Blog - July 5th, 2021

What is brand disruption?

Branding | Reading list

You might have heard about brands who are ‘disrupting the industry’ or ‘making waves’, but what does this actually mean?

Today we’re looking at brand disruption, what it is, how to do it well, and how it could boost your business.

What is brand disruption?

In simple terms, brand disruption is the act of taking your brand in a different direction. It’s all about defying people’s expectations, going against the grain, and not conforming to the standards of your industry.

Marty Neumeier famously said, ‘When everybody zigs, zag.’

The key is finding a way to do things differently from your competitors - whether that’s by redesigning your product, transforming your service, changing the way you look and sound, or all of the above.

The goal is to stand out, to surprise people, and - maybe - to target a neglected audience.

How to do it

It takes guts to defy the status quo, so the first thing you need to do is be brave. This process will take you out of your comfort zone, and it can be a risky strategy. 

The next step is to assess, honestly, if this is the right course of action for your organisation. If you feel like you’re already dominating your industry, doing really well, and getting great engagement, maybe this isn’t the path for you. But if you feel like you’re struggling, not making an impact, constantly competing for attention, and losing your audience, this might just solve all your problems.

man with barrel with the slogan dare to be a rebel

Now you need to identify the direction you want to take, and how you want to do it, by undertaking this brand identity exercise. 

  1. Imagine you are starting afresh with your company. Imagine you are not limited by your current brand, product, team, marketing, etc. The sky is the limit. 

  2. Think about how you would build your company from scratch, visualising the ideal version of your company, how it feels, looks, and what it does. Remember to discard all of your existing branding - you don’t want to be held back by legacy stuff.

  3. Think about what your competitors are doing and how you can do things differently. Remember, the goal is to stand out, so don’t copy your competitors.

  4. With all this in mind, have a go at rewriting your brand positioning statement and brand attributes.

Focus on how you want to be different. Do you want to define yourself by a political stance? Do you want to be funny in a serious industry? Do you want to support a particular group or movement? Do you want to target a different audience?

Now that you’ve completed this brand identity exercise, it’s time to evaluate. How different is this from your existing brand? How different is this from what your competitors are doing?

If you feel like this new direction will make you stand out in all the right ways, it’s time to rebrand.

Remember MAYA

Studies have shown that people like things to be familiar, but also surprising. This has been codified as ‘MAYA’ - most advanced yet acceptable. There’s a skill to hitting this niche between ‘same’ and ‘different’. If you play it safe and stay too much the same, people will get bored of you. If you go too far towards ‘different’, you might risk shocking, confusing and even alienating your audience.

Redefine your audience

Disruption can help connect you to the audience you want rather than the audience you have. Don’t be afraid to alienate the audiences you don’t want to work with. The goal is to make a better connection with the audiences you do want. If you try to appeal to everyone, you will end up appealing to no-one.

Whether or not someone is put off by brand disruption all depends on their point of view. Conservative audiences might be disturbed, but progressive audiences are likely to adopt a more radical approach.

skateboard on black and white striped road

If your target audience finds your new direction appealing, but your current audience finds it distasteful, who cares? They’re not the audience you want. Remember it’s okay to alienate some people - in fact, it’s good practice, because it helps you establish a niche.

Try to get the balance right between surprising and familiar, and remember that it’s your target audience whose opinion matters here - not your existing audience.

Some brands intentionally disrupt in order to target an audience that’s overlooked by the rest of their industry - see Dead Happy, later - and therefore create a new and profitable niche for themselves.

Boost your business

Brand disruption will help you stand out from your competitors. Do you find that your audience often sorts by price? Do you regularly get outpriced by competitors flogging their product or service cheaper than you? 

We all know that cheapest is not necessarily the best, but in a saturated market, sorting by price is usually the only factor a consumer has control over. That’s often because every player in that market looks and feels exactly the same, so the price is the only deciding factor. 

However, consumers are increasingly swayed by cultural connections with brands, and prefer this over price as a deciding factor. So if you can do a better job of engaging with your audience than your competitors do, they will probably be happy to spend a little more money.

The goal is to make your brand memorable and noteworthy. This will help your audience remember you when it comes to making their decision. If you can distinguish yourself from your competitors by doing something better, saying something better, having a different set of values, or standing for something important, your audience will buy from you and be loyal to you, even if that means paying a bit more.

Who is doing it well?

You’ve probably heard of a lot of the big brands who have disrupted their industry really successfully.

Apple is leading the pack. As a computer company, they have completely revolutionised their industry, and their competitors are always at least one step behind. They’ve achieved this through product innovation, and distinct brand messaging and visual identity.

apple website

Amazon is another clear winner. They started as an online bookstore, and have transformed into the world’s favourite shopping site. They have completely dominated the online retail market for decades by providing a platform that everyone can use, and peerless services like next-day delivery through Amazon Prime.

amazon website

Dead Happy is a life insurance company. Using disruptive branding, they have defied industry conventions and positioned themselves in a successful niche. Rather than targeting the traditional old, conservative audience - think Michael Parkinson and free Parker pens - they target a young, progressive audience with edgy language and fun insurance packages.

dead happy website

Outlery is an eco-conscious cutlery company who have capitalised on the COVID-19 situation to provide consumers with an environmentally-friendly alternative to disposable cutlery. Their success lies in their product, which is innovatively designed and significantly better than anything offered by their competitors. They have also succeeded by keeping their product range small - they do one thing, and they do it well.

outlery website

The Brewdog brewery uses its political stance to make it stand out. This anti-establishment company leads with the socialist slogan, ‘Craft beer for the people’, and their colloquial, witty and often sweary tone of voice is a real hook for their target audience.

brewdog website

Is it time for a radical rebrand?

Sign up for our branding workshops to find out how you can zag instead of zig.

Who wrote this?



She / her; red / blue. Mel is a writer, editor and designer. Equally happy hiking a muddy trail as playing tabletop roleplay games by candlelight. Will seize any opportunity for a party, as long as said party features copious food, prosecco and hits from the 1980s. Her true passion lies in words. A student of literature, she is fascinated by enduring myths, etymology and science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut is her hero. “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”

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