We’re in an excellent period of time for startups and new challenger brands around Asia. But the industry as a whole has a massive communication problem.
The media and public are paying attention to new companies launching. It’s usually a good story: an individual or group of people think an industry is broken or archaic, and needs fixing. They’re doing something interesting to change that.
Their stories are exciting, with just the right amount of conflict. And people are paying attention.
The problem is, far too many startups are using lazy and wrong terminology to describe what they are doing.
Almost every startup claims to be ‘disrupting’ something: they’re supposedly disrupting an industry, an established Goliath, or an old way of doing things.
There’s an obvious reason for this: it works. People’s ears prick up when they hear it. Politicians are throwing around the term like it’s going out of fashion. The media loves hearing and repeating it. The public is searching for it:
But this doesn’t make it right. It’s time to call a spade a spade. Almost every use of the phrase ‘disruptive innovation’ as we see it today is wrong.
When it comes to business, the term disrupt has a very specific meaning. It is, using Clayton Christensen’s own words, when “a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors”.
In his classic examples, personal computers disrupted mainframes, discount retailers disrupted full-service department stores, and so on. Uber, everyone’s favourite example of disruption, isn’t actually — their genesis as a prestige black car company means they weren’t serving the bottom of the market.
But too many startups, marketers, and media outlets are being far too liberal with the word. They’re using it interchangeably with ‘change’ or ‘take on’, which is not what disruption is.
This has long been a bugbear of mine. As a founder of a PR agency that specialises in challengers, entrepreneurs, and yes — disrupters — it’s important to us, and to your customers, that we’re using the right terms.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was when I saw a Porsche print advertisement for their new Panamera, claiming they were ‘disrupting’ themselves.
Porsche is ‘disrupting itself’ by creating a slightly nicer version of its Panamera car, sold at roughly the same price, to roughly the same type of buyers?
As soon as I saw this, I realised the term had basically lost all meaning.
The problem with this all is of course that the real meaning of disruption in a marketplace has a useful meaning. It’s an important way new entrants take on established companies, and it’s helpful to have a grasp for the mechanics by which that operates.
But if that meaning is lost, then all uses of disruptive — both legitimate and false — are worthless. Spending your time telling investors and customers that your product or app is disruptive will simply incite rolling eyes, rather than thoughtful analysis of your company.
But I don’t think it’s too late.
Please, resist the temptation to say you are ‘disrupting’ something unless that’s actually what your company is doing. There is no shame in calling it how it is.
Say you are doing something different, say you are changing the way something is done, but don’t say you’re disrupting something just because it’s a nice word you want people to repeat.
Don’t use labels like this just to get people’s attention. Use simple, clear language to explain what you are doing, and which customers you are helping. In the long run, this will command far more respect for you.