Disruptor or disrupted?

These days if you’re not a disruptor brand, then you’re almost certainly being disrupted.

In many sectors, such as brick-and-mortar retail, traditional media and financial services, it can feel like being sucked into a black hole – it’s overwhelming, and the forces get harder to resist day by day.

Incumbents don’t have to sit back and take it.

But at the same time, there are many inspiring examples of incumbent brands (i.e. those born before the term ‘digital-first’ was invented) who have managed to thrive, despite the forces of disruption from innovative brands popping up all around them.

Rather than standing transfixed in the headlights of disruption, they’ve managed to learn, adapt, and even thrive in response.

IBM upped their game in marketing with campaigns like Smarter Planet and told better stories

Take IBM. Once the epitome of the big, lumbering incumbent (remember that book comparing them to an elephant) being taken apart by the disruptors from Silicon Valley and low-cost manufacturers in Asia. But, after a period of decline and fall, they responded, getting out of the high-growth but low-margin personal computing market and focusing on a market where big could still mean beautiful – enterprise-level technology and services.

IBM upped their game in marketing with campaigns like Smarter Planet and told better stories, eventually regaining brand credibility and market strength.

Microsoft somehow held on, even if, for a while, they were perceived as old-skool

Take Microsoft. Partly by design and partly by accident, Microsoft found themselves dominating the global software market with Windows and Office. Then came anti-trust legislation, Silicon Valley again, open-source software and eventually apps. But Microsoft somehow held on, even if, for a while, they were perceived as old-skool, clumsy, and overly corporate in a world being disrupted by teenage developer nerds in hoodies.

They also upped their game in branding, design and user experience, and, with Xbox, even finding credibility with the nerds.

McKinsey embraced digital transformation, design, and entrepreneurs

Take McKinsey. For decades the self-styled ‘Masters of the Universe’ were the favourite management consultants of Fortune 100 CEOs. Then the dot-com boom in the early 2000s and the public scandals of Enron and WorldCom threw everything up in the air. MBAs were out, and so were the suited-and-booted, superannuated consultants with their PPT slides. But they also pivoted. McKinsey embraced digital transformation, design, and entrepreneurs (not just corporate CEOs).

The digital-native tech consultants disrupting the management consulting world, such as Sapient and Razorfish, faded away into the background, and McKinsey regained the brand high ground.

The point is that while your business and your sector are almost certainly facing significant amounts of disruption from new brands, incumbents don’t have to sit back and take it.

Just because your organisation is relatively big, inflexible and risk-averse doesn’t mean that your brand can’t lean into the forces of disruption and still come out on top.


Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's leading strategic consultancy specialising in brand-led transformation for knowledge-led businesses.