How Disruption Requires a Storyteller's Mind

When upsetting the status quo, remember that consumers are characters, and their settings are all the context you need.
How Disruption Requires a Storyteller's Mind
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Founder of Blackbeard Studios
6 min read
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Everyone wants to be disruptive, but like all buzzwords, it’s hard to not just upset the status quo, but also to be successful doing it. San Francisco-based Apis Cor, for instance, is angling to disrupt the construction industry in ways most startups can only dream of. The tech company, which built a 3D printer for buildings, made headlines last December by constructing an entire house for $10,000 in just 24 hours.

The 3D printer’s future possibilities effortlessly capture the imagination because it’s easy to envision how the technology can have a major impact. Therein lies the real secret to unlocking disruption: taking a product with a common conception, breaking it down, rebuilding it in an entirely new way and capturing the audience’s imagination by telling a good story.

A new paradigm, a new story.

When viewed as part of a compelling brand story, disruption promises a new narrative. Startups can disrupt the incumbents by capturing the fantasy of a customer’s future needs. It’s not enough to merely take an “unsexy” industry and create a beautiful brand. True disruption requires a story of a product or service that is truly transformative and revolutionary.

Related: Being Daring and Disruptive Is How Great Pioneers Conquer Their Industry

The rhetoric of disruption is an important part of a startup’s rise to success. Disruptors frame themselves as revolutionaries, and in parallel their targets become akin to the “establishment.” Therefore, part of the disruptor’s job is to show that the old paradigm was not serving the consumer. Disruption is just as much about showing that an old way of thinking (not just the service itself) is dead.

Crusade for your consumer.

Developing a disruptive company out of thin air is impossible, and too many entrepreneurs confuse innovation with disruption. The truth is that pure innovation is rather common these days amid the acceleration and assimilation of technology.

If you really want to be an entrepreneur with a standout avenue to thrive, you must align your product with the people and consider how you can be their crusader. This is the true difference between innovation and disruption: Innovation merely accepts change; disruption demands it. Here’s how to get started on your story:

1. Start telling your story early.

Your product isn’t just a product: It solves a problem or pain point for your customers. Sometimes disruptive companies are so forward-thinking, they are solving a challenge the consumer hasn’t even considered -- for example, who thought there was another solution to a yellow cab? -- so you must identify an even more intrinsic opportunity. To stand out with a disruptive narrative, you must prioritize communication, PR and marketing from an earlier point in time than companies with traditional products that speak for themselves.

I recently worked with Peerspace, a startup working to disrupt the events industry. While the time was ripe for the traditional events space to be shaken up, it was vital to create a narrative that made sense to the consumer. Peerspace went on the PR offensive against hotel chains by crafting narratives highlighting that event spaces as unique as each host made for better events than ballrooms or boardrooms.

The moral of this story is, communicating your brand story early and aggressively and creating strategic partnerships with like-minded brands can help you reach new audiences, gain credibility, and echo the message you’re trying to send.

Related: The Secret of Story Telling

2. Think of your customers as characters.

When you’re constructing your brand story, your target audience is your characters. Put them in the story of your brand, and understand why they need the disruption you offer.

The most important part of developing a disruptive company is to produce bold new outcomes that can be aligned with consumer needs. Anything too forward-thinking that doesn’t have a compelling narrative will crash and burn, while a trendy yet innovative solution with a good story will succeed in the wake of an incumbent’s failure.

For instance, compare the narratives offered by Google Glass and Snap Spectacles. Google Glass is the jack of all trades that can take pictures and record video, as well as get emails, texts, app notifications and more. If you encountered someone wearing Google Glass, you couldn’t be sure what that person was doing. Rather than fun, it felt creepy and obtrusive. Its story didn’t help consumers understand why they needed this disruption -- instead, its narrative was one of secrecy and efficiency, when what the consumer actually needed was convenience, transparency and style.

Snap Spectacles, on the other hand, hit the market perfectly with a timely product that looked better, had a single, seamless task (recording videos and taking pictures) and was obvious when doing so. The brand knows its audience and understands consumers’ desires for social validation and sharing their experiences with a community. In other words, Snap Spectacles saw its consumers as characters and gave them a tool to help them interact with their settings.

Related: From Bedtime to the Boardroom: Why Storytelling Matters in Business

3. Know your context.

Setting is incredibly important in storytelling, as it frames the entire narrative. For a brand, the setting is the context in which your product exists for customers. Know what kind of territory you’re entering and what your landscape looks like by carefully watching your competition.

Airbnb and Uber, for instance, were tasked not only with capturing consumers' hearts, but also with carefully treading the waters of negotiations among citizens, governments and their corporate counterparts to place their brand narratives and products in new markets. Disruptive paths like Uber's and Airbnb's are often riddled with roadblocks that require aligning with the very “establishment” that consumers believe they're working to take down, but those companies succeed by setting their own context for customers as not just a company but as a means to a better-quality life.

They disrupted their industries by making their brand stories about freedom: They allow travelers to book places to stay and access transportation in cities around the world, delivering customers a consistent experience and peace of mind. Not only do they give people an efficient service, but they also allow them to live and travel anywhere.

Ultimately, disruption is about maintaining status as an innovator and not merely presenting an innovative product with no road map to support continued growth. Remember, disruption never dies, but plenty of startups certainly will. Luckily, a good brand story can cast a protective spell, winning consumer hearts and cementing your company’s position as a true disruptor.

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