Preview of a multi-part discussion on disruptive innovation, marketing and branding.

Roger Zellner

Former global director of research and development for packaging productivity and simplification at Mondele¯z International

How do you define disruptive innovation?

Disruptive innovation is something that brings a unique solution to people with something they did not have before and that they seriously want now. If it’s disruptive, it didn’t exist previously.

Disruptive innovation can be physical. It can touch any of the five senses. But it could also be emotional. It could be something that helps people make the right choices. For example, I don’t go to a movie now or to a restaurant unless I look at some of these different review sites that tell me what the critics and the users think. I just don’t want to waste my time. When people invest their time and money, they want to be sure about their choices and what they’re getting for their value.

Another area that seems right to me for disruptive innovation, includes health. Yes, this is a big society idea, but think about how you pick your doctor, how you pick your treatments, how you decide what you eat and the impact that has on your health.

In the medical world, there’s also so much confusion about how to live a healthy life. From heart health and more, people are puzzled. There’s room for innovation on how to guide people to live healthier lives and how to use technology as guideposts and a map.

Think about education, a lot of time and money is invested in education. Education has a significant impact on people’s lives! How students choose their majors, their professors and their universities are ripe for disruptive innovation.

Even government, think of how much you spend in taxes. What would be the impact if people had more useful information about how their tax dollars were being used and an easier way to immediately use that information when voting?

And these big ideas are achievable. Look at what Uber is doing to how we think about transportation and how Tesla is considered by the business world and general public relative to established carmakers.

Why should larger corporations care about disruptive innovation?

Well, it’s a matter of survival. To believe that your business is going to satisfy all needs as the external environment is changing all around us is foolish.

On the other hand, the external world around larger corporations continues to evolve how people buy things, how they’re eating and how they’re making purchasing decisions. If you go back to the 1950s and the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ era, buying something for your family was a much different process. Now there are more people involved and on different schedules. There is one person buying for the whole household. Each household member could be buying things on their own because there’s much more choice in where and when items can be purchased and a lot less time required to make those purchases.

Food companies certainly have had to adapt; other companies have also. Think about personal care, you never heard about the for men category years ago and now it’s one of the fast growing fields out there in terms of consumer products and innovation.

Axe was disruptive. Its marketing creates different reactions from different people. Unilever also knows Axe’s target market. As people look for and appreciate more personal experiences, brands like Axe have real appeal.

Disruptive marketing can keep the brand fresh. Brands need to keep anticipating what their consumers want, which becomes a bigger and bigger challenge to address.

The opportunity to disrupt isn’t just in products and services for the younger generation. If you think about the older generations, you realize they have a lot of wealth that they’ve acquired over time and the desire to use that. Smart marketers are creating brand experiences personalized for them, including vacation experiences like Road Scholar where they have learning trips.

Yet, the challenge with the larger corporations is the very reason that they’re large: They have steady profit streams that they need to grow and protect. These profit streams are covering a lot of people’s salaries, a lot of shareholder value. You can’t ignore that and not take care of your core competencies.

Over my career, I’ve seen different situations where the focus on disruptive innovation led to a lack of focus on the core, and consequently the core became unhealthy. Senior leadership who lead this had to come back and say, ‘You know what, it’s the core. We have to take care of the core. Our core is eroding and it’s creating poor business results.’

If everyone is looking at how we can launch something new, innovative and disruptive, it can be harmful. Businesses make money by execution. Execution is critical and large parts of organizations are setup to execute with excellence. That’s where the money comes from that pays people’s salaries that delivers the dividends, the shareholders, etc.

It’s not like large corporations should avoid disruption. You should always understand the risk. But, again, there’s a risk in not innovating. Remember how phones have replaced cameras for a lot of shoppers. Hence, the reason to balance it like most things in life,

Larger corporations also have an advantage that shouldn’t be forgotten. You know the old saying, ‘How to make a small fortune? Start with a big one.’

Read the full interview with Roger Zellner and other design and branding leaders in upcoming issues of Brand Experience.