Disruptor-Led Platforms: Flipping Disruption From Threat to Advantage

Some years ago, before the notion of innovation platforms was as ingrained into the marketing vocabulary as it is today, I wrote an article about the importance of defining strategic innovation platforms to provide a focal point for a new product or innovation effort. We knew that well-crafted platforms brought focus and inspiration to the innovation process and, ultimately, increased the likelihood of launching a successful pipeline of new products and services.


At the time, I also noted that some companies were using the term “platform” too loosely. Platforms were defined to mean a general opportunity area or “white space” around which organizations might innovate. However, they often failed to link that opportunity area with their company’s unique competencies or bring their company or brand’s unique slant on those opportunity areas in a way that would lead to competitive advantage. The problem with that is companies competing in the same category were using the same platform focus and chasing the same space. We’ve spent the years since the article was published helping companies develop great platforms that avoid this pitfall…and addressing a new challenge, one brought on by the increasing pace of disruption.


STRATEGIC INNOVATION PLATFORMS 2020


At their core, strategic innovation platforms are defined as market space rich with opportunity for innovation that a company or brand can uniquely exploit. Platforms of this nature can provide the basis for long-term competitive differentiation – a path to truly “win” in the marketplace. If defined correctly, they can also cross product or service categories, consumer/customer segments, usage occasions and other dimensions in a way that “expands the box” for the brand or company, bringing its leverage to completely new arenas.


As mentioned, we make sure that the idea of ownability is added into the mix, defining innovation platforms as high opportunity growth areas where unmet (or under-met) emerging needs overlap with internal brand, technical, strategic and operational leverage.

But when we fast forward to 2020 and a rapidly evolving world filled with change and uncertainty, this definition starts to fall short. The work of creating platforms is still critical – maybe even more so than it was when I first broached the subject. But now it isn’t that simple. It used to be if you understood your consumer and had a sense of market trends and dynamics, you could carve out white space for your brands and decide how that matched up with competencies and corporate priorities.


Today the stakes are higher and threats from disruption add pressure to innovation efforts. Even before COVID-19, the rate of disruption, whether market, cultural, or technology driven, was making it that much more difficult to develop innovation that is sustainable long term. It has become crucial to understand far more than just trends.


It is no longer about carving out an existing or evolving space or merely weathering market changes. It is about actually leapfrogging into new territory informed by a deep understanding of the disruptive forces and influences around your brands and the people who buy them. There is a need to understand disruption much more comprehensively, including how it specifically impacts the ecosystem in which the organization operates. When we talk about transcending disruption rather than falling to it, this is exactly what we mean.


WHY IS UNDERSTANDING DISRUPTION IMPORTANT TO PLATFORMS?


Platforms provide an overall focus for a growth or innovation effort. They define – at a strategic level – the “what” and “how” of the innovation effort: what benefits are we going to provide and how are we going to provide them. But much of that is often focused on today.

We use a consumer (or customer) lens to define platforms – they are pivoted around a set of end user benefits that you want to provide to unify otherwise often disparate areas of innovation focus (e.g. technical, channel, product, etc.) into real scale opportunities. What is needed is to add a future lens as well when defining platforms; one that uncovers and clarifies the disruption that can transform a business. Adding this lens increases the potential for identifying truly differentiating and high-potential innovation paths.


CRITERIA FOR A GOOD PLATFORM


Our work across a variety of industries has led us to a general list of “best practices” criteria for defining platforms that are most likely to fuel significant brand/company growth and sustainable competitive advantage. The best platforms should ideally be:

  • CONSUMER (or Customer) BENEFIT FOCUSED, with an emotional benefit embedded in both a telegraphic name and the description. Defining the platforms around emotional benefits can open up significant opportunity territory and provides the internal team with a clear understanding of the consumer/customer mindset and need states they are trying to address with new innovation.

  • OWNABLE by leveraging the company’s technical (e.g. R&D) and operational competencies. The platforms must identify high-potential paths that can be commercialized by the organization, either currently or with some potential future capability modification. Otherwise, the platforms will not gain the internal support needed to put them into action.

  • BROAD ENOUGH in scope to truly “expand the box” for the company or brand. For multi-brand companies, this means defining the platforms at the category level to open up much larger scale opportunities. Platforms should be inspiring and feel global (even if the organization is regional), with the potential for a full funnel of strong new products or other innovation.

  • DISRUPTOR-LED, reflecting opportunities that leverage (and leapfrog) current and emerging disruption to fuel growth over the next 5 - 10 years. The challenge is to identify – and exploit – the rich, future-focused innovation space that will result for your brand(s) as a result of disruption.

Meeting this last criterion requires a new way of looking at your ecosystem and what is happening in it that might impact your business. How can you identify and capitalize on the biggest and most relevant opportunities that will emerge from disruption? In a rapidly evolving world, how can you disrupt, rather than be disrupted?


A FUTURE-FOCUSED DISRUPTOR ANALYSIS


To really understand current and emerging disruption, a future-focused "deep-dive" assessment of the influences, shifts, and dynamics that have game-changing potential to disrupt your ecosystem is needed. Understanding how the broader world is being disrupted can inform and drive critical growth areas, like innovation.

When we do this work, there are several key steps that we take to provide a data-driven, future view and foundation for innovation (and other) growth activities:

  1. Conduct a deep and broad scan of market activity and all the critical forces that drive disruption using a wide range of current, reliable data to uncover what is happening around consumers and customers.

  2. Complete a money flow analysis of investment and acquisition activity in relevant categories to see potential innovation trajectory.

  3. Tap into experts, thought leaders, influencers, and futurists for subject matter insight and projections on how categories and needs may evolve.

  4. Connect the dots to identify and prioritize the disruptors with the biggest potential impact.

If done in a strategic and comprehensive way, the synthesis of these inputs is a range of future scenarios that lay out the potential growth opportunities emerging from the disruption. The work can be quite provocative, with these scenarios representing innovation paths an organization might take to truly transform its business.


To then create innovation platforms from this that are future-focused, disruptor-led, and take efforts far beyond where they are today, learning from the disruptor analysis should be integrated and "matched up" with what is known about consumers and customers – particularly their needs and how they are evolving in the face of disruption. It is important to identify and map the intersection of where these end users are going with the disruption that is happening around them to find the high-potential innovation territory that can make platforms rich with opportunities.


To ensure platforms are pushing out enough, they can also be quantitatively assessed and sized by using Trend Leading consumers, who often help clients "see the future" a few steps ahead of competition to anticipate "what’s next". In addition, the extent to which a platform is ownable can also be evaluated, making them even more valuable as a tool to drive sustainable, differentiating innovation.


These steps are powerful additions to typical innovation platform work and are often missing. To truly inspire game-changing innovation and set up a brand and company for long-term success, this more rigorous disruptor analysis approach can make a significant impact.


CLOSING THOUGHTS


The critical elements I've discussed are shown in this example platform framework. Each section is carefully constructed to reflect output from the comprehensive steps that are taken to uncover big market opportunity space.

In short, we preach putting people and emotional benefits at the center of innovation work. We include ownability in platforms to capture more relevant innovation territory. And critically, with an eye toward an evolving world, we align consumer/customer insight with clear foresight on disruption (and its impact) so that platforms will drive differentiating innovation and flip disruption from a potentially devastating risk to a significant market advantage.


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