The case against “disruptive brands”

By Phillip Koh Co-Founder and Director of Strategy, Without

“People don’t care if it’s new. They care if it’s better.” Our co-founder and director of strategy Philip Koh wrote a piece for Fast Company on our obsession with “disruptive brands” and why transformation doesn’t always mean breaking things.

Flicking through the fundraising pitch for a “disruptive coffee machine” on Kickstarter recently, it struck me how the embrace of disruption has become the unshakable cliché of every ambitious business, founder, entrepreneur, and creative agency.

The word has become so ubiquitous that it’s rendered almost entirely meaningless. It’s mistakenly used as a shorthand for innovation, a conflation of change with improvement. But as the exploits of Elon Musk have shown, disruption is only sometimes for the better.

For leaders with ambitions to drive change, the bauble of “disruption” can damage-focus on their true prize. We need to measure transformation not by the discomfort of disruption, but by the improvements being achieved. Here are some steps brands and business leaders can take to change their mindsets—shifting from “How do I break things?” to “How do we fix things?”


As consumers, we’re naturally inclined to notice the new, the unexpected, the jarring. Which is why the changes that we remember tend to be the noisy ones. But transformation doesn’t have to be loud. And noisy doesn’t always result in meaningful difference.

Substantive change doesn’t have to make a splash. The award-winning design overhaul of the U.K. government’s GOV.UK website and accompanying identity system is a case in point. Launched to little fanfare and greeted with a disinterested shrug from the man on the street, it has since set the global benchmark for accessibility, legibility and usability. Some might argue that the whisper with which it was adopted is itself a sign of success, evidence of its seamless effectiveness.


Only venture capital execs get a kick from disruption. Your customers, the public, government, and everyone else would prefer a smooth ride. In fact, your success may rely on not feeling like a disruption at all.

In the early years of my career, pitching ideas to the founders of Zoopla (the U.K. property website analogous to Zillow in the U.S.) provided an instructive lesson. We’d been briefed on its vision of an aggregated marketplace for residential lettings and sales, a powerful comparison tool and direct-to-market platform that would allow anyone to become their own agent, cutting out the middle men in the process. Given the poor reputation of real estate agents—let’s be honest, they are tolerated at best—we felt this angle was too good to miss. We built a punchy brand identity around giving back control, a champion of the little guy, ready to upend (yes, to disrupt) the entire property industry.

When our client was presented with this, his immediate response was, “Let’s not make enemies. We don’t need the pushback. Besides, there’s no reason why real estate agents couldn’t be our customers too.” A $3billion sale to private equity firm Silver Lake, a decade later proves his prescience. Agents did become Zoopla’s biggest customers and getting them on board without ruffling feathers was a key factor in the business’ success.


Sometimes, you need to ask if transformation is desirable at all. Take Juicero, the lavishly funded Silicon Valley startup that delivered juicing machines capable of squeezing prebagged fruits, sold by subscription, with four tons of force. Investors, including Google, were seduced (to the tune of $120m) by the prospect of redefining the face of fruit-based-liquid extraction. So, you can imagine their horror when an enterprising Bloomberg journalist achieved the same result by simply squeezing the bags with his hands.

The fascinating deep dive into the rise and fall of Zume Pizza also offers some delicious insight. One potential customer, on seeing the mobile pizza-making machines, with Zume’s advanced robotics and AI-powered distribution, commented, “Holy shit, this is so much extra work. We can do this faster with 12 people at $12 an hour.”
New isn’t always better. This month saw the opening of Arlington restaurant, by the master of London hospitality, Jeremy King. On the site of Le Caprice, a former hot spot for the likes of Princess Diana, Madonna, and Mick Jagger, the launch marks a return to the scene where Jeremy made his name 40 years ago. And his mandate? To restore the things people loved, to change as little as possible, and only where it improves the experience. In a world of QR code menus, virtual queues and Deliveroo, Arlington focused instead on having a phone number that’s always answered, on remembering people’s names and preferences, and on details like the optimum serving of champagne (it’s 150ml if you’re wondering).

People don’t care if it’s new. They care if it’s better. Sometimes, the route to success is simply doing something timeless really, really well.


Some sectors are so egregiously failing their customers that any improvement necessitates an overhaul. Even here, a focus on disruption is unhelpful. Instead, our benchmark for success should be the reaction “I can’t believe they didn’t do it like this before.” Because the best solutions, the ones that stick, are the ones that people can’t imagine having been any other way.

Case in point, the provision of nutrition in schools. Everyone remembers unappetizing school dinners. Unidentifiable stews and soft-serve sides that are easy to prepare and quick to distribute. But the kids didn’t eat it, leading to poor nutritional outcomes and widespread food wastage. Sodexo, one of the world’s biggest facilities and catering providers, challenged us to improve things. We started with the insight that children had definitive views on what’s on their plate. A single ingredient they didn’t approve of in a stew would consign the entire lot to the bin. So we built a modular menu, based on basic components, which could be mixed and matched based on student preference, taste, allergies, or beliefs. The results? A 10% jump in student participation (with a 35% increase in vegetables eaten), leading one participant to exclaim, “I can’t believe they didn’t do it like this before.”

So, let’s retire the idea of disruption. Because disruption for disruption’s sake is like a pizza-making robot—an answer to a question nobody asked. Disruption is neither desirable, nor is it the point. What the world needs is improved outcomes. Transformations that tread lightly and bring everyone onside. Ideas, new or old, executed well. Solutions that feel so natural, it’s a wonder no one’s thought of them before.

This opinion piece appeared in Fast Company

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