Marketing Strategy
Marketing in the Age of Disruption

Marketing in the Age of Disruption

December 8, 2021
16 min read

What does marketing even mean right now? A question many businesses are asking.

The world is in a place of dramatic change. So, what’s the answer to marketing in the age of disruption?

Marketing isn’t a function. It isn’t a department, either. It’s a process, a voice, and a conversation.

If you’re a marketer, you know it’s hard to stand out from the crowd today! Technology, the internet, and constant access to smartphones have made it difficult to get noticed by consumers who are inundated with brand advertising and content. Pair that with the fact that humans’ attention span has become shorter than that of a goldfish and you’re met with a substantial challenge.

Disruptive marketing — or the process of transforming and even replacing industry status quos — is often necessary for new or smaller brands to get ahead.

But what does disruptive marketing really mean? How can you learn to do it? Is the risk really worth the reward?

In the sections that follow, we’ll answer these questions and more. Let’s get started!

Quick Takeaways:

  • Disruption isn’t new, just more intense, and that sets the course for rethinking marketing.
  • The digital disruption of marketing is still in its infancy but has profoundly changed how brands connect with buyers.
  • Most marketing is still stuck in traditional mindsets.
  • Content marketing is the most critical aspect of modern marketing, and its focus is always on the customer.

Marketing Isn’t What We Thought It Was!

It’s obvious we’re in a disruptive cycle right now. The world is chaotic. It’s been a perfect storm, but one you can weather. Over the past few years, we’ve seen our fair share of disruptive forces — COVID-19, a recession, and social tensions.

So, what’s the context for marketing in a world like this? Does it even matter? Do we have anything to offer our audiences right now?

Yes, absolutely, because disruption isn’t new. It’s been around for some time. We’re seeing the acceleration of it right now.

Watch the webinar below or read on for a recap!

Everything that’s changing now had already been changing. It’s just being accelerated by the latest crises.

Or maybe we’re just paying more attention now. And that’s a good thing. Because the price of not keeping up is irrelevance, and irrelevance might be the worst thing.

What Is Disruptive Marketing?

Marketing that challenges deep-rooted assumptions and shocks the market into changing is disruptive marketing.

Disruptive marketing’s innovative roots

Disruptive marketing has its roots in the idea of disruptive innovation, a concept coined by Harvard business professor Clay Christensen. Clay defined disruptive innovation as:

“a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market . . . eventually displacing established competitors.”

In other words: it starts small, gains momentum, upends industry norms, and eventually creates totally new ones.

The video below gives a quick and really helpful overview of disruptive innovation that I recommend watching before we keep going.

A few important takeaways from the video:

Disruptive innovation makes something more affordable or accessible.

The most obvious examples of this are technology innovations and smartphones, which have democratized data to the masses.

Disruptive innovation often seems like it’s doing everything wrong in the beginning.

When Uber was founded, people scoffed at the idea of getting into a stranger’s car. The idea of AirBnB made people nervous in the same way. Today? They’re both ubiquitous parts of everyday life and travel.

Disruptive innovations are often low quality at first.

They require many iterations and improvements over time. Think about our iPhones — every new model is better than the last, but Apple doesn’t wait until they perfect every feature to release them.

Disruptive innovations focus on the customer.

Business innovation and marketing crowds agree: you can only find success by fulfilling customer needs. Disruptive innovation looks at customer needs of the future, often filling them before customers even recognize they exist!

How does it all relate?

All of the above are true for disruptive marketing, too. When you think about these points from a marketing perspective, it’s something like this:

Disruptive marketing takes an innovative, novel approach to marketing products and services to new and existing audiences. It uses new channels, mediums, messages, and more to accomplish something not done before by other companies.

Because of this, disruptive marketing is also inherently risky. There are no past examples to work from. Marketers have to look at what they do know and make informed predictions about what’s likely to resonate with audiences.

If all of this sounds kind of difficult — well, that’s because it is. If disruptive marketing were easy, brands would do it all the time to get ahead of the competition.

The good news is that you can easily learn tools and techniques (we’ll cover them in this article) to help you recognize opportunities for disruptive marketing and innovation. You can practice them all the time — constantly trying out disruptive strategies and operating in a way that gets your content noticed.

And the payoff? It can be huge! Disruptive marketing helps new market entrants shoot ahead of established competitors, boosts company growth, and increases brand awareness manifold.

What Do Most People Think Marketing Is?

