The Anti-Blockbuster Way: Disrupt Your Business Rituals Before Someone Else Does

It’s the spring of 2002, and you’ve just been invited to attend one of Blockbuster Video’s quarterly board meetings. Great news: the company’s stock has just hit a new high of $30, and spirits are rowdy. As the board is on the verge of wrapping up the proceedings, and congratulating the CEO for yet another successful year, you discreetly slip a Powerpoint slide onto the screen with the tagline, Blockbuster. Watch your favorites. Anytime. For free.

Now let's imagine another scenario, this one from the early 1970s. You’re in a top-floor boardroom with Polaroid’s senior management. The company is doing great, and there’s no reason to think those iconic, Instamatic cameras won’t be around forever. When no one’s looking, you rustle with your laptop again, this time around coming up with an impertinent little slide that trumpets: Polaroid: Fast, beautiful photo sharing.

Years later, no one present in these two rooms could imagine these slogans would represent two category-busting new ideas, Hulu and Instagram. No one got it. No one even said, "Hmmm, that's worth thinking about." Far more likely the executives in the room stared at you piteously, then asked to see your visitor’s pass.

Science has shown that human beings prefer routine roughly 12 times more than they do change. The more pressure we’re under, the more we seek to surround ourselves with familiar rituals and protocols to maintain an ongoing (if slightly spurious) peace of mind. This holds true for business leaders and managers, as well as consumers. Which helps explain why in the wake of the recession, such stalwart, time-tested toys such as LEGO, the Rubik's Cube and even Barbie continued boasting brisk sales. In shaky or uncertain environments, we slide by default into the proven, the tried and true.

Yet paradoxically, there’s no better time than in the midst of routine to disrupt business as usual by coming up with an apparently wild idea that thumbs its nose at every entrenched wisdom your company holds dear. Along the way, you might stumble across a random slogan that transforms your industry’s future.

Let me give you an example.

Less than a year after the Internet exploded into the mainstream, LEGO hired me to help them answer the question: Where should our brand go from here? Two weeks later, I showed up in LEGO’s company boardroom armed with a very simple strategy: Quit with the plastic pieces. Go digital.

To say the least, it didn’t go over very well. Minutes after I left the meeting room, my consulting services were politely terminated. Yet approximately three years later, having witnessed a steady increase of Web-based LEGO applications that had co-opted the attention of core LEGO aficionados more than anyone in the room could have imagined, LEGO re-hired me. In short, the very moment when management feared that an infinite number of freebie online LEGO bricks would undo their business, turned out to be the ideal time to strike.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many companies who stubbornly believe their product couldn’t be beat. Some were right. Most were wrong. Very often, some of the world’s most iconic brands wake up to an extraordinary industry shift that takes them by surprise—but which, looking back, could have been predicted. The question is: wouldn’t it be better to intuit what the future may resemble before market forces and innovations "suddenly" wreak havoc with your company a few years down the line?

My advice? Throw a live-wire idea—or two, or three, or four—onto your boardroom table now. Get speculative. Get futuristic. Put on your Spock ears. Grab your TED microphone. There’s no other way to uncover how poised you are for a radical change in your industry’s future. If you’re a technology company, spend some time surfing the web in search of intriguing and even jarring slogans that could smash your entire category—such as Skype’s "The Whole World Can Talk for Free," or Compaq’s "Has it Changed Your Life Yet?" Now try one or another of these slogans on for size. Do they transform the near and far edges of your business? Next question: Who got there first—you or someone else?

While you’re at it, why not contemplate a handful of smaller disruptions as well? For example, if someone told you that by 2012 you would have to forgo all TV, radio, and direct mail, how would you react? What if someone threatened to slice your budget in half by this time next year, while insisting you perform better than you did this year? What if you joined forces with a key competitor with a single menacing mission: to eradicate your own company? What if one of your main rivals brokered a truly inspiring alliance with another brand or organization, disrupting your sleep for weeks on end for the simple reason that this game-changing partnership hadn’t occurred to you first?

Put these imaginary scenarios into practice. Now’s the time to act on them before anyone else does.

In corporate America, the courage to be different and quirky is an ever-shrinking attribute. My branding experience has shown me that companies generally show vision or take risks only when they’re forced to scramble. Which is why I recommend that you pre-order your own wake-up call today. For 24 hours, place your organization under the highest pressure possible. Let the marketing people revisit their time-tested strategies. Let the R&D people chuck their 3-year plans. Let senior management playfully bomb its longstanding business model. "A competitive world offers two possibilities," Lester Thurow once said. "You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change." Why not voluntarily put yourself in the line of future possibility and let transformation in before it’s too late?

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine’s "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology—Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best sellers translated into 30 languages. More at

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  • leonard Fink

    I agree, marketing companies can no longer rely on the ignorance of the consumers to make their business!!! The internet has made everyone experts at finding out everything about a product (and its rival)! Changing the business model, and re-inventing has never been so necessary!

  • Amber Gideon

    Great article but I had a little giggle right from the get go, who is rustling with a laptop in the 70's?

  • Kevin Lenard

    Yes, David, good for you for bringing up one of the most fervently 'clung-to' examples in today new digital world: "printed words on paper". Had a chat with the a marketing exec at Universal Music Canada who was bemoaning the collapse of the old music industry status quo and she said "I still enjoy the tactile pleasure of leafing through a newspaper and books, so I don't think they're going anywhere soon". Ha! Depends on your definition of "soon"! Her 15 yr old son will grow up without that "tactile emotional attachment", so by the time he turns 45 "printed words on paper" will have very little except historical relevance. It's a BUSINESS MODEL that is going extinct, yet those with mortgages in that industry are too vested to consider the implications, sadly. Still, with a good 20 years left before their last dodo bird gets clubbed to death on a remote beach... ;-)

  • Tony Camilli

    A recurring theme in your article and the comments is the distinction between what you make/sell and what your customer buys. Polaroid made/sold cameras. Customers bought the ability to instantly capture and share an image. Blockbuster sold temporary use of a cassette/disc. Their customers bought temporary access to a movie. It's not about the medium for the delivering a product, it's about the value the customer derives. Companies need to constantly evaluate what value is a customer deriving from their product and is there a new/better/cheaper/disruptive/etc. way that they can deliver that same value.

  • Pat Bonner

    I agree that companies need to be innovative and think beyond the traditional boundaries of their business, and though totally necessary, it's hard to convince executives to throw all their plans out!

  • Pat Bonner

    I agree that companies need to be innovative and think beyond the traditional boundaries of their business, and though totally necessary, it's hard to convince executives to throw all their plans out!

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Kodak had one of the best brands in the world, they are still one of the best makers of photographic film...too bad no one uses film anymore. Perhaps businesses need to have a "troublemaker" on the payroll, either in house or as a consultant, who can dream up threats and possibilities so that management can consider them and perhaps plan for them. Who would have thought the "book," after a enjoying a run of 400 years, risks becoming obsolete? The forces of change are coming for you, it's just a matter of when and from where.

    David Kaiser
    Time Management Coach to Authentic Leaders

  • Loretta

    This is so true! Many companies don’t realize that if they don’t take a risk and be different, one day they will be bitten by small and more innovative startups.

  • PY

    I think this is true… If you look at the US compared to other countries, business leaders here have become a bit scared to make radical changes (that is, unless you're 23 and inspired by Mark Zuckerberg…those folks with house payments and kids are a different story). And the recession certainly didn't help.

  • Mark

    Never had we needed this advice more...Absolutely true that in America, we're losing the courage to be a different, quirky, to shake things up!

    In adding to Kevin's comments, I recently read that CMOs average about 1.5 years in their spot before they're ousted (CEOs are getting more time). Its understandable why they're shy to shake things up- many of them aren't given the chance to see these go action OR they're too scare to be different.

  • Kevin Lenard

    Martin, this is brilliant, really, but we both know how unlikely it is that brilliant 'disruption' will persuade (provoke?) most business leaders to initiate change of any real kind. Most want to get home on time to watch TV.

    Some time back I came across a study on CMO's that indicated that, while almost 70% self-identified themselves as thought leaders, only 31% actually were: What this demonstrates is not just our human nature tendency to lie to ourselves about our own shortcomings, but the fact that only a very few existing companies will be winners. The majority of the world's newspapers are now 100% redundant, but like the railway barons of old, they'll continue vainly struggling as the sarin gas of change seeps through the vents:

    In the same vein of constant reinvention, what has netted out of the past several years of upheaval is that marketing companies who will lead are going to be those who constantly come up with new business models, NOT new products or campaigns: