, the team will need to use qualitative research methods, such as physical observation, interviews, and surveys. All this data mining is used to unearth the parameters of a market, profile it, determine its mood, and then speak to it.

Once the market has been determined, it’s time for the marketing and design teams to develop a strategy that will use effective media channels in the market. This will almost inevitably include developing an online presence. The design team must develop content, create a social-media presence with a unique sales position, and write a substantial amount of copy (often via blogging).

Before launching the campaign, executives must set consistent brand guidelines and marketing messages. Once these are established, it’s time to execute the plan. And as the plan unfolds, the marketing team will continue to collect and interpret data revealing the effectiveness of the strategy, and adjust the approach as needed.

So as a wonderful old friend of CTL, and one of the great men of the Australian Advertising Industry, the late Wayne McCarthy once said, “The time has come to take a good deep breath, grab your balls and just jump”.



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