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. - Credit by Getty Images

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.

4. Innovate to stand out from the crowd.
How do you make your product special and stand out in an industry where everything looks the same? At Mint SIM, we’ve opted to disrupt the manner in which people purchase, where they purchase and how much wireless they purchase at a time.

We are combining a digitally exclusive business model with the Costco buy-in-bulk pricing scheme, thus turning a traditional purchase into one shaped for the modern economy. We’ve rebuilt the business from the ground up to be digitally optimized. As a result, we’ve extracted costs, overhauled the process, and taken all the efficiencies and passed them directly to the customer in the form of savings.

Legacied and new mobile brands must constantly be asking themselves if all wireless services are the same, why wouldn’t you go out and get the best deal? How can you redefine the product and purchase process attempting to create differentiation? For us, the unintended benefit of having the lowest price in the market as a result of the redefinition has reinforced our belief this was a risk worth taking.

5. Accept risk and failure.
Finally, brand disruption, no matter the industry, is about weighing risk and failure. As more and more brands are losing interest from consumers, brands must continue to look toward the future and start generating value for the consumer of the future. Regardless of your vertical, can you risk waiting for a competitor to redefine your space?

Aron North is svp of marketing and creative at nationwide mobile carrier Ultra Mobile and a former director of advertising and branded content at Taco Bell.

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