What makes a disruptive brand?

Photo: &pizza
Feb 09, 2018

Klaudia Tirico

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from the Retail TouchPoints website.

What does it take to launch a disruptive brand that develops a cult following? A great idea and good timing are important, but the personality, attitude and work ethic of the entrepreneur are also “make or break” elements.

“Every great idea, in my mind, is an experience driven by founders who are relentless,” said Dan Levitan, general partner for Maveron at a session, “Rock Star Entrepreneurs and The Next Generation of Retail” at the recent NRF Big Show. The former investment banker co-founded Maveron, a consumer startup-focused venture, with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in 1998.

Mr. Levitan added that every entrepreneur needs to:

  • Work ridiculously fast;
  • Be an all-star recruiter;
  • Be obsessed with the product; and
  • Balance brain and heart.

“Great brands resonate emotionally,” said Mr. Levitan. “Yet, at the same time, they need to be analytical and use data in this virtual world. The ones that just use heart never scale, and the ones that just use brain never integrate fully into customers’ lives.”

Other panelists at the session included Marcia Kilgore, founder of Bliss, Soap & Glory and FitFlop as well as a new beauty venture, Beauty Pie, and Michael Lastoria, co-founder and CEO, &pizza.

“New ideas are about connecting the dots through experiences and new things happening in the marketplace in a fresh way,” said Ms. Kilgore. “Most new ideas are obvious, but no one has put them together with rigor or discipline to make it exciting for the customer.”

Each &pizza location is uniquely designed to reflect the community and neighborhood.

“Every shop has a name, shop number and design story,” said Mr. Lastoria. “We wanted to promote one of our core values, which is about celebrating oneness and celebrating the individual — allowing people to be comfortable in their own skin when they walk in, whether they’re working there or there to buy pizza.”

“You need a direct connection with your customer,” added Mr. Levitan. “The best brands of today are about heart, [something that] Amazon isn’t really in touch with.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s the secret sauce for launching and developing cult brands these days? What are some long-standing practices for building strong brands and what are some new ones required for the digital age?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Purposeful storytelling is key to launching a successful brand."
"The secret sauce? Today It’s all about knowing whose hands to put your brand in."
"But to truly change the world so it can never go back … now that’s something else."

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19 Comments on "What makes a disruptive brand?"

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Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Brands fly when they align with a psychographic — and the symbiosis of bringing attention to the brand supporter group in their amplifying the brand. Brand building is all about communications.

Max Goldberg

Setting out to create a disruptive brand is like setting out to create a viral video — it’s incredibly hard to do, and rarely succeeds. I like the article’s recommendations for starting entrepreneurs. Successful brands are driven by visionary founders who recruit top-notch talent, all of whom work relentlessly towards achieving a brand’s well-defined goals. If a brand is fortunate enough to succeed, it will have found its niche with consumers and, just maybe, it will become disruptive.

Art Suriano
The times may have changed, but the principles have not. To have a successful cult brand, you need three things: 1.) The wow factor and exciting product 2.) A compelling ad campaign — one that gets tremendous attention and creates a lot of hype and 3.) Satisfaction from customers who purchased the product and are talking it up to family and friends. As simple as that may sound, it’s not easy. Many great products have failed because they didn’t catch on and poor products because of short-term hype sold out. Focus and make sure that your product can be a winner and know why. Test it with focus groups and listen to the comments. If you have a winner, then work on an ad campaign that gets attention (I like teaser ads talking about something coming that’s not here yet to help create awareness). Create a catchphrase that’s easy to remember and one you hope people will be repeating. Follow that with creative and exciting ads. Keep your fingers crossed and hope that as customers… Read more »
Phil Masiello

You have to know your customer intimately and connect with them on some emotional level. Consumers don’t buy products, they buy benefits — they buy solutions.

I don’t care whether you are building a brick-and-mortar retail store or an e-commerce site, you have to be able to reach your customer with something more than product and price.

Today many retailers are struggling, not because of a push to e-commerce, but because they have lost their connection with their customer. They have lost sight of who their customer is and what they want.

Charles Dimov

Passion, smarts and a whole lot of hard work! That is what it takes to make any business flourish. For a “cult brand,” double up on passion, add an element of quirkiness that caters to a particular target market and throw in plenty of flair.

In the digital age, it takes these elements of the cult brand and finding a way to truly capture the culture and feel of making sure it permeates every element of the brand image: on social, in-store physically and definitely in the service provided that matches with the cult brand expectation.

Joy Chen

Purposeful storytelling is key to launching a successful brand. Consumers buy ideas with a story that gets told through social media, press and products. Today’s brand positioning is the storytelling behind the cult brand.

Joan Treistman

Remember how Corona beer became popular in the U.S. because word of mouth carried it on to great success? Marketers of other “new” products immediately strove to replicate that achievement. But there was no recipe for making word of mouth.

Now we’re talking about the secret sauce for cult brands. No doubt in the age of YouTube and Instagram stars with millions of followers there’s a path to “test marketing” quickly and cost efficiently.

However anticipating success requires what it always has — good planning. There are more ingredients for an effective marketing plan and more strategic decisions to make about integrating media, channels of distribution, pricing and packaging/design for sure. There was never one answer for how to build a strong brand, much less a cult brand. And nowadays it’s just more complicated.

