Disruptive. But not always in a good way.

The ‘on demand economy’ and the ‘disruptive’ brands that are creating and supporting it is the current buzz in the marketing world.  In the last week, I’ve attended two presentations where the likes of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo have been held up as great examples of a new way of doing business.

Putting the customer experience at the centre, relying on crowd-sourced reviews, shaking the complacency of established brands and service models, moving to a lease-based model – these are all hugely interesting opportunities in terms of their impact on branding, marketing and the customer experience.

But…  If these businesses are the future of industry, I think we need a note of caution.

Disruptive also means troublemaking, disorderly and disturbing.

And it is also the case that many of these brands seem to enjoy disrupting the essence of good business practice.  From legality issues, dirty tactics, tax avoidance to sub-minimum wage and zero-hours contracts, their customer-centric positioning is often achieved at the expense of good corporate citizenship.

For some, the customer service ethic doesn’t seem to extend to their internal customers (their staff), who are, of course, largely not staff at all.  They’re often self-employed, with no employee protection and missing out on the tips that many low paid workers rely on, with the cash-free, app-based transactions that underpin these new business models.

Why is this?  Why are these new kids on the block presenting their customers with a moral dilemma in exchange for better service?  Why must I effectively condone Amazon’s tax avoidance, and reputed poor treatment of their staff, for the convenience of having all my Christmas shopping delivered in one, easy transaction?  Why should I turn a blind eye to Uber’s dodgy practices just because it’s a more convenient, cost-effective alternative to minicabs or taxis?

“I don’t know how long Deliveroo can keep its image as a cool tech startup.”  Deliveroo courier, interviewed in The Guardian

The marketing community has a big responsibility here.  We need to stop holding these brands up as paragons without question.  I was midway through writing this piece when Marketing Week published their 100 Disruptive Brands feature.  Let’s hope all the brands listed are squeaky clean, but the piece doesn’t comment on their business practices or rate them for corporate citizenship.  Now that would be a good start…

“You will find companies with operating models and structures that break convention and point to a different way of doing business.” Russell Parsons, Marketing Week Editor

Indeed.  And not always in a good way.

When so many people are critical of wealthy or corporate tax avoiders and understand the direct impact this has on our public finances, how are we so easily bought?

Is it the facelessness of these businesses that allows this – as they hide behind apps and email, with no accessible human contact, or customer service phone number?  (The irony of that last point is almost funny).

Probably.  And the fact that much of our media promotes these brands and their latest marketing initiatives without challenge.

We’re collectively appalled by the old-school business barons who behave so badly that they’re called in front of Commons Select Committees (Fred Goodwin, Phillip Green, Mike Ashley, Dominic Chappell et al) but happy to laud the tech boys who are getting away with it on a daily basis (Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Travis Kalanick et al).

Let’s get back some balance before it’s too late.  After all, your cheaply delivered takeaway, convenient cab ride or bargain accommodation in Paris won’t look like such a great deal when there’s no money left to pay our nurses or teachers, and our employment laws no longer protect the majority of our workforce.

Just saying…

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