What do disruptors do when they become the establishment?

Disruptor brands

  • Louise


Creating a disruptor brand in today’s crowded marketplace is arguably the quickest way to get noticed. It seems everyone is looking at ways to disrupt a tired or overlooked category, or digitise an analogue experience. And with the disruptive product comes ever-more experimental brand designs targeted at a select group of influencers and early-adopters who are on the hunt for shiny new things.

And no category has seen more infiltratrion from disruptor brands in the last decade than craft beer. Among them BrewDog has been leading the charge in bringing a new lease of life to the beer sector. Whether it was producing the strongest beer ever made, or selling £500 bottles of beer inside stuffed animals, or simply naming its non-alcoholic version the slightly punchy ‘Punk AF’, BrewDog has been the self-styled rebel of alcoholic beverages for a good 10 years.

But a recent rebrand has cast doubt over this status. In a move they have described as rebel to maverick, they have made the decision to adapt and evolve their branding with a new design, pallete and tone, and have introduced a broader brand purpose.

Aesthetically their softer, less challenging presentiation feels simpler and more grown-up, with an overall shift to a toned down, muted personality. The change comes with a whole host of positives – better navigation of their range of drinks, the front and centre naming is clean and easy to read, there is a more defined personality for each range through colour coding and an on-trend flat colour pallete to boot.

But somehow the move just feels, a bit wrong.

Brewdog 2

With success and growth comes challenges. What works to attract a niche audience doesn’t always work - and indeed rarely works - with a mass audience.

As the original rebels, BrewDog shook up the category and paved the way for a wave of disruptors that sought to emulate them, but the brand simply doesn’t feel rebellious anymore. It’s lost its punk attitude and it feels anodyne. Whilst this may well be intentional, it feels as if they’ve lost the spirit of their identity - the unique bit that made them them.

Not only this but they now look the same as everyone else. The same flat pastel colours, same typographic treatment and significantly reduced brand symbolism creating less distinction compared to other craft beers.

The third issue is that they have become literal in their communications and packaging. Brand symbolism has been reduced to a tiny presence on pack, without new symbolism replacing it to help drive their new purpose in non-cognitive ways. As the brand adopts mainstream cues and relies on literal messaging, it will lose some of the magic that has made it so compelling to-date.

When a craft brand sees significant growth in the market there are usually one of two typical outcomes. One, they metaphorpically sell out and become part of the establishment; Two, they choose to be a craft brand forever and stay small.

Which poses the question: How do disruptor brands grow without selling their soul?

Brewdog 3

What brands need to do is this:

  1. Look forward and backwards at the same time. Move with the shift in trends and consumer behaviours but also hold onto their brand’s distinct meaning and attributes – hold tight towhat it is that makes them unique.

  2. Have a balance of dominant and emergent codes in order to be sustainable. Too many craft brands make the mistake of focusing just on emergent codes, which lacks longevity and they quickly lose relevance in an ever-changing market.

  3. Ensure symbolism drives your story Implement distinctive visual assets that successfully build meaning through positive associations, and be sure to keep them present throughout all elements of the brand down the line.

To become a successful disruptor is often the only goal when a brand is setting out. Brands needs to ask what is the longer-term goal when the dream fulfilled. Before the big boys come knocking, these exciting young start-ups need to keep their original purpose front of mind.

Every brand must adapt and evolve but consumers can sniff a sell-out a mile away, and years of hard work building a brand around a particular ethos can and will be lost overnight.

BrewDog will not be complaining about their sales figures to date, but it would be interesting to see how this more grown-up rebrand impacts public perception about the original bad boys of beer.

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