Why is being disruptive vital for businesses looking to scale?

It’s a fair few years off yet, I hope, but I suspect that when I’m gone, they will find “disruption” inscribed on my heart. If I could communicate only one word to retail and business leaders who are trying to grow their companies and chase after greater profitability and customer engagement, it would be that: disruption.

Be disruptive. I like to imagine it as thinking around corners, looking at tasks and outcomes from unusual angles, trying to gain the unfair advantage.

Of course, you have to dig a little deeper than that. Simply doing something wacky or offbeat is not an automatic route to business success. A thriving pet shop that suddenly starts selling ice creams will not necessarily see profits double overnight. You have to perceive and visualise the links between your innovation and the needs and wants of your customer.

Impact of Guinness advert 

What do I mean in real terms? Well, one example might be the black-and-white stylised television adverts that Guinness ran for many years. Prime facie, these made no sense at all: they were long, expensive (and black and white!), and they barely, if at all, mentioned the name of the product.

How could that ever be expected to boost sales? But of course, it did: it created a unique and stylish image for Guinness, transforming it from an old man’s stout to a cutting-edge, sophisticated, alternative drink. It was a masterstroke by AMV BBDO when they took over the Guinness account from Ogilvy and Mather, and it was disruptive: different, counterintuitive, tearing up almost all the rules, and getting it 100% right.

More recently, the John Lewis Partnership has caught my eye as a major high street retailer which has thought creatively in the search for better customer service. First, they introduced a virtual reality technology process whereby customers could create a facsimile of their rooms at home, and then ‘furnish’ them with JL items, visualising what beds and tables and sofas and new colour schemes would look like once they were installed or applied.

This is clever stuff: not so much the technology, which isn’t what you’d call bleeding edge, but the nous, the imagination to apply it to this situation. Humans are visual animals. If you can ‘see’ a new bed in your existing bedroom, perhaps with a lick of paint on the walls, you’re vastly more likely to make a purchase.

That’s not all John Lewis has done. Having acquired Opun, a home improvement company, last year in a pre-packed administration deal, it has now integrated the subsidiarity into the wider partnership to create John Lewis Home Solutions. This will provide large-scale home improvement projects for customers, from redesigning bathrooms and kitchens to building loft conversions and house extensions.

John Lewis’s director of services made an interesting comment. He said that this move was an “exciting opportunity to work collaboratively, share knowledge and collectively learn in the fast-paced home improvement market”, as well as promoting growth, and that emphasis on using opportunities to learn is very encouraging. No retailer can survive in the long run if it stagnates.

You simply have to develop and change, and learning is a critical part of that. It takes some humility to articulate it as openly as John Lewis has, but it’s absolutely the right approach. It also helps John Lewis to move from ‘selling stuff’ to delivering services.’ The latter has much more potential to drive meaningful engagement and customer lifetime value.

How do you define disruption?

So, what would I say to business leaders? Well, disruption isn’t easy to describe, but you know it when you see it. What John Lewis has done with their moves into VR and home improvement has been unexpected but not totally illogical – after all, they’re not the first. Wren Kitchens already use VR as part of their sales process.

But what John Lewis has done, in essence, is look forward, and locate not the next step, but the one after that. And that’s taken the market by surprise. I think it’s smart, I think it’s disruptive, and I think it’ll pay off for them. Watch them and try to think of your own businesses in those terms. See the next two steps and jump ahead of the competition.