In a business context, the term ‘disrupt’ is often used to characterize bold startups that shakeup the landscape, or small businesses with a novel approach in a marketplace mired long-standing traditions and practices.
However, far from only applying to the smallest and most nimble companies, any brand has the capacity to disrupt their industry.
Take Netflix and the end of Blockbuster, or the rapid emergence of Airbnb as an alternative to hotels and Uber as an alternative to traditional taxis and cabs.
These are just 3 examples of what Allen Adamson, author of Seeing the How: Achieving Market Advantage by Transforming the Stuff We Do, Not the Stuff we Buy and Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Metaforce, terms ‘experience disruptors’ – innovative brands that look to change the way customers experience their product or service.
But disrupting experiences isn’t just about offering something new and unexpected – it’s also down to getting consumers and users to voluntarily change what they’re already doing.
Seeing the How: Q&A with Author Allen Adamson
- What is an 'experience disruptor'?
- What makes Uber and Airbnb such successful examples of experience disruptors?
- When – and why – did the market shift from its focus on product-based differentiation to experience-based differentiation?
- What are some simple ways brands can start paying more attention to the experience they provide customers?
- What are some of the biggest mistakes you see brands make when they claim to be 'customer-centric'?
- What would be your response to companies that object to this approach and want to maintain focus purely on the product they offer, not the experience?
- A lot of emphasis is placed today on the importance of data in achieving customer-centricity. Is this perspective too narrow-minded? Can organizations be too reliant on data?
- You named Netflix in your book as an example of a brand that successfully rolls with the times. As a brand that has been struggling more recently and losing subscribers to competitors, what can stop a company that was once a successful disruptor from being able to innovate, adapt and shift?
- Adopting the 'lenses' you describe, such as 'seeing like a concierge,' can require a significant cultural shift for, say, large tech enterprises or FMCGs. How can these brands attempt this and successfully manage resistance to change?
- In regards to market disruption, what can larger organizations do to keep the pace and compete with more nimble competitors – and avoid becoming another Blockbuster? Is the easiest way to compete with an industry disruptor to follow their new model or search for something even better?
Q: What is an 'experience disruptor'?
A: An experience disruptor is an innovative company or brand that gets consumers to voluntarily change the way they’ve traditionally done things – generally the stuff of daily life.
While examples abound, here are two which immediately come to mind:
Ten years ago, when I needed a battery or a charger for my computer, I’d get into the car, drive to a RadioShack, peruse the racks of items, pick out what I needed, get in line at the register, pay, and drive home. Today I open my Amazon app, double click on the item – and it’s on my doorstep the next day, if not that afternoon. Amazon is an experience disruptor.
In the recent past, when I needed to present a PowerPoint deck to a client, I’d pack up my computer, get on the subway, continue on to the client’s office, check in with lobby security (usually waiting in line and often having to repeat the client’s name), have my picture taken, go up the elevator, and wait in reception. I’d then be escorted to a conference room where I’d plug in my computer, wait for the client, present the deck, pack up, and journey back to my office. Today, more often than not, I can sit in my home office, double click on the Zoom app, bring up screen share, do my presentation, and then click “end meeting.” Zoom is an experience disruptor.
Q: What makes Uber and Airbnb such successful examples of experience disruptors?
A: Uber completely disrupted the ride-share category, predominantly the taxi industry (ask any of the thousands of former taxi drivers). Today, instead of waving my hands frantically on a NYC street to get the attention of a taxi, I pull out an iPhone, tap on the Uber app, and within a few minutes, a car pulls up, I check the license and the driver’s name (and, the driver’s, mine) and off we go to my destination.
Airbnb may not have entirely disrupted the hotel industry but it dramatically changed the way consumers now think about travel accommodations. The ability to book a room in a private home – or to book the whole house – has enabled consumers to have distinctively personalized travel experiences, opportunities by which to enjoy hundreds of unique locations around the world, not to mention often at a better price point than hotels.
Q: When – and why – did the market shift from its focus on product-based differentiation to experience-based differentiation?
A: Because differences between one product and the next in the same category have diminished
(it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with a significantly better mousetrap), consumers now look to other criteria when making a purchase decision. The sea of sameness, the commoditization in an increasing number of product categories has driven consumers to consider “experience” as a critical factor.
The automobile category, and particularly SUVs, is an example of diminishing product differences and increasing commoditization. Almost all SUVs have the same general appearance, fuel efficiency, warranty, phone interface (CarPlay), and coffee cup holder. This lack of product differentiation makes it a challenge for consumers to determine why one brand is any better or different than another. As the product differences between one brand and another have eroded, companies have begun to look for experience differentiation to set themselves apart in consumers’ minds and help with purchase decisions.
Q: What are some simple ways brands can start paying more attention to the experience they provide customers?
A: The easiest way to understand the role that experience plays in helping your brand stand out is to map the consumer’s journey, from awareness, to consideration, to purchase, to actual use and service, and then to repurchase. Analyze each customer touch point along the way. Are there any “pain points?” Look at each point with what I call “fresh eyes,” and a bit of the Jerry Seinfeld’s curiosity – “Did you ever wonder why…” something has to be the way it is?
For example, did you ever wonder why you have to go to a car dealership to buy or service a car? Why can't the dealer bring or service the vehicle in your driveway? Did you ever wonder why you have to stop at the front desk and stand in line to check into a hotel and get a room key? Why can’t there be a more convenient way to do this and go straight to the room?
Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see brands make when they claim to be 'customer-centric'?
A: Every marketing executive and every company claims to be customer-centric. It's usually in bold type on the home page of their company’s website. You cannot truly be customer-centric if all you do is sit in your office and read the consumer research reports (and, usually just the top-line executive summaries) that land on your desk. To be truly customer-centric, you must remember that:
- Customers change faster than your annual research study. Get out of your office – get out of your bubble - and look at what’s actually happening in the marketplace – where and how consumers shop, how cultural and social trends are evolving, how generational shifts are influencing buying behavior, etc. Look at categories outside your own to see if you can find analogous situations.
- Customers often tell you one thing and do something completely different. Look for gaps in what consumers say – and then what they actually do. You’ll find insight in these gaps.
- If the research asks the wrong customers the wrong questions, you will get the wrong answers. Identify your primary audience and drill down on what you really want to understand about them.
Q: What would be your response to companies that object to this approach and want to maintain focus purely on the product they offer, not the experience?
A: My response would be that they have tunnel vision.
Air travel is a good example. If you asked passengers about the “product,” for example - how courteous were the flight attendants, how good was the wi-fi, how comfortable were the seats, how fresh were the peanuts - would that really help you understand how likely they were to fly with your airline again?
However, if you asked them how easy it was to get dropped off in front of the terminal, how long they had to wait on the TSA line, how far was their walk to the gate, were there timely announcements about the flight status, or was there a place near the gate to get a snack – you’d get an entirely different perspective on the air travel category. Get different perspectives of the user’s entire experience. You need to zoom out beyond your " product," to better understand the customer experience and how it will affect the purchase decision.
Q: A lot of emphasis is placed today on the importance of data in achieving customer-centricity. Is this perspective too narrow-minded? Can organizations be too reliant on data?
A: Most companies are up to their eyeballs in data but can't find a single insight.... the "so what?" A cliché, but they can’t see the forest for the trees. What does all of this data really tell us and what does this mean we should do? Collecting data is easy. Companies have servers packed with data. The magic is in mining an insight – decrypting something that may be relevant hiding within what the obvious facts and figures tell you. An organization needs data – it’s how they interpret the data that matters.
Q: You named Netflix in your book as an example of a brand that successfully rolls with the times. As a brand that has been struggling more recently and losing subscribers to competitors, what can stop a company that was once a successful disruptor from being able to innovate, adapt and shift?
A: The larger the company, the more risk-averse it becomes. The more successful the company, the more there is an " if it ain't broke, don't fix it " mentality. Companies must support their core businesses, for sure, but also run a parallel innovation track if they want to shift ahead and stay ahead of the competition. This is easy to say, but hard to do. It means spending time and money on things yet unproven, while holding down the existing fort.
The marketplace in which Netflix competes has gotten far more competitive in the past few years. At first, just having lots of older content was a differentiating factor. Then Netflix won by creating "must-see" original content. Unfortunately, competitors, including Apple and Amazon, with deep pockets, started creating more "must-see " content.
The challenge for Netflix, as I said, is to look farther down the road than the competition is looking, up the innovation game and see what’s ahead before the competition does. One thing for sure is they won't succeed just by cutting down on family account sharing to squeeze more money for the same customers and experience.
Q: Adopting the 'lenses' you describe, such as 'seeing like a concierge,' can require a significant cultural shift for, say, large tech enterprises or FMCGs. How can these brands attempt this and successfully manage resistance to change?
A: There is no easy answer. Part of success is being open to “seeing " opportunities before the competition does. The lenses I offer up help achieve this goal. The bigger challenge is not just seeing opportunities, but seizing them and putting them into market once you’ve identified them.
And that gets to your cultural question. Once a company is successful, they tend to attract employees who are good at optimizing what already is: Making the process more efficient or slightly modifying its offer.
And, as I said relative to Netflix, the larger the organization becomes, the more it tends to be culturally risk-averse. This may require saying, “Let’s assume it’s day one. What would we do differently?” Or, it may require recruiting a new team with the "Ever wonder why culture" to see and seize new opportunities.
The shaving market for years had two players, Gillette and Schick. Each year one company would make a minor product-focused change (evolving from one blade to two). Then the other competitor would follow with another minor product change. In the end, someone outside the category looked at the market with fresh eyes and said, "Gee, forget the product and the number of blades. Customers can't tell the difference between three and four blades. What if we looked at an entirely different aspect of the category – having to go to the store to replenish shaving gear every month.” Enter Dollar Shave Club and others.
Q: In regards to market disruption, what can larger organizations do to keep the pace and compete with more nimble competitors – and avoid becoming another Blockbuster? Is the easiest way to compete with an industry disruptor to follow their new model or search for something even better?
A: Companies should only follow a competitor's innovation if they are confident that they can out-execute and out-deliver (or, more efficiently, deliver the same performance at a lower price).
You have to be certain that your innovation is relevantly different – and will be sustainably so.
The Apple iPad was not the first tablet, but they out-executed everyone else, from the design to the user interface to even how they marketed the product. Instead of showing consumers using tablets at desks, they showed users lounging on a couch, having the freedom to take their device anywhere. If you can’t do it better in some meaningful way, search for “another" opportunity.
Seeing the How
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