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Disruption by design: how startup brands use design-led thinking to leapfrog established brands

Apple, Google, IBM and PepsiCo are all big-hitting brands, and design-led thinking has been key to their longevity, their growth, and their success. By putting design at the core of their product and brand development, they stand out from their competitors. Their designs are all informed by market research: they tailor their offerings to existing consumer awareness, and ultimately create new areas of consumer awareness in which they dominate.

Smaller startup brands are faced with an intimidating prospect if there’s a giant like that in their field – but design-led thinking can help them, too. Their designs directly address communities centred around interests and ideas. Uber put car services in the hands of the customer; Airbnb asks if you have spare space to share; GiffGaff offers you freedom and an incentive to recruit the people you talk to most. They’re not promoting a product: they’re inviting you to join in an experience.

These brands’ offerings are designed to disrupt. They identify what’s ‘normal’ practice in their field, locate a sector of the market where something different is possible, target it with a new idea, and sustain a flow of new designs to maintain the sense that something extraordinary is afoot. It works for more product-centred brands too: disruptive design is a powerful force in the FMCG world, and can be the key to leap-frogging much bigger competitors.

Disruptive design

Consider KIND Bars. There’s nothing unique about them as cereal bars, but they sell more and more every year (reporting 36% growth in 2015), doing serious damage to more established brands’ market share.

Their difference was planned from the start, and it’s in the design. KIND bars use colourful packaging, sans serif type, clear packaging so you can see the healthy-looking ingredients and simple-to-understand ingredient lists. They look different; they look straightforward, honest and not afraid to stand out.

That’s the essence of disruptive design – to look at what the dominant brands are doing and be different; to challenge the paradigms of standard innovation and rapidly arrive at solutions for the right people, in the right channels, at the right time. Great design is a simple means to strategic growth. Look at Müller: their Corner yoghurt disrupted the market, changed the way we interact with a product, and is now a dominant brand. Gü Puds have done similar launching in 2003 – carving themselves a premium niche in the desserts marketplace through luxe design and expensive packaging.

The thinking holds up across FMCG as a whole. Innovative alcohol brands like Taylors and ZEGE extend ‘packaging’ beyond the bottle; Taylors opt for the traditional presentation case, while ZEGE upgrade the bottle carrier from a cardboard convenience into a classy, integrated element of their efficient, military design. Jägermeister’s thermo-sensitive bottle tops the list for a reason: it’s elegant, it’s interactive, and it’s mysterious, disrupting the brand’s own reputation as the student’s choice for a Red Bull bomb. Jack Daniels pulled off something similar with Tennessee Honey – it tastes different, it looks different, and it presents itself as an experimental step for a brand that might have seemed set in its ways.

Disrupted plans

While design-led strategies can lead to enormous growth, that growth and the brand exposure that follows can have a flipside. Disruptive brands attract attention, which can turn negative.

The headlines say KIND Bars are full of sugar. Uber are stealing jobs from and undermining cab drivers, and setting a dangerous precedent for on-demand labour. Google have been accused of dodging taxes and mining users’ data. At odds with the innovation at the heart of their design, their core products, services and business practices don’t stand up to scrutiny. The trust built up through their design, if broken, leaves the brand in a bind. The solution is to respond, to innovate again, to identify how customers perceive them and disrupt again – but it can be harder to clear a name than it is to make one.

This avoidable side-effect aside, ambitious design-led thinking is an essential tool for sustainable growth. It’s great for startups – and great for reviving dormant brands. No matter how established your brand, design-led thinking can help you in even small ways. Innovation doesn’t have to mean reinventing the wheel: it means recognising that you need to make changes and making them on an appropriate scale.

Could your brand be energised by design-led thinking? Do you dare disrupt?


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