Improve the Conversation: Social Disruption’s Role in Marketing

Brand campaigns that meaningfully connect with people and exceed expectations are socially disruptive. They challenge stereotypes, reinforce values and ultimately advance cultural conversations.

For the 25th episode of The Agency Way, our weekly Blab series, my co-founding business partner James Clark joined me to talk about how social disruption provides the definitively largest impact to marketing initiatives.

Never any shortage of words when we get going. Check it out here:

Social disruption was one of the hot topics in the Iconoculture member event Iconosphere in Austin, Texas this year, which Clark attended. He says the research presented there on social disruption was astonishing. Even the researchers were surprised by the data that supports socially disruptive marketing.

All four of the components of a social disruptive campaign need to be in place in order for it to succeed, Clark says. Those components are:

  1. Something that challenges a cultural norm.
  2. Something that is surprising and provocative to influencers.
  3. Something that advances a societal debate.
  4. Something that is connected to the brand differentiator.

It can’t come out of left field, Clark says. These need to be tied or matched into the genuine values of your company as well. What do you really believe? And the campaigns need to be relevant to current cultural conversations.

When it comes to influencers: You can hire them all day long to talk about your brand, or even agree with the social message you’re trying to tell. To really move them — to make that leap from spreading your message to being excited and intrigued about it — an element of surprise that actually gets them thinking about themselves (not the brand) is key.

While many effective campaigns focus on resonating with target consumers, creating the kind of affirmation where they say, “yes, that’s so me!” — socially disruptive campaigns actually get them to say, ‘Huh. I haven’t thought about it that way.’ This is where marketing can move from good to great.

Marketing messages of affirmation may create an emotional reaction that inspires us to click (like). Disruptive marketing messages, however, create an emotional and cognitive reaction — one that inspires us to actually join and advance a conversation (or as CEB research states it, a societal debate).

An example is the Always “Like a Girl” campaign. It countered the expectations of what “like a girl” means by showing how people of both genders are demeaning to girls when asked to reenact activities such as throwing like a girl, or fighting like a girl. Then we see real girls running fast and throwing hard. We are suddenly and thoughtfully challenged by this age-old phrase that’s positioned girls as weak and incompetent.

Quantifying how much this strategy matters: Iconoculture’s research on more than 250 marketing campaigns backs the importance of social disruption in marketing. It showed that campaigns that were just categorized as emotional or entertaining didn’t meet sales and other objectives.

Affirming campaigns were more successful. But they were only more successful in the single digits.

Socially disruptive campaigns were 32 percent more successful.

The concept of social disruption has become a core strategy at Room 214, and you can see how Clark’s recent blog post on leading a marketing agency with love, not fear makes mention of the same.

Originally published at

Jason Cormier is a co-founder and leading strategist at Room 214. With a rich history in information architecture, user experience and online marketing, Jason contributes to the social media and digital marketing efforts that help brands create online communities, tell meaningful stories, and gain more customers.

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