Sky Rota
5 years 3 months ago
The secret sauce? It isn’t always because the clothes or content, etc., is good. Today It’s all about knowing whose hands to put your brand in. I was lucky enough to attend the Super Bowl. I sat below Kevin Hart (comedian/actor) from Philly. I knew he was going to be entertaining, so every time the Eagles made a big play I recorded him. Two of my videos went viral on Instagram then YouTube. Not because I have a huge following, but because I knew exactly who to DM (direct message) my videos to. Within five minutes, Bleacher Report and many other top outlets contacted me for rights to repost. Tons of people stole and reposted my Video as well. My video has at least 10 million hits! Gen Zers are sharers, but more than sharers we are visual and don’t miss a thing. Put the right influencers on your products to use and wear And they will get the word out, without even trying. We notice everything in their picture posts and video content. For… Read more »
Shep Hyken
When a “cult brand” disrupts a major brand, it’s no longer a cult. It’s becoming mainstream. That said, the development of a cult brand needs a leader to take it to a point where the cult, as in the consumers, have enough followers to keep the brand afloat. There is a tipping point where the cult is popular and sustainable, then another tipping point that takes it from cult to mainstream. That’s what mainstream and popular brands need to worry about. They need to watch the sales of the smaller retailer whose cult-like following is starting to nip away at sales. It’s easy to launch a “retail cult” today as opposed to in the past. The Internet gives a small business a world-wide storefront. Strong social engagement, connecting with the personality of the targeted consumers, being behind a cause and having a leader people look up to and admire. That leader can be a celebrity or someone who can work the social stage and get recognized on their own. Videos can go viral without celebrity… Read more »
Cate Trotter

The best brands have a story to tell. There’s a dialogue with customers that helps with engagement. The best brands don’t try to be “disruptive,” they just have a different, often customer-driven, way of doing things. If customers want to tell others about your brand then you’ve done a good job.

Brandon Rael

Going back to the Mad Men Madison Avenue days, successful advertising was all about resonating with your audience emotionally, with a narrative that goes well beyond the brand itself. Consumers associate certain feelings, intangibles and other factors when they are loyal to a brand. There were always certain associations growing up that leaned us towards using Kleenex, drinking Tropicana or having a Coke with friends.

This is all very true today. However, the complexity of the digital-first age requires an engaging social real-time interaction with consumers. The traditional advertising complex no longer is effective in today’s world. However, building a strong brand it has essentially evolved into a relentless all out, multi-sensory digital-first, socially-influenced strategy, where only the agile and relevant survive.

If you have the right mix of the Mad Men-style emotionally-connected strategies along with a digital, mobile, social strategy, you may just have a winner on your hands.

Brandon Rael

This is one of my favorite moments from Mad Men. While this advertising strategy is not as relevant as it was in the 1960s, human nature hasn’t changed, just the technology has evolved how we engage with brands.

Lee Peterson

It’s the product, without a doubt. The obsession with product will quickly translate to all other aspects of the business, but it starts with that. Starbucks, Apple, Whole Foods, some old-timers at this game, have STILL not taken their eye off the product ball. Your love and belief in your own products is the bible that makes the religion work (first religious metaphor of my life, but it’s true).

Ian Percy
The suggestions in this piece are perfectly reasonable. But we still have no definition of what a true “disruption” is. The word comes to us from the 15th century meaning “a breaking asunder,” it’s a noun of action to “break apart, split, shatter, break to pieces.” Disruption comes with a very wide scale. That they’ve run out of coq au vin disrupts your restaurant order but you will not be broken asunder. We go to the other end of the scale when something amazing shows up that we couldn’t even imagine. Someone saw a possibility that no one else saw and made it a reality. The world will never be the same and we want one. The ability to see what is possible beyond what others see is the cornerstone of disruptive thinking. Just because a new idea becomes a huge success or goes viral does not mean it’s disruptive. We also need to remember that there have been disruptive thinkers and influencers since the beginning of time. Life as we know it is the… Read more »
Celeste C. Giampetro

The hardest work happens in the idea/prototype stage, IMHO. 1) Do your due diligence on product and market fit. 2) Be crystal clear and aligned on what problem you are solving for your ideal customer. 3) Ask for feedback from your customer repeatedly and at every stage — then incorporate it.

Ralph Jacobson

Some brands that have built lasting value and true loyalty never started out with the intention to be disruptors. However, my guess is that the majority of those did start with that mentality. Take a look at the highest brand values here. There are a lot of brands near the top that definitely intended to disrupt their markets. Those innovators who look at a market or a potential market need to literally throw out all the rules and see what COULD be the way to run a business in that market. From there, these days, disruptors naturally go viral, so awareness often is a self-fulfilling prophecy, almost. A little promotion never hurts, though.

Nikki Barua
5 years 3 months ago

Great brands are born out of a powerful purpose that people believe in. When employees and customers are fully aligned to something bigger than themselves, they become part of the tribe, they share inspiring stories, and they become fanatical advocates. That’s when you have a movement, not just a business or a brand.

Mike Osorio

Disruptive brands are akin to entrepreneurial ventures. The idea of the brain/heart balance is critical and my observations show that this is unusual in the same person. The idea that the product innovator/designer is the same person to provide analytics and objective decision making is unlikely. The ideal scenario is having a product obsessed innovator partnered with a supportive partner(s) to balance their obsession with practical and speedy guidance.

This topic is nicely connected to the earlier retail pop-ups topic. The best pop-ups utilize disruptive brands. Combine the two together, and you have a little bit of retail magic.

Joel Goldstein

The brands that are able to stay relevant are quick to adapt to a changing emotional landscape. Sites like Mashable and Huffington Post promote trends in CPG categories like beauty with terms like “Vegan” when describing makeup. When these new descriptive terms begin to trend, we see that agile suppliers are able to adapt their message and packaging to fit the new demand and rise to the top of both online retail and the inbox of retail buyers.

"Purposeful storytelling is key to launching a successful brand."
"The secret sauce? Today It’s all about knowing whose hands to put your brand in."
"But to truly change the world so it can never go back … now that’s something else."

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