News and Views

How purpose unlocks disruptive innovation

Jonathan Hanwit
April 12, 2018
News and Views

How purpose unlocks disruptive innovation

In today’s era of rapid innovation, companies of all sizes must constantly evolve in order to remain competitive. Disruptive innovation can happen to any industry at any time, so staying ahead of the curve is no longer a differentiator, but a necessity. In the past, disruptive startups were able to overtake incumbent companies by developing trend-defying products and services — just think of the impact Airbnb had on the hotel industry. But today, as consumers become increasingly demanding of products and services that focus on the greater good, businesses have a new opportunity to disrupt markets through purpose-driven innovation.

Companies that embed purpose at their core have a naturally disruptive mindset. They challenge the status quo and use business as a platform to solve problems that are important to people. They ask questions like:

  • Why are we in business?
  • Why do we do things differently than our competitors?
  • What do our customers really care about?
  • How can our work create meaningful change from a social, environmental, or economic standpoint?

Most importantly, purpose aligns an organization under a single aspirational goal – the point on the horizon guiding every business decision. Achieving this goal often relies on innovation, so it pushes companies to experiment with better ingredients, more forward-thinking technologies, and untapped niche offerings that can ultimately drive disruption. It’s not just about the final product; in a time where addressing issues such as human rights and animal abuse is still a disruptive way of thinking, consumers are increasingly interested in how brands are using their entire business model and value chain to positively impact the world.

Here are a few examples to demonstrate how leading with purpose can unlock more innovative, resilient, future-fit, and successful brands:


When talking about big disruptive brands, it’s impossible not to mention