The definition of a disruptor brand is a matter of some debate. Although no one would deny that brands like Airbnb and Uber are disruptive, back in 2015, Forbes considered Coca-Cola to be one of the 25 most disruptive brands of the year, all due to putting our names on its packaging. Apple too is often considered a disruptive brand, even though the company has been around since 1976. The common thread with most disruptive products or services, whether they are delivered by a start-up or by an established legacy brand, is that these brands are addressing conscious or unconscious consumer needs, through a combination of product innovation and branding, most commonly accessed via technology.

The role of digital marketing within the rise of the disruptor cannot be understated. After all, Airbnb only released its first TV ad when it was already valued at $2.5 billion, and had recorded 5 million stays in its properties. And Uber only released its first TV ad last year when it had already established itself as a world leader in city transport. Many disruptor brands owe huge initial growth to their clever digital marketing, and in this world of programmatic marketing it’s becoming increasingly important to get your targeting right.

So, if you are looking to disrupt a sector yourself, surely with digital we’re halfway there? And what can mainstream digital marketers learn from disruptors? Should we throw out the rulebook?

Think again! A new study by Network Research surveyed 1,500 people in the UK and explored consumers’ attitudes to disruptors across a number of sectors. It found that no sector is safe from the impact of disruptors, whether that disruption is caused by a new player in the sector or a traditional competitor with an innovative new product.

For many marketers out there, the target consumer for disruptor brands would commonly be those of a certain age group; the tech-savvy, value-driven millennials. But the study found that it’s not all about millennials (for once) and disruptors are certainly not only attracting the young and hip. The highest users of disruptors were in the 25-34 and 35-44 age groups, not the 18-24 year olds. In fact, 30% of 18-24 year olds haven’t even used any of the 20 disruptor brands across the various categories we tested. But 42% of those aged 65+ had used one or more, and 20% of the segment most ‘into’ buying disruptor brands were over 55.

So age demographics aren’t very defined, but what about income? Households with an annual income of over £55K were key adopters with over 70% of them using these brands, with usage declining with income. But again, that isn’t to say that those on lower household incomes don’t use disruptor brands – around half of those in the lowest income bracket has used one of the brands on the list.

“Money” also helps explain why people use disruptors as the survey showed that the biggest reason consumers are buying into disruptors is value for money. When it comes to disruptors, value doesn’t mean just price – it’s that core offering of ‘worth’ the customer feels, and what makes up that sense of worth depends on consumer attitudes.

The study reveals that traditional demographics don’t provide the entire picture for marketers, digital or otherwise. To drill into the type of people who are attracted to disruptors, we created an attitudinal segmentation to help us map out who does and doesn’t gravitate to disruptor brands, and why.. Our attitudinal questions were developed from a broad range of factors including how our respondents felt about the environment, their use of technology, and ways of choosing products and services, alongside softer elements such as how they perceived themselves. The resulting segmentation split consumers into five groups, running from the ‘Tried and testeds’ and the ‘Mainstreamers’, who are relatively closed off to disruptors, through to the ‘Nonchalants’, and then finally to those most open to using disruptors - the ‘Go-getters’ and the ‘Too cool for schools’.

So, if you’re marketing a disruptive product or service, particularly as a small start-up, and you’re bootstrapping a digital advertising strategy because it’s one of the most cost-effective marketing solutions available to you, targeting can be vital in ensuring the success of a product.

The usual rules apply. Whatever your message, tailor it to your audience. Effective targeting is essential, but it is also important to understand that your audience will often be broader than you think, particularly if you’re using traditional demographics and traditional thinking to define your audience. For a disruptive brand, that 20% of the over 55s that are most ‘into’ buying a disruptive product could be the make or break of market success, so think about what messages might resonate with them, not just those millenials!


By Virginia Monk, managing director at Network Research

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