10 Rules for Disruptor Brands: Marketing Strategies for Challenger Brands

The attacking force is nearly always at a disadvantage in most cases. As disruptor brands continue to challenge market leaders, this list of rules combines marketing and strategy to give brands of all types of insight into choosing the plan with the largest impact for growth.

1. Least Expectation. Least Resistance.

This rule applies to all of the rules below. Hence the placement at the top. Consider this the most important rule. Attack the market where you have the least expectation and the least resistance. This is the strategy.

The least expectation works in several ways. This could be the least expected channel, least expected message or least expected market. Least expected channel, message, and market all work together. The least expected channel is also the least crowded channel which means the message doesn’t have to be amplified as much. As you consider doing the least expected message consider what’s already been done in the channel the message is in. Competing in the least expected market with a unique message and a unique channel means dominating with little competition.

Dollar Shave Club has been exploited for case studies on disruptor brands. It’s been stripped of any lasting wisdom in favor of current tactics. Instead of tactics, let’s look deeper into the strategy of least expectation, least resistance when it comes to Dollar Shave Club. Consider 2012. There’s search as a channel. Expensive. Then there’s Facebook emerging, but it’s not the Facebook we know today. Now consider YouTube. A site Google bought and has a ton of traffic but not the paid marketing machine it is today. Consider further how tailored the message was for YouTube. Short, quick changing scenes with random interruptions. It was created for YouTube.

Not only was this in a channel with the least expectations, a message and creative that wasn’t expected but also a market with the least resistance. Gillette owning 90% of the market wasn’t worried about some startup on YouTube. Subscribing to razors wasn’t part of the market Gillette was competing for. Dollar Shave Club nailed the least expectations and least resistance approach for a successful launch and massive brand.

2. Focus on One Goal

Have one product that gets 100% of the marketing attention. Have one metric that dictates success or failure. Stay focused on that goal month over month.

Have more than one product and trying to manage more than one focus? It’s not going to work. Consider a company that has sizes. Small, Medium, Large of a product that’s customized around a customers item. The number of internal battles around increasing sales for a certain size or type cause wasted spend, wasted time, and unnecessary fights. Focus on one goal instead. Revenue. Conversion Rate. Pick one and forget what sizes are selling.

Consider another brand with a subscription product and smaller one-off products. Prioritize the subscription product. View everything else as supplemental revenue. Everything else is a distraction. Trying to allocate budgets, bids, creative and manage audiences against each individual business segment isn’t working. Focus.

3. Test Positioning

As you start to gain traction who’s buying and why? There are a few questions you can ask to find out what value they get out of your brand. And there are multiple reasons people might choose your brand. But there’s only one position your brand can occupy in their mind at any one time.

“The mind, as a defense against the volume of today’s communications, screens and rejects much of the information offered it. In general, the mind accepts only that which matches prior knowledge or experience.”
― Al Ries, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind

The beautiful thing about digital is the number of tests you can run at once. Test positioning. Test the value props from differentiation. Status, social proof, luxury, accessibility (or not), can all be testing in messaging to communicate and strengthen your position.

4. Double Down, Double Down

Test a channel, test a message, test a position. Good. Now double down on what worked. Stop trying to be present in all channels and make sure you do the channel that works for you better than anyone else in that channel.

Paid Search. Social. Content Marketing. Display. Press. Affiliate. Influencers. OOH. Podcasts. OOT. Direct mail. Marketplaces. SEO.

You can’t win all in all those channels. Unless you have a billion dollars like GEICO–which you don’t–you can’t do it all. After testing a few. Pick at most three. Then double down. Double down. Test within the channel until you can’t come up with any other test for that channel. It’s going to take longer than you think.

Only then, and only then, should you explore the next best channel for you. That’s after you test and figure out what the next best channel.

5. Audience First

You have an audience that will be interested in your product and audiences that won’t. Cut down no every single aspect of the audience that isn’t interested. Stop spending time and money in places where the audience isn’t.

Customer personas have been around for far too long for someone to be targeting all ages, incomes, GEOs, interests and behaviors. And saying “but the algorithm will find the best people” is lazy. No, the “algorithm” won’t. The algo is there to get pretty close but then it’s going to maximize profits for the company that wrote the algorithm.