If you ask most people, including CEOs, what marketing is, they’d probably say ads. It’s an antiquated way of looking at the process. Yet, companies still spend millions or even billions on traditional advertising or brand marketing.

Surprisingly, Coca-Cola recently halted ad spend, with a statement from the CEO that, “There is limited effectiveness to brand marketing.”

That’s an interesting response from a company that has undeniable brand equity. Their brand message has been about the product. Product marketing is the old guard. It’s all about the product and not the user. It’s true that it’s ineffective.

The Advertising Research Foundation reports that product sales decline after 40 ad impressions in a month. That may seem like a large number. However, think about watching a football game on a Sunday. Those impressions add up fast with commercials, logos on the field, and every sponsored segment.

And do customers remember the ads? They may be more for entertainment. Think back to the Super Bowl ads of this year. Some were funny and clever, yet I have no idea what brand created them. I didn’t see myself in the ads. So, it didn’t resonate.

More ads are not what your customers want. To thrive and grow during this storm and more to come, stop promoting ads to audiences that don’t want it.

The Disruption Began with the Digital Channels and Devices

If you look at the history of the evolution of brands, you can start with some key dates over the last 18 years.

  • 2003: LinkedIn launches, providing professionals a virtual way to connect and learn. In just 18 years, LinkedIn has become a valuable channel for marketers.
  • 2006: Facebook debuts. In only 14 years, the effect it has had is profound. It’s still the most popular social media platform, and it’s now much more than a place to share family photos. It’s a news source, a marketplace, and a place for brands to tell stories.
  • 2007: iPhone is available in the U.S. With this launch, we suddenly have the internet in our pocket. This accessibility has been life-, culture-, and business-changing. Answers and needs are available with a click.
  • 2011: Snapchat arrives, becoming beloved by all generations – because who doesn’t look better with a filter? Again, it’s a game-changer for consumers and brands.
  • 2020: The pandemic happens and TikTok explodes, making it possible for anyone to be a content creator. Personal brands and brand influencer partnerships explode.

Digital, social, and mobile technology would seem immature in most situations. It’s only been 18 years, yet these are fundamental revolutions for society.

All of this contributes to the massive shift in the way that businesses work. The most substantial impact has been on marketing. Knowing the power of these components, why does marketing still seem so pre-internet?

Most Marketing Is Still Without a Revolution

The majority of marketing still looks like it didn’t get the memo on change. It’s a cycle of brands telling us how wonderful they are. The narrative is still all about them. The only difference may be the channels they choose.

The reality is we’re all connected now. It’s easy to find information, and we expect this information to be accessible and meaningful. When it’s not, we ignore it.

This digital transformation means customers have different relationships with brands. They have expectations because this is the experience economy. When you don’t meet them, they move on.

But marketing, in many organizations, is stuck in the past. It’s not providing returns or revenue, and CEOs are unhappy. They overwhelmingly blame their CMO.

A study from the Fournaise Marketing Group found 80 percent of CEOs don’t trust their CMOs. Subsequently, only 10 percent have those same feelings about other C-suite leaders. This disapproval is most likely due to disconnects. There is also a dichotomy in what CEOs want and what they tell marketers to do.

How Do You “Do” Disruptive Marketing?

Challenge assumptions

The first way to uncover disruptive marketing ideas is to challenge the assumptions that exist about current marketing practices and consumer preferences in your industry. Challenging assumptions is another idea founded in the world of business innovation, and it basically means to question what is assumed to be true.

When you do, you get one of two answers: a confirmation that an assumption is indeed true, or a realization that it isn’t. When you get that second answer — that the assumption is not true — you know you’ve got an opportunity for disruptive marketing.

Truly challenging assumptions requires questioning the very core of what we think must be true for a given industry or market. Consider these business innovation examples:

Examples of companies who used disruptive innovation to transform their industries

Image Source: weploy

Imagine what people’s responses would have been 20 years ago if they heard about banks with no cash, or accommodations providers with no property, or taxi companies that don’t own cars.

The point: what seems impossible may not be so. It may, in fact, be an assumption. True disruptive innovators — and disruptive marketers — challenge assumptions constantly to find new opportunities for growth.

Two true marketing disruptions that might help you visualize how this concept plays out in practice are:

Social media advertising

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the idea of businesses using social media was unheard of. As many a millennial will tell you, it was once a haven mostly exclusive to high school and college students. Fast forward to today, and social media ads have totally changed the way social platforms make money and how brands interact with consumers.

Influencer marketing

Regular people promoting products, earning a living from it, and getting higher engagement than celebrities with millions of followers? This idea may have been laughed at by marketers even just a few years ago. But today micro- and mid-level influencers are being pursued by brands big and small. They are all but replacing traditional celebrity endorsements as people find them less relatable and authentic than influencer content.

Continually improve

The second important concept to remember when you’re implementing a disruptive marketing strategy is that if you wait for it to be perfect, you’ll be waiting forever (and probably, a competitor will beat you out in the meantime). Part of being disruptive is launching quickly and then working to continually improve based on audience response.

To clarify: this does not mean being careless. Instead, it means thinking of ways to get your idea out there, continually assessing its performance, and improving as you go.

An easy example is your social media content. You post content, track its engagement and performance, and adjust your strategy as you go. You don’t wait until every post is perfect to get active on social platforms because then you’d never do it!

The same goes for a potentially disruptive marketing idea. Flesh it out enough to be launched, see how your initial audiences react to it, and make it better as you expand it. This strategy will make you more agile and help you test assumptions about your audience along the way.

The CEO Paradox in Marketing

CEOs are typically numbers and metrics people. They expect marketing to generate leads, expand brand awareness, and increase revenue. Those are reasonable requests. CEOs often have the wrong idea about how to achieve this.

They want us to change a logo. There’s no return on investment (ROI) with these vanity projects. How do you track if that activity helped meet your goals?

It’s easy to place the blame on misinformed CEOs for bad marketing, but marketers have to be accountable, too.

Marketers can’t be “Yes” Men or Women. Companies hire them to implement strategies that drive marketing value. Your job isn’t to say yes. It’s to push back. In a way, it’s your job to educate your CEO and other stakeholders on what marketing is.

Be In-Step with Disruption

The disruption is here and it’s not going away. It will only continue. It may seem like chaos, but there are critical steps to take to embrace the disruption.

Before the internet, companies spent time and money on brochures as their calling card. Then they moved to a digital channel, except many businesses didn’t rethink how to use it differently.

Your website is your most important digital asset. It isn’t a brochure! You own it and control it. It can drive real value over time if you use it wisely.

The graph below illustrates the value of the return on content marketing on your website versus paid ads.

Image: Marketing in the Midst of Disruption

First, content marketing budgets are substantially less, with no fluctuations. Ad spend seems to always balloon. Over time, the focus on content marketing shows a significant increase in traffic. Traffic is always growing. Once you put out a quality piece of content, it doesn’t only make an impact on that day; it will for months or years to come. It’s like annuity, this is the beauty of evergreen content.

Ads, not so much. As soon as you end your Google ad, the return is zero. No ad, no return. It’s not a sustainable way to market.

You can see that content marketing has a 7x greater ROI than paid ads.

Real-World Examples of Brands Doing Disruptive Marketing

Okay — by now you might be thinking: is disruptive marketing really for me? We’ve looked at examples like Uber, Facebook, and Apple. What happened to disruption helping small brands get ahead? How can you actually be disruptive in your own niche (and perhaps on a limited budget)?

Great questions. And here’s the answer: you can do it with content.

Content marketing is used today by 91% of businesses across industries. It has proven to earn 3x the leads and 6x the conversions as other marketing methods, and at only 62% of the cost.

Your content is a huge opportunity for disrupting the marketing status quo. Let’s find inspiration from 4 brands that have already done it successfully.


In 2011, I worked at SAP, an international software company that’s certainly a leader in the field. I was the first head of digital marketing. It’s a new role, so ripe for disruption, right?

I simply had to make the business case for content marketing, starting with thought leadership content. I found it was much more effective than product content. When we produced content that was based on expertise, audiences responded.

That was laying the foundation. The CEO and CMO were on board with content marketing. I began to construct a global content marketing strategy that would focus on thought leadership content.

This was a breakthrough, except my marketing peers weren’t on board. Those marketers were caught up in product promotion because of the expectations of product owners. Those product owners expected their marketing colleagues to push product.

I went back to the data. I found that the paid ads around product had no true ROI. Our audience ignored them. The content was ineffective. Our audience needed something more relevant.

I began to simply perform searches on the kinds of products SAP sold. Two specifically were big data solutions and cloud computing technology. For organic search rankings, SAP was losing here. Their competitors were holding the top spots, not with product content, but customer-focused content.

To sum it up,

  • Ads were ineffective.
  • Content wasn’t usable.
  • No leads came from these campaigns.
  • Our buyers wanted help.

These realizations and data analysis led to the idea that content marketing could help reach, engage, convert, and retain customers. Providing them with expertise and education content was what would help meet those goals. We had to position our content marketing as value and make the buyer the star of the story.

This strategy led to the creation of the SAP Digitalist Magazine. The content there became what users found on organic search. It now has thousands of contributors and has turned it into a digital hub for customers to gather. This example serves as the way to sell the business case for content marketing.

Dollar Shave Club

While every other razor brand was trying to one-up each other on the smoothest and most luxurious experience, Dollar Shave Club came onto the scene in 2011 with a game-changing assumption: people don’t actually care much about those things when it comes to shaving.

They also cut right to the chase about the currently inconvenient experience of buying a razor.

Dollar Shave Club’s first commercial — now viewed a whopping 24+ million times on YouTube — uses a healthy dose of snarky humor to pretty quickly convince potential customers that they’ve got a better option.

They totally flipped the standing narrative in the razor industry and convinced the masses that less is actually more. Today they have more than 4 million subscribers.

La Croix

La Croix has been around since 1981 in the extremely competitive beverage industry. Celebrity endorsements are common in this industry (we can all name a few Pepsi or Gatorade commercials featuring famous faces, right?) and once social media became a thing, influencers were just as common, too.

Rather than go after heavy-hitting influencers, however, La Croix decided to take a different approach. They started partnering with micro- and nano-influencers (some with only a few hundred followers) to generate content that felt more relatable to their audience. Then they began featuring it on their own social media pages.

La Croix Instagram post featuring micro-influencer content.

Image Source: Instagram

It worked! La Croix’s sales doubled over five years between 2013-2018, showing the power of micro-influencers to attract and engage their audiences.


AirBnB capitalized on user-generated content — influencer or not — to create a brand name now known for its authenticity (and for inspiring wanderlust in its audience). Remember that AirBnB doesn’t own any of the property for rent on their platform. To find and share content, they decided to look toward their customers.

In 2016, well before user-generated campaigns became the norm, more than 75% of AirBnB’s content was generated by app users.

In 2016, more than 75% of content shared by AirBnB on Instagram was generated by app users.

Image Source: Pixlee

They moved away from the industry norm of sharing property photos and focused on selling the actual experience of staying at a place. As we know now, it paid off in spades.


What if I told you that snark marketing was founded in the… fast food industry? You read that right. Wendy’s, specifically, spearheaded the idea that snarky, clever interaction with customers and other brands would be a good way to stand out on crowded social media spaces.

Their snarky replies to customers (many who quite literally ask for it) evolved into an annual #NationalRoastDay when Wendy’s roasts Twitter users, competitors, and lots of other good-sport brands who get in on the fun. And they definitely don’t miss a chance to get one in on their top competitor when the opportunity presents itself:

Example of Wendy’s using snark marketing on social media.

Image Source: Twitter

Wendy’s social media snark has earned them followers, created a new part of their brand personality, and kept their brand name active in online conversation. Worth the risk!

How Can Marketers Connect with Customers in an Age of Disruption?

Marketers need to deliver content that attracts buyers. This is what content marketing is. It’s the meeting in the middle of what you want to publish and what customers want. The illustration below shows what I mean and the fact that most things are explainable with a Venn diagram.

Content marketing isn’t novel. It’s been a force in the world for at least a decade. Its adoption and use are growing. The reality is content marketing is in opposition to the instinct companies have to market.

Their instinct is to talk about themselves. The messages are about features, benefits, and differentiators. It’s me, me, me…

It isn’t that companies aren’t publishing content. It’s that the content is ineffective. A report found 80 percent of B2B marketing content is unused.

That’s a lot of effort that went nowhere. What’s this content missing? It’s not what buyers want or need. Most importantly, what’s missing in the equation is the customer.

Content marketing is the overlap of what you know and your solutions with answering customer challenges, problems, and questions. You must move from a promotion mindset to a publishing mindset.

That change has much to do with empathy. Empathy in content marketing drives real connections. Yet, it’s hard to explain to executives who are devoid of empathy. CEOs care about the money, but content marketing has the power to do that. It’s just not in a “traditional” way.

There are actions you can take that bridge this gap. Let’s explore these.

Tip 1: Make the Business Case for Content Marketing

The business case aligns with your goals to attract your ideal buyers.

  • Reach by using the keywords they use.
  • Engage by creating the content they want.
  • Convert by handing them over to sales when ready.
  • Retain by keeping the conversation going with useful content.

Tip 2: Drive Results with Frequency

What’s one area where brands derail their content marketing efforts? They are inconsistent in publishing. You must frequently deliver content customers want. You have to publish more and better content.

The more consistent you are, the higher rates of traffic. SAP’s success was in part due to frequency. In one year, they saw a 7x ROI.

This exercise led me to define a formula for marketing ROI. I published the book The Content Formula. This was my message to CMOs on how to leverage content marketing.

They didn’t want to hear it. They weren’t ready, but there was no denial of the shift to becoming customer centric.

Experts continue to study the frequency question. How often should you blog? Check out our post on blog frequency that delivers data-driven conclusions to the question.

Tip 3: Focus on Customer Interests

What makes content marketing relevant is that it focuses on customer interests. Those interests do not have to be product specific. For example, GE Healthcare wants to reach radiologists. They don’t care about the features of GE’s latest equipment.

We found they did care about salaries by looking at search data. To meet that need, the company published an eBook on radiology salaries. It was controversial, but it performed very well.

This is an example of the paradigm shift that must happen in organizations. This way of thinking must root out the engrained mindset of pushing product. It has a lot to do with empathy. The importance of empathy for customers and colleagues is integral to successful content marketing.

However, it’s often a cultural problem. I was challenged by how to explain the value of empathy, so I wrote Mean People Suck. Based on examples and data, I proved empathy-based organizations show better business results. Marketing should care about culture.

Most organizations still hold on to org charts. An org chart is nothing but a map of who tells who what to do. Org charts don’t see roles as humans and all the baggage and politics involved.

Most importantly, where’s the customer in the org chart? No representation here.

So, I advocate for The Bullseye, which puts the customer in the center.

Tip 4: Answer Customer Questions

One great example of the Bullseye is what Rena Patel accomplished at Capgemini. She was the brand and communications head. The company was fourth in the market behind some big names like Accenture.

The CEO saw that Accenture sponsored golfers and decided they should, too. This would have been a $20 million spend.

Rena pushed back. She found that their audience wasn’t really interested in golf. She also knew that this tactic would not serve the needs of customers.

Rena began to see that content that was educational and customer-focused had high returns. The company had the expertise to share, they just needed to put effort here. Her goals were to increase revenue and elevate their experts.

The company’s content began to answer customer questions. For 0.1% of the budget of a golf sponsorship, the efforts increased revenue by $1 million in the first year.

Rena provides the results, but the CEO still wants to sponsor a golfer. Rena says no again, understanding that here experts are the key to conversions.

Tip 5: Activate Your Experts

So, Rena gets the CEO to back off on the golf sponsorship. She doubles her budget for content marketing. This allows her team to create more content and tap into every SME (subject matter expert).

At the end of the year, content marketing drives $24 million in sales. It’s the highest ROI-producing product I’ve ever seen.

You may be thinking, how can a small company do this with little to no budget?

No Matter Your Size or Budget, Content Marketing Can Deliver

It’s vital to understand that you do not have to pay to get website traffic. My site currently ranks for 24,500 keywords. We don’t spend money on ads.

We get noticed by publishing consistent content that answers customer questions. If you look at thought leadership, our blog on the subject is one of the top organic results. The first ad at the top is Accenture, a billion-dollar company. They have to pay to be on page one. We don’t.

That didn’t happen overnight. Content marketing is a long game. But you’ll recall its impact compounds over time. Advertising does not.

Disruption Isn’t Going Anywhere, Your Marketing Should

Disruption is part of the world. Everything is changing. If your marketing does not reflect this, you need to reassess. Remember these important elements:

  • The customer should be the hero of your content.
  • You’ll have to sell the business case and ROI for content marketing.
  • Consistency and frequency are essential for effective content marketing.
  • Content should always answer customer questions.
  • Activating experts, internally and externally, will boost your content marketing ROI.

Could your brand be a disruptor in your industry? From blogs to video to social media posts and more, your content is a driver of new ideas and opportunities for your marketing strategy.

If you want to boost the quality and volume of your brand’s content, Marketing Insider Group can help. Our team of writers and SEO experts will deliver you optimized, ready-to-publish content every single week for one year (or more!).

Check out our SEO Blog Writing Service or schedule a quick consultation with me to get started!

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.

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