Every time a person starts a sentence with “Back in my day…” Elon Musk wipes away tears of laughter with his solar-powered handkerchief. Okay, so we can’t prove that’s true, but it’s abundantly clear that ‘disruptive’ companies like Tesla are doing more than interrupting; they’re here to stay. Companies like Casper, insurance provider Lemonade, Amazon, Venmo, Blue Apron (to name a few) run the gamut of industry and consumer needs, but all are wildly successful in challenging the traditional structure of massive, crowded industries. Their uses range from the mundane — figuring out the bill on an awkward date or grabbing a car when the thought of the subway in July is unbearable — to the spectacular (like who wants to coordinate rock club when we all live on Mars). But regardless of the flashiness of their utility, these new companies aren’t just successful; they’re adored by consumers.
What is it about these disruptors that swept consumers off their feet? And why now? Certainly innovations have always pushed markets forward, but never before have we seen such upheavals in their very structures across the board. Disruptors answer simple but salient consumer needs — needs that large corporations simply can’t (or don’t) navigate. Especially in the age of this-Facebook-page-is-my-personal-customer-service-rep, companies are held to high standards, and missteps are quickly called out and amplified. And while consumers expect corporations to be ethically responsible, they are suspicious of their efforts. In short, many big corporations are simply unable to satisfy arguably the most important consumer: the Millennial.
These innovators rocketed to success because they were launched not only with a strikingly good idea, but packaged up nicely with stunning design, impeccable user experience, a curated and deliberate social presence — and probably some snarky messaging. And for a consumer who aligns their personal image with brands like a carefully-chosen posse, cool factor is no small thing. This converts consumers from customers to bonafide cheerleaders. And as these companies are heralded as ‘disrupting’ and ‘upheaving’ tired industries, you can bet consumers are happy to put their dollars towards their cause.
So when two opposing groups grapple for the same attention and dollars, a turf war erupts. Powerful corporations and even governments are using all the resources at their disposal to stop the flow into disruptors’ pockets, while cities persistently crack down on their own infrastructure disruptors (think Airbnb and ridesharing services). Big companies aren’t going to go quietly.
That being said, some corporations are taking the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach. And that’s more good news for consumers because the bar is being raised, and companies that were complacent just competing with like-minded competitors are now taking extra measures to improve their experiences. Even more significantly, these larger companies typically possess the resources to offer this new and improved experience to consumers in more diversified communities, and to solve for barriers like cost, tech literacy and location.
The thing about being a disruptor (like any revolutionary) is that there must be a controlling power to rail against. But we wonder: once large and small companies alike rush to emulate innovative brands and snap up a piece of the pie, will everything settle back into the status quo — back to a sea of sameness? Will these upstarts lose their lustre and bandit spirit with consumers over time, as they continue to grow and become – gasp – corporate? (If Uber is any indication, there’ll certainly be some growing pains.) These are questions that the next industry overhaul – whatever it may be — might answer. But in the meantime, we’ll just be preparing our organic meal kits and practicing walking on Mars.