Cut deeper than you think you can and then cut a little more. Your CPA can’t afford to target someone who isn’t responding.

This also works outside of paid channels. Stop pitching “bloggers” and “Influencers” whose audience doesn’t care about you, your company, or your product. You have a core audience who’s ready, willing, and has the need for your offer. It’s not helping anyone to flood the market targeting the audience outside of your core audience.

6. Feed the Loop

As you start getting results from each test and data back, push the look forward. Take the learnings across the entire org. Take data from a customer service board and using the prospecting Campaigns. Take data from A/B tests to inform ad copy. Take ad copy test to inform landing page and homepage design. Take survey data to craft new A/B tests for homepage and landing pages. Build a data flywheel. And push the flywheel to pull the growth rate upwards.

7. Platforms & Leverage

Platforms provide two forms of leverage. One, the platform’s network exponentially increases the speed of reaching an audience. Two, the emerging platforms are built off a wave. You get the ride and emerging wave and multiply the speed of reach across the platform.

Uber used Platforms & Leverage with remarkable results. One the platforms they built off using Apple’s iOS ecosystem. They used referrals across social networks, text, and email. Finally, the rode a massive shift in consumer habits in the shift to ride sharing, mobile use, and payment apps. Connecting platforms together while riding a larger wave nearly guarantees faster growth.

8. Cut the Cake Sideways (Lateral Thinking)

There’s a thought exercise to illustrate Lateral Thinking, to get 8 even slices of a round cake, how would you have to cut it? Cut the cake sideways. As you make the first two cuts in quarters the final cut goes sideways. Lateral thinking describes the process of using creative ideas instead of incremental logic. It’s used to significantly accelerate learning and growth.

Shane Snow lays out lateral thinking for branding with the story of how Oreo’s agency used lateral thinking to earn their client billions of impressions. As Super Bowl was being played, the lights went out for a few mins, Oreo’s tweeted “You can still dunk in the dark” earning the brand thousands of retweets. That’s not where lateral thinking comes in. The agency then decides to build the story around the tweet. At that point first in marketing publications start to tell the story behind the tweet. From there major national media brands pick up the story of a tweet. It’s the idea behind using lateral thinking to speed up growth. In this case, Oreo’s agency did two things. One, the agency thought it could parlay a story about a tweet into press 2) it started pitching the story to smaller circles in the immediate circle: marketing publications, from there it built momentum into those stories into larger national attention. Use momentum to grow faster, higher, and better with lateral thinking.

9. Own it (Build the List)

Email still dominates. Email is still a top 5-10 source of traffic and revenue. And yet, marketing dollars are poured out without much thought to building the list.

A startup looking to leverage Kickstarter to get the first round of paid supporters goes to Facebook to push some paid traffic in an attempt to generate more Kickstarter supporters. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the startup then returns to Facebook to drive more traffic.

Consider a different approach. Instead, the startup prioritizes gaining an email as part of all activity. This story would then be a little different. The startup starts to think about driving traffic from Facebook to Kickstarter then thinks instead about grabbing the email in addition to driving traffic to Kickstarter. Now the startup has the email address to drive traffic to project and then with zero marginal cost, drive traffic with product updates and sales events. Email and using the CRM will pay off now and in the future.

Harry’s is one such company. Harry’s prelaunch focused on email and referrals to spread the word with a simple incentive. Harry’s was then able to keep the list informed of company updates without having to shell out more clams to Facebook. Building the list made a huge difference.

10. Momentum

Momentum makes a greater difference on future valuation. As the flywheel starts to spin faster taking each learning into the next spin of the flywheel. Don’t lose momentum. Don’t change agencies, channels, product focus or marketing tech setups–anything contributing to the momentum, don’t change the current flow.

For example, a startup with revenues in the 1 Million/month range and growing decides to switch a key Marketing tech software to switch providers without historical pixel tagging. That revenue source contributed consistently 5-12% of the company’s revenue. At the same time, the startup decides to switch DSPs, which again won’t have the historical data for the new DSP. Then they switched the policy on email marketing cadence, where email was the 3rd largest revenue source. Needless to say, after raising $30 million+, being featured as a disruptor, the next round was a down round. If you track site visits with SimilarWeb the traffic has stalled. They lost momentum. Don’t lose momentum.