It’s 2019. Every day, millions of people ride in cars with strangers instead of hailing the previously tried-and-true yellow taxi. Over 4 million privately-owned homes, condos, and apartments serve more travelers each year than the top 5 major hotel brands combined. App-based, on-demand delivery services have all but replaced the iconic delivery cars of days past. If you could time travel back just 30 years, most people would have a hard time envisioning this not-so-distant future. Breakthrough brands with solid brand design like Uber, Airbnb, and Zomato have forever changed the landscape of their respective industries, and transformed customer expectations in general.


What does it mean to be a breakthrough brand?


According to leading media platform, Inc42, breakthrough brands share at least two key properties—an innovative business model and a strong brand story. They are well-adapted to a digital world and able to launch products, reach potential customers, and respond to modern challenges with incredible speed and precision. These brand designs integrate the latest tech trends, without being ruled by them. A true breakthrough brand shatters economic growth barriers—they grow big, they grow fast, and they only continue to gain momentum as they outmaneuver the old guards of industry.


Consider the recent revival of a trusted transportation mode: the bicycle. By combining the innovative business model of today’s rideshare economy and crafting a brand design and story focused on creative, sustainable transportation solutions, Beijing-based Ofo became the first global bike-sharing platform. From 2014 to 2017, Ofo went from relatively unknown to having over 10 million bikes operable around 250 cities in 20 different countries.

“Combine innovative business models with a brand design and story focused on creative, sustainable solutions.”


Another company disrupting a long-stagnant market is Away, a luggage startup known for its simple, elegant, functional pieces. Away launched three years ago with a $100M fundraiser and has a current value of $1.4B. Their mission? According to the company website, the brand’s design is all about making connections: on the road, online, and in person. By marketing directly to consumers, partnering with Peace Direct, a nonprofit which supports grassroots peacebuilders in high conflict areas, and integrating tech into their simple luggage designs, Away has officially reached unicorn status.


According to Forbes, at least part of Away’s success can be attributed to an online brand strategy that used influencers to push the brand on Instagram. But perhaps even more important was the company’s origin story and innovative business plan. In a 2018 Forbes article, Away’s co-founder and Creative Director, Jen Rubio says the concept was simple: take something simple and make people care about it. Taking a page from Warby Parker’s eyewear playbook, Away’s founders set out to redefine luggage sales. “Before we launched, luggage was an afterthought, even though it’s something you take on every trip,” Rubio said. “Our perfect suitcase… was the result of truly connecting with our customers and delivering an item that they had already told us they wanted.”


“A focus on customer value is exactly the mindset that breakthrough brands need in today’s digital market.”


According to research by Interbrand, this focus on customer value is exactly the mindset that breakthrough brands need in today’s digital market. Alex Lirtsman, a founding partner and Chief Strategist of the NYC digital agency Ready Set Rocket, writes, “we obsess over the balance between agility and thoughtfulness. We should compromise neither in building a breakthrough brand.” To break through the marketing noise and move above the competition, disruptive brands need to be customer-centric and comprehensive when it comes to assessing the relative value of different touchstones. In fact, according to many, most breakthrough brands will excel in three areas: client experience, adaptability, and foregrounding company values.


Focus on the Client Experience


As of 2018, 89% of companies competed on the basis of customer experience—a rise from just 36% in 2010. But what is the customer experience, and how can breakthrough brands use it to disrupt their industries? For years, customer experience has been seemingly synonymous with customer engagement, and companies have shelled out billions to pull out all the stops. The more time a client spends engaging with your brand, the more likely you are to cultivate brand loyalty, right? Not necessarily.


According to a 2017 report by Forbes, most global consumers are looking for simplified brand experiences so they can spend less time looking at ads, browsing sites, or filtering emails and more time engaging with products and services. Siegel+Gale, a global brand strategy and experience firm, releases an annual Global Brand Simplicity Index study.  Margaret Molloy, Siegel+Gale’s Global Chief Marketing Officer and Head of Business Development, states, “By brand simplicity, we mean creating experiences that are both remarkably clear and unexpectedly fresh.” The study showed that consumers are willing to pay more for (and are more loyal to) brands with simple, seamless user experiences.


“Brand simplicity means creating experiences that are both remarkably clear and unexpectedly fresh.”

Topping the chart as the simplest brand design in the US is Lyft. With its streamlined service and focus on accessible, affordable rideshares, Lyft’s market share grew from 22% in 2016 to 39% in 2018. Subscription-based services such as Dollar Shave Club and The Honest Company are also top disruptors that rank high on the simplicity scale. Molloy claims, “Top performing disruptive brands share several characteristics. They identify pain points in everyday processes and remove friction.” Today’s consumers went to spend less time with apps and websites, and more time with products and services.


Of course, speed of delivery and ease of access are not the only components that create a positive customer experience. Lirtsman emphasizes that when a new product hits today’s market, consistency throughout the entire customer experience should be a requirement, not an afterthought. He writes, “With today’s consumers existing in numerous digital spaces at once, understanding the customer journey and every relevant touchpoint with your brand’s design is the new breakthrough brand requirement.” Considering the breakneck pace of modern society, this often means simplifying complicated processes, providing useful information rather than inundating consumers with sales pitches, and maintaining a consistent brand story across all channels.


