Disrupt. Create a Category of One

11.10.15 / David Lemley

We’ve heard it all before. “There’s nothing new under the sun.” “It’s all been done before.” “Timing is everything and this isn’t the time to start anything new.”

Thankfully, the intrepid among us have never taken any of these ideas to heart. If they did, great inventions would have never happened and great brands might never have seen the light of day.

If anything, consumers are hungry for something new and exciting since they’re mostly confronted with the banal and the boring. But here come the excuses. Challenging consumer economy. Too much competition. It’s a short route to commoditization. Check, check and check.

There’s only one thing to do in this scenario. Disrupt. Because if you don’t, your brand is just one among many like brands with nothing to distinguish it from everything else out there. (You’ll muddle along but you’ll never be great.) But you can only disrupt if you dare.

In a Fast Company interview a few years ago, brand visionary, Scott Bedbury, of Nike and Starbucks fame nailed it: “I walked through a hardware store last night and I came across 50 brands I didn’t know existed,” said Scott Bedbury. “They may be great products, but they’re not great brands.”

Exactly.

Before Starbucks came on the scene, there were local coffee shops. Mostly ho-hummers. Nothing exciting in the way of offerings; coffee burned from being kept heated past its expiration date and a little local gossip. So why not create a magical third place? A welcoming environment that isn’t home or the office. A place conducive to gathering and staying, engaging in conversation in a pleasant atmosphere replete with mismatched chairs for a touch of hominess. A place offering a plethora of caffeinated beverages made to order with the best of ingredients.

Result? Home run. All because Howard Shultz went to Italy and saw how a coffee shop could be. And dared to bring the idea to our shores. Shultz could have said: too much competition and too much commoditization in the category. He would have been right unless he dared to disrupt. And he did.

And he isn’t the only disrupter, right? Nike did it in the sneaker category. KIND did it in the crowded nutritional bar category. Glaceau did it with water (can’t have a more basic commodity than that!) Plum Organics did it with baby food. REI did it among outdoor gear retailers. Whole Foods did it among natural product retailers. And Trader Joe’s did it among specialty/gourmet and natural retailers including Whole Foods.

These are all one-of-a-kind brands. They’ve smashed through the walls of their categories and reshaped the world as we knew it. Think about that.

So what does it take to disrupt? A few things.

  • A willingness to step back and take a different view of categories because you’re looking for opportunities.
  • An assessment of what’s lacking that would make people find meaning in your brand versus the others that are out there (read: the uninspiring and meaningless.)
  • An intrepid spirit to go where no man or woman has gone before within the category, whether you sell goods or services.
  • A full commitment to the brand: sticking to who and what you are and forgetting about all of the rest. (Brand dilution continues to be a big problem for brands large and small.)
  • A willingness to continue to innovate within your brand proposition; to be willing to try things and sometimes fail so that you can learn and get stronger.
  • An acceptance that others are going to try to knock you off by emulating what you do and responding by doing even better.
  • A total focus on your customer who is your fan and a follower of your cult.

I know what you’re thinking. “This is terrific but in this economy who’s done anything lately?” Answer: lots of entrepreneurs have and they’re still doing it.

To wit: two women in New York City started up a new cupcake bakery. That’s an idea that’s already peaked, right? Prohibition Bakery brought the talents of two women: baker Brooke Siem and bartender Leslie Feinberg together four years ago with a unique brand idea. “People love cupcakes. People love booze.” Why not make liquor-laced cupcakes?

The bakery creates WOM like crazy because of its uniqueness. It really doesn’t have much competition if any. Does that mean others won’t come along and try to replicate their brand? Of course not. So Siem and Feinberg continue to innovate based on drink trends. Partnering with drink brands for promotions and creating new cupcakes based on specialty drinks only creates more word of mouth.

What I love: they’re clear about what they won’t do: deviate from making cupcakes to make cakes or meet special requests for dietary restrictions and customized decorations (too costly and inefficient—there are plenty of bakeries occupying those niches, besides—important to note.) This brand is well-defined. So is the strategy. They’re not aimlessly seizing on just any old trend if it doesn’t fit their brand and its unique positioning.

Why play in the same space as countless other brands? Why not seize on a unique idea as these smart women have done? I mean cupcakes that come with a warning label; that you need an ID to purchase? Cool.

Oh, wait. You’re not doing a start-up; you’ve already got an existing brand and it’s stuck in the mud. Okay, so what are you going to do about it?

I assure you: there are opportunities to stake out your own brand territory, but that proposition isn’t for the faint of heart. You’d better plan on rolling up your sleeves, working hard, and keeping your vision on track if you want to be successful. But the pay-off. . .to be the one and only? Wow!

Checkmate.

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