5 Lessons the Fast-Food Industry Can Teach Brands About Disruption

The value of risk-taking, failing, innovating and more

All ecosystems must change to meet the rising level of expectation from consumers.
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Staring across the digital landscape, the word “disruption” has become an increasingly familiar mantra. However, rather than making the necessary revolutionary changes that will protect and grow their business, many organizations are instead choosing to continuously make marginal improvements to the status quo. Isn’t that missing the whole point?

In a world where technology and consumer demands are evolving at an exponential rate, I would argue that all ecosystems must change to meet the rising level of expectation from consumers. “Disruption” is in danger of becoming a cliché, and there are no longer any excuses for failing to see what the immediate future has in store.

1. Do not underestimate the value of taking risks.
Disruption has many faces, but product and marketing (or selling of a product) is often the best place to start. A brand’s ability to produce disruptive marketing is not restricted to big budgets or big-name agencies; it’s the firm’s willingness to take on risk. I genuinely believe that risk is the new cost of entry, and the great news is that it’s open to businesses of all sizes.

Ultimately, a brand’s risk profile directly correlates to its ability to create provocative and disruptive product, positioning and creative. This is something that was instilled in me during my time at Taco Bell. Just six months after launching the Doritos Locos Taco, a product that helped reverse declining sales, Taco Bell airlifted a taco truck into rural Alaska via helicopter. That’s right, six months after the biggest product launch ever, we were willing to take on the risk of airlifting a taco truck into a place where dogsleds were typical winter transport.

Aron North
Illustration: Alex Fine

2. Encourage staff to fail in order to deliver meaningful culture change.
I continue to repeat this mantra: “It’s OK to fail, but if you are going to fail, fail fast, fail cheap and fail smart.” Not only should you encourage your team to walk the walk, but give accolades to those who failed because they were pushing the envelope. Celebrate fast, cheap and smart fails. If you remove the fear of ridicule and blame for failures, your team will be empowered to think differently. As a result, they should behave differently. This approach kept our work on the cutting edge, and in many cases, led to wins that would have never been placed on the board because they were a little risky at first blush.

What does this have in common with the problems currently being faced in the mobile space? And what parallels does it have with today’s digital ecosystem or mobile brands? You might be surprised just how much these two entirely different industries have in common.

3. Understand that everything in your industry looks the same to consumers.
Like many verticals, fast-food products have been commoditized. How many burger chains are there? It’s still meat and bun, right? We used to say, “We’re a taco stand in a burger joint world.” Wireless is even more commoditized: you can’t see, touch or taste airtime, text messages or data. You just know it works (unless there is a problem).

Ultimately, a brand’s risk profile directly correlates to its ability to create provocative and disruptive product, positioning and creative.

Let’s role play. If I take your phone, magically change the service provider and hand it back to you, would you notice? A quick review of the carriers’ communications and you see they are adding to the commoditization, with messaging like “only a 1 percent difference in coverage” or “covering most Americans,” and networks described as “fastest” or “most reliable” or “largest.” They all say roughly the same thing, signaling that their services are pretty much the same.

Given the volume of advertising in this vertical, it’s no surprise that consumers are having a hard time seeing any meaningful differentiation, thus they follow price.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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