“Understanding the customer journey and every relevant touchpoint with your brand’s design is the new breakthrough brand requirement.”


One important thing to note is that 80% of companies believe they deliver “super experiences,” only 8% of customers agree. In other words, there’s often a disconnect between what companies believe their customers want, and what customers actually want. This means many companies have a long way to go. It also means there are plenty of opportunities for tomorrow’s breakthrough brands to disrupt current industries with a superior customer experience.


Adaptability Is Key


According to a report by the Harvard Business Review, traditional marketing strategies rely on the assumption that the market will be relatively stable and predictable. Which is exactly why traditional strategies no longer pull their weight in modern marketing. In an increasingly networked world, it is often unclear where one industry ends and another begins. Advancements in AI, app development, and analytics have changed how many businesses view their reach and role. Setting distinct (and therefore static) parameters can hinder rather than accelerate growth. Instead of being good at doing one or two things, today’s breakthrough brands must be good at learning to do new things.


“Building adaptability into your brand design and identity requires connection, the ability to experiment, and a willingness to welcome—not just tolerate—failures.”

Put most simply, adaptability is a brand’s ability to read and interpret social and economic changes, and respond to them quickly. This response might be something as simple as tweaking your branding trajectory, or as complex as reinventing or refining your business model. Building adaptability into your brand design and identity requires constant connection, the ability to experiment, and a willingness to welcome—not just tolerate—failures.


First and foremost, connection is key to creating an adaptable brand culture. This means communicating internally, externally, and globally. According to the Harvard Business Review, the most adaptable brands “have learned to unlock their greatest resources—the people who work for them.” Supporting connection within your company not only ensures that each and every employee is working towards a common goal, but it also creates a culture of collaboration that supports innovation.


Just as important is connecting externally with customers and investors. While data-mining, algorithms, and AI have created unprecedented opportunities for companies to respond to their customers’ demands in real-time, strategic social media is still key to building breakthrough brands and staying connected with customers. In an interview with Fortune, Jim Stengel, the former marketing head for Procter & Gamble, says, “[Social media is] enormous. It lets you create advocates and to have a dialogue, to learn more, and to react. The brand design challenge is about fully engaging those who are potential advocates. You have to be okay with lots of people talking about your brand—and give them license to do so.” Of course, cultivating meaningful social media connections requires a clear marketing strategy, but it’s worth taking the time to create a personal connection.


“Staying agile in the face of change means constant access to the latest breakthroughs, innovations, and experiences.”

An adaptable brand will also be more likely to support an innovation mindset, from the ground up. These brands prioritize new ideas, are strategically situated to head off potential disruptions, and commit time and resources to development, research, and nontraditional channels. “Staying agile in the face of change means constant access to the latest breakthroughs, innovations, and experiences,” says Chief Communications Officer of Interbrand, Paola Norambuena. “These breakthrough brands are evidence of changing dynamics, and the insights they embody are ones that brands and businesses of every size need to understand and embrace.”


True, with increased innovation comes increased potential for failure. Which is why household name brands like Coca-Cola, Netflix, and Amazon have learned to stake their futures on failure. “If you’re not prepared to fail, you’re not prepared to learn.” writes Harvard Business Review correspondent, Bill Taylor. “And unless people and organizations manage to keep learning as fast as the world is changing, they’ll never keep growing and evolving.” Failed experiments can lead to important breakthroughs, but failure to experiment has sunk many industry giants.


Integrity & Principles


However, becoming a breakthrough brand is not only about a willingness to adapt, adjust, and grow. Interbrand writes that today’s most successful brands need to learn to evolve while staying true to their original values, or their “brand DNA” as some have put it. Modern consumers expect simple and seamless and are more aware than ever of inauthentic and hyped-up branding.


While discussing the biggest changes he’s seen in branding over the last two decades, Jim Stengel observed, “People are ­really trying to convey a sense of purpose. I don’t think that’s a fad; it’s been with us for several years, and people are getting better at it.”


With brand design, it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to have a purpose beyond the bottomline.

Whether your brand design is founded on social activism, providing a luxury experience, or simply connecting authentically with your customers, it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to have a purpose beyond the bottomline. While the ways in which your brand approaches this purpose or enacts its values may change, the core message should stay the same.


One recent example is Mattel’s overhaul of the Barbie line. “Barbie has been in a funk for a long time, and no one knew what to do with her,” Stengel says. “They went back to when the company was founded. What did the founder hope Barbie would do? The original intent was to get girls to think of themselves in various roles and inspire confidence through play.” Mattel reassessed their iconic dolls and premiered a more inclusive line that represents different body types, skin tones, and hair styles. This move shows how, even after 60 years, innovation can help brands get back to the root of their values.


While not every brand will be a breakthrough


Current trends and evidence show that the most disruptive brands are those that are client-focused, adaptable, and rooted in strong social purpose and values. These catalysts for change aren’t just reshaping their own industries, but the conventions of industry in general.


Christina Brown, founder and creative director at Savy Agency, an award winning digital agency headquartered in OR and CA and serving brands globally. Christina commonly covers marketing innovation, consumer trends, and the future of digital marketing.