Categories are constantly at risk of being disrupted.
It’s the lurking thought that often keeps brand managers up at night. New market entrants are popping up every day with products, claims, or experiences that aren’t meaningfully different. The sheer amount of choice is overwhelming consumers to the point of inaction – and shrinking whole categories as a result.
This issue is hurting both the big brands that fail to keep up with newcomers and the smaller players that struggle to scale up.
It’s not all bad news: Categories that are vulnerable exhibit clear warning signs, with brands that struggle to differentiate across brand, experience, and innovation.
By learning what seeds of change to look for, you can see what’s ripe for disruption – and get ahead of your opportunity.
Spotting the signals
To assess which categories are most vulnerable today, we can look out for signals across 3 areas:
- Culture: Has there been a cultural event that’s shifted the conversation in a category?
- Consumers: Are consumer behaviors changing due to inconveniences in customer journeys?
- Competitors: Are too many players offering the same thing, resulting in a price race to the bottom?
Let’s take a deeper dive into each one.
Ignoring the shifting sentiments around us can pave the way for culturally attuned brands to disrupt categories with more meaningful offers.
Lingerie & nightwear
Our post-#MeToo era has dramatically changed the conversation around female empowerment and sexualization. This shook up the market for lingerie brands that spent years putting the male gaze ahead of their women consumers. Take Victoria’s Secret: the current stock price of this ex-superbrand is down 55% (2018-2023), exposing the vulnerabilities in the wider lingerie & nightwear category.
Athletic apparel brands like lululemon – whose stock price climbed by 142% in the same period – are increasingly taking over the aging cultural narrative of this category with body-positive loungewear, showing stronger consciousness and relevance in their adjacent category than long-time incumbents.
Although social media consumption remains at an all-time high, the cultural discourse about social media’s value has created vulnerability. We’re seeing growing awareness around its negative mental health effects, its algorithms that heavily favor sponsored over organic content, and the further blurring of reality with AI influencers like Lil Miquela. At the same time, social media is evolving into just “media” as users continue to choose TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube for everything from news to entertainment.
In other words: It’s fragmented, it’s messy, and it’s ripe for disruption.
Community-based communications and content platforms like Discord are already changing how younger generations connect. With relatively low barriers to entry and no single market player that’s synonymous with social media across generations and platform types, it’s only a matter of time before a challenger comes in and gets it right.
Brands need to pay attention to these seeds of change now before they snowball into market forces that can’t be ignored.
How to avoid being disrupted when:
The culture’s shifting
In-depth cultural studies can help you uncover the early, emerging conversations and trends that will be critical in the future. Combining qualitative methods with a powerful data ecosystem is the key to staying ahead of the culture curve.
Another sure sign of category disruption is when consumers start to change their routines and behaviors, making certain brands redundant.
Disruptive forces in the airline category are gathering momentum, including:
- Sustainability re-evaluation
- Rising costs
- Shifting behaviors around business & leisure (“bleisure”) travel
4 out of 5 people say they want to travel more responsibly – but airlines are still trying to cope with labor shortages and increased fuel costs. And with 84% of businesses planning to spend less on travel than they did pre-pandemic, bleisure travel is soaring: 60% of business trips now fall into that bucket. These shifts in consumer behavior mean the airline category needs to think hard about how to protect itself from disruption.
Not only is there space for more streamlined business models, but understanding emerging category inconveniences and new consumer segments can offer fresh, interesting opportunities for growth. Ambitious ventures like EcoJet are already looking to enter and disrupt the category with a more eco-conscious alternative – in this case, flights that are sustainable from their electric fuel sources through to their plant-based meals.
Changing consumer behaviors have also forced brands to re-evaluate their e-commerce strategies. As we recently explored, the retail landscape is in constant flux – we’re seeing this at every turn, whether it’s a giant like Macy’s closing another brick-and-mortar store or the rise of social shopping.
Brand interaction opportunities are rapidly evolving while consumer expectations for a smooth, quick, and cheap service continue to push e-commerce closer to disruption. Between developments like TikTok Shop, hyper-personalized experiences curated by AI, and the rise of less brand-friendly social platforms, we’re seeing the seeds of disruption to create the next e-commerce frontier.
How to avoid being disrupted when:
Your consumers’ behaviors are changing
Make sure you deeply understand your current and potential audiences and opportunity areas. By segmenting customers and uncovering their untapped needs through analysis, you can define a clear blueprint and strategy to create impact across your brand experience journey.
Finally, a tell-tale sign that a category is ripe for disruption is when the only differentiator between products is a logo.
On supermarket shelves across borders, brands are racing to differentiate on ineffective claims tagged to the latest “macro trend.” (One recent result that’s got us raising our eyebrows? Creating a “protein” version of everything – even beer.)
The lack of meaningful differentiation is bubbling up to build disruptive conditions. In the US, the “Ready to Drink” cocktail sector looks like a prime target, with growing homogeneity between seltzers and pre-mixed cocktails.
With oversaturation at an all-time high, it can be difficult to find a niche that your brand can thrive in. But introducing new experiences and different strategies can help shake things up. Case in point: Little Moons mochi is cutting through the frozen foods aisle in the UK, supporting its novel product experience with a very specific distribution strategy. By building associations with premium retailers and cinema experiences, Little Moons is building strong brand desire with its target audience – and insulating itself from being pushed out of the category.
The digital world isn’t immune to homogeneity traps either. Streaming royalty like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and Hulu are struggling to grow as they compete on pricing, content, and subscriptions. This lack of distinctiveness means that audiences are choosing platforms solely based on the shows available, rather than any loyalty to specific brands. And with unpopular moves to boost profitability – like trying to limit password sharing – streaming services will continue seeing churn. Smaller players like JustWatch are emerging, trying to solve the simple inconvenience of searching for content between platforms. This highlights how cumbersome having multiple streaming platforms has become, paving the way for new models like ad-hoc subscription marketplaces.
How to avoid being disrupted when:
You’re competing in a price race
It’s time to explore the full spectrum of innovation, from incremental change to new-to-world ideas. Don’t forget the importance of brand ownability for successful innovation – to innovate meaningfully, you need to use all 4 of your lenses.
Preparing for the worst, building for the best
It’s still true that in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes – although these days, disruption feels just as inevitable.
You can protect your brand from damage by disruption by remembering to:
- Find and listen to those cultural and consumer seeds of change.
- Play to your strengths and focus your investments.
- Innovate meaningfully – and use your 4th lens of innovation for success.
Never losing sight of the 3 C’s – Culture, Consumer, and Competitor – will give your brand the conditions it needs to grow and thrive, instead of leaving it ripe for the picking.
Need a partner to disruption-proof your brand?
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