Why differentiation drives market disruption

We’re living in a time where companies desperately want to become “the Uber” of their space. To be fair, it’s an attractive prospect; to sit at the forefront of your industry driving change, and shaping the future. Because of its allure, thought leaders from virtually every industry have subsequently beaten the “innovation” drum to death.

Oh, yeah. The ten-lettered word that sounds so sweet but, when it comes down to it, often doesn’t mean squat anymore. Everywhere you look, from marketing publications to your LinkedIn feed – the narrative is clear: “innovate or die”. But while everyone seems to be an expert on conceiving “once-in-a-generation ideas,” there’s something the gurus aren’t telling you. Relying on your own groundbreaking innovation (that is, to upend your industry with a genius idea and flawless execution) likely isn’t a practical way forward for your brand.    

A clearer path to market disruption

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that not every company will impact society to the same degree as Uber. The good news is, however, when you finally quit desperately seeking innovation, you’ll discover there are meaningful alternative directions to steer your brand. For starters, we recommend leading with the differentiators that are inherent to your brand. It’s about clearly articulating what distinguishes your brand DNA from its competitors (hint: it’s not that you’re innovative), owning your stance, and letting your flag fly. It’s an unmasking of sorts – an honest declaration of what your brand stands for, why you are here, and why everyone else should care. There are several popular brands who have excelled at market disruption by understanding what they are at their core and relentlessly owning that stance.


For years, Patagonia has won praise for more than just its high-end outdoor apparel. Champions of sustainable business practices, Patagonia has consistently dedicated a portion of its profits to environmental causes, advocated against excessive consumerism, and taken measures to limit its overall environmental footprint. Patagonia, as it seems, is a custodian of our planet first and an apparel company second – both on paper and in practice. Consider, for example, Patagonia’s 2011 Black Friday ad that featured a non-manicured product shot paired with the headline Don’t Buy This Jacket. Upon reading the ad’s body copy, the audience would discover the sole purpose of the ad was to educate consumers on the environmental toll of producing and distributing clothing. So, was discouraging people NOT to purchase their products band for business? Nope. The company saw its revenue grow by around 30 percent that year. In 2018, Patagonia doubled down on its commitment to its vision when it donated the $10 million it saved from Trump’s tax cuts to environmental protection groups. In other words, the people behind Patagonia, namely CEO Rose Marcario and Founder Yvon Chouinard, stick to their principles, which then affords the apparel company a soul. And that, friends, is why people will pay more than double for its quarter-zip jacket over one of comparable quality.


T-Mobile, on the other hand, is a prime example of a company that successfully differentiated itself from bigger, badder competition. After realizing it was no longer realistic to compete directly with the likes of Verizon and AT&T, both of which own massive chunks of the market, T-Mobile decided it was best to fully own its segment in the industry and chose to distance itself from rival cell service providers altogether. Today, T-Mobile caters to a smaller, younger audience by serving customers who don’t want to be tied down to a big provider. It offers the market personalized service that soothes customer pain points and draws attention away from its own biggest flaw – the size of its network. Like Patagonia, T-Mobile’s differentiation runs deeper than what’s seen on the surface (which, in T-Mobile’s case, is a hell of a lot of pink). By doing away with long-term contracts and even paying early termination fees for converting customers, T-Mobile has embraced its identity as a cell provider for the people. Even more importantly, it has made it clear that it is not a mega network concerned only with squeezing customers for every penny in their bank account.


Despite the Silicon Valley stereotype, not all disruptors lean liberal. In fact, Chick-Fil-A has long hung a staunchly conservative banner, most notably in their public support of “traditional” marriage. But despite its arguably polarizing political views, Chick-Fil-A boasts one of the country’s most touted brand reputations, according to a Harris Poll. It’s also worth noting none of the other five restaurant chains included in that same poll landed in the top 50. Chick-Fil-A finished fourth, scoring high in all metrics, which included Products & Services, Vision & Leadership, Emotional Appeal, Workplace Environment, Financial Performance, and Social Responsibility. According to ALB Marketing Director, Kelly Springs-Kelley, “By digging in (excuse the pun) and being unapologetic in their beliefs, Chick-Fil-A has clearly set itself apart and, some may argue, caused some consumers who align with their beliefs to ascribe their product as ‘better quality.’ Whether that is an emotional reaction or a taste-driven one is debatable, but what is not debatable is Chick-Fil-A’s success in owning their message and their company purpose.”

True market disruption is in a brand’s self-awareness  

As we’ve seen in the past three examples, when companies embrace who they are – accounting for their values, stances, strengths, and weaknesses – natural market disruption seems to follow. So, rather than talking about how innovative your company is, consider opting to focus your efforts on communicating what it is you believe in. If you’re honest with yourself and your audience, your brand will be memorable – and even admired.