How to be a disruptor post-COVID

February 22, 2021 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

In 1995, a paper in the Harvard Business Review first introduced the theory of “disruptive innovation,” a process by which smaller, undercapitalized brands find a way to successfully challenge and “disrupt” established incumbent businesses. Originally, the HBR authors offered a specific, narrow definition for what qualified, or failed to qualify, as disruptive innovation. But in the 25 years that followed, both the theory and the term were co-opted by marketers and agencies alike who used “disruption” as a brand strategy, an industry buzzword, and a battle cry for challenger brands taking on the category killers. For three decades, the concept of “disruption” has been an empowering focus for dozens of brands, but it wasn’t for everyone.

That all changed in 2020 when COVID-19 turned the world upside down and shook it for more than a year. Now, catalyzed by the chaos of a global pandemic, most every brand from restaurants and packaged goods to healthcare and service providers find themselves in the center of the ultimate disruption and looking for ways to recover from the year that was.

Before the pandemic, the true disruptors were the brands that looked at the status quo and found a way to turn their respective industries on their heads. If you’re a brand that’s ever wanted to disrupt, blow things up, or forge a new way forward, COVID set that process in motion for you. The question now is what will you do with the opportunity?

Welcome to 2021 AC.

When historians look back at this period in time, they will clearly see a delineation between marketing BC (Before Coronavirus) and AC (After Coronavirus). Before COVID, there were a handful of companies like Netflix, Tesla, and Uber that we all recognized as true disruptors. Interestingly, in a 2015 article in the HBR looking back on the original paper on “disruptive innovation,” the authors argued that according to the actual theory, Netflix, Tesla, and Uber were NOT actual disruptors. As of this writing, those three “non-disruptor” brands have a cumulative market cap north of $1.13 trillion. Add to that other non-traditional brands like Stripe, Peloton, Airbnb, DoorDash and Etsy and clearly they are all disrupting something.

Did the pandemic wreak havoc on the branding world? Clearly. But, one could argue, for brands with the State of Market, State of Mind, and State of Readiness to lean into a disruptive mindset, there’s never been a better time than now to recreate yourself. To build the brand you’ve always wanted to be. To make the changes and take the calculated chances you need to take to trade “what is” for “what could be.” How do you embrace that mindset when you haven’t before? Here are five suggestions for how to start thinking like a disruptor:

Forget what you know.

In the past, when you’ve struggled to find clarity, you’ve no doubt heard the phrases “you’re missing the forest for the trees,” or “you’re just too close to it.” One of the hardest things to do as a business leader is to work on the vision for your own company. That’s because you know too much. You’re so intimate with your company’s strengths and weaknesses that, when any idea is proposed, the supercomputer in your brain goes to work connecting the dots and instantaneously (and usually erroneously) produces all the reasons that idea will or won’t work before you even have time to discuss it.

To think like a disruptor, you have to forget everything you know and try to look at your brand as though you were seeing it or anything like it for the first time.

In Adam Morgan’s Eating The Big Fish, they call this “intelligent naivete.” Start with a blank slate and, at this stage, disallow any negativity or “that won’t work” responses. Finding space for disruption is about what can be, not what is.

Look for open water.

In 2015, authors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne published a fantastic book called Blue Ocean Strategy where they suggested more successful companies seek the uncontested waters or blue ocean rather than getting mired in the bloody red ocean of fierce competition. Part of disruption is about finding the space outside the normal arena of combat where you can thrive. Netflix bet people would prefer to have DVDs mailed to their house and, later, to stream movies rather than going to their Blockbuster a mile away. Camp Gladiator took the “gym workout” experience and completely moved it out of the gym. Etsy took a massive universe of “local” craftspeople and gave them a way to connect with a world of buyers. When you’re identifying your opportunity for disruption, look for blue ocean where, at least for now, you can sail uncontested.

Overlay other disruptors onto your brand.

As you try to figure out where the blue ocean exists for you, try an “overlaying” technique that lets you take other disruptors you admire and “lay” your brand “over” them, imagining what your brand would look like if you were them.

Let’s say you’re a healthcare brand. What would your brand look like if it was Chick-fil-A? To consider that, first look at what makes Chick fil-A special – things like:

• Extraordinary service
• Friendly, patient, overpolite staff
• Consistent, arguably best-in-class products
• Uber-efficient process
• Community-mindedness

Now, take those superlative elements and consider what they would look like if your medical practice tried to implement them. What would extraordinary service look like in your company and what changes would make your service extraordinary? How could you run your facilities as efficiently as a Chick-fil-A drive-thru? Would that mean posting friendly people with iPads throughout the facility to help direct traffic or check people in? Repeat the exercise for every element you love from Chick-fil-A. Then pick five other disruptors you admire and do the same exercise with them.

Partner with smart thinkers.

When you’re trying to reinvent your brand, or identify where you can make the biggest splash, one of the most restrictive things you can do is assume you have to do all the thinking yourself (see suggestion #1 about being too close).

Don’t be afraid to open the aperture and lean on your advertising and marketing partners for their perspectives. Better yet, challenge them to do some blue ocean, big sky thinking on your behalf.

If you don’t have those partners presently, consider engaging with them. Great ideas can come from anywhere. You just have to invite more thinkers into the sandbox.

Have fun with it.

Deciding how you want to blow up the status quo isn’t easy. Give yourself permission to be messy and allow yourself to enjoy the process. Have fun with it! Encourage your leadership team and anyone participating in the process to have fun also.

Big picture thinking works best when your mind is clear, the rules are loose, and the opportunities (in the moment) are all possibilities. No disruptor ever found their groove by giving in to a chorus of negativity. Any idea worth its salt is an idea worth challenging. But, as it’s said, that which doesn’t kill it, makes it stronger. Right now, the world is as “on pause” as it ever will be. Figure out where you want to take the fight next and let’s go!

MIKE SULLIVAN is president and CEO of  LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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