Less is more.  So the theory goes with “disruptive innovation.”

A new product is disruptive innovation if it has something special you want – think the portability of a disposable camera – in place of a lot more features in the product people had been using before – think Olympus Stylus 1 Digital Camera.

What’s less is so much more that it opens huge new consumer markets.

This is the classic definition of disruptive innovation, introduced by Clayton M. Christensen in his 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave, and in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma.

ExpediaMy favorite disruptive innovation is Expedia.com, because choice at my fingertips increased my travel exponentially when it was introduced, as it has done for consumers nationwide. It’s no matter that there is no longer a wise, stylish person who has been to these places, or knows someone who has been to these places, to guide the way. The depth and breadth of expertise of travel agents is trumped by the choice and convenience offered by this disruptive innovator.

However, the definition of disruptive innovation has been stretched beyond its origins. Consider this.

If less is more, then beautiful design is also more, according to the self-proclaimed disruptive innovator, Method Home Products.  Think environmentally friendly dishwasher fluid in a simple, elegant decorative bottle.

”It just makes you get enjoyment out of an object that you never expected to get enjoyment from, because it makes you smile when you look at it, or it’s fun to touch,” says Eric Ryan, Method founder. ”So it’s not that it just looks beautiful, but when you actually interact with it, it makes a chore a little less of a chore. Who wouldn’t want that?” (NY Times, Rob Walker, February 29, 2004.)

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We are big fans of Method, as you will see from our founder’s recent post about how versatile the brand is with its ability to enter new categories and gain market share.  He calls it The Omni-Product Brand.  The innovation is design, and to a great extent green, and that disrupts the “chemical” products category, although it’s doesn’t offer less functionality, so is not classic disruptive innovation.

Better is also more, and is probably the best understood type of innovation.  Distinctiveness, relevance and endurance are the criteria governing the U.S. Breakthrough Innovation Winners for 2014 recently announced by Nielson, all of which are amazing and disruptive. Think women’s panties that don’t show under sexy formal gowns.

Says Rob Wengel, Senior Vice President, Innovation, Nielsen: “These diverse new products carry the common thread of finding and filling unmet consumer needs while demonstrating that with significant effort, game-changing innovation is possible in any category and by all types of companies.”

Game-changing innovation is like “disruptive innovation” in that both address unmet needs, but the former is easier for an existing player to be good at. Just note the heft and longevity of the company names on this list, including P&G, General Mills and Kimberly-Clark.

Indeed, for lots of reasons, large, established brands/companies are not good at disruptive innovation.  It’s start ups by and large that are the disruptive innovators. This is made eminently clear by Jill Lepore in her recent New Yorker article called The Disruptive Machine.  She notes, “Start-ups are ruthless and leaderless and unrestrained, and they seem so tiny and powerless, until you realize, but only after it’s too late, that they’re devastatingly dangerous: Bang! Ka-boom! ”

At IMC, we know at least one way that long-standing companies with iconic brands, which describes most of our clients, can achieve disruptive innovation.  We’ve helped several innovate by partnering through licensing with newer players that have disruptive technologies.  Think cutting edge baby m-health products under one of the most well-known brands in the world that is famous for trust and connectedness. (We’ll be able to say more in January, 2015.)

And on the subject of Ka-boom!, Forbes published The Five Most Disruptive Innovations at CES 2014. They are all wiz-bang innovative and yet none of them meets the classic definition of offering less functionality than the products they replace. Embedded Sensors, Wearables, Renewable Energy: This list is just flat out brand new stuff made possible by brand new technology.

In the end, all innovation disrupts, which is why people confuse disruptive innovation with other great kinds of innovation.

And in the end, all innovation involves making great products happen that more people want, opening new markets for existing and new brands. Is it any wonder we love what we do?

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