Counselor Commentary: Responding To Disruptors

The term “disruption” in business is tossed around quite a bit nowadays – usually linked with firms like, Uber and Kickstarter. But what does disruption really mean? Disruptive companies, according to the man who basically coined the term – Harvard professor Clayton Christensen – offer cheaper, faster or easier alternatives to the marketplace. Uber, then, is a disruptor because it gets people private rides much more conveniently than hailing a big city cab.

In the ad specialty space, e-commerce firms like Alibaba and Vistaprint are clear disruptors. A company that wants to buy promotional products can go online, order quickly and maybe save a few dollars. Sure, they’re cutting out the distributor who might provide ideas or quality control, but some end-buyers just don’t care. Let’s face it – these disruptors aren’t going anywhere, which is why smart ad specialty companies need to respond.

The first way to disrupt the industry’s disruptors is to actually invest in mobile. Don’t dip your toe in the water, go all in. It’s great to have a face-to-face, relationship-driven business if your buyers are Baby Boomers, but Gen X and Millennial customers are creatures of technology. (Newsflash: Baby Boomers are retiring.) A Gen X prospect may not buy 10,000 pens on her phone, but she’s shopping for experience. If your mobile site looks outdated, has misaligned type, or is a cluttered mess, you’re missing opportunities for sales. Go ahead and compare a few top distributor sites to Alibaba’s mobile site right now. It’s a complete mismatch in Alibaba’s favor.

A second way to combat disruption is to recruit and staff differently. You should be embracing cognitive diversity – the practice of hiring and employing different types of thinkers. Why? Research shows certain thinkers are more efficient at getting certain projects done, increasing efficiency. Industries get disrupted when major companies are slow to adapt to change. Cognitive diversity helps agility. (Read more about our take on cognitive diversity here

A third good step is to reach out to clients that the disruptors aren’t targeting. By 2025, there will 60 million Latinos in the United States. Hispanics are a very culturally proud people – they want to connect with brands that speak their language and engage in their communities. Alibaba’s model isn’t a good fit to make Latino inroads, so you can fill the void. Here, a little guerilla marketing can go a long way. Send Spanish-speaking employees and interns to Latino festivals and celebrations to serve as brand ambassadors for your company. Maybe they can pass out a few promotional items, too.  

Finally, to combat disruption you can’t be afraid to take some risks. This might mean your supplier firm becomes the first in the industry to offer a wearables tech line. This might mean partnering in a year or two with a 3D printing company that can run off 1,000 bobbleheads in one day. In other words, ask yourself what your company can do that no one else is doing. Your first nine ideas might not be workable, but your tenth idea might be worth a shot. The alternative, of course, is for you to do nothing, which is the riskiest strategy of all. Why? Because that’s exactly what the disruptors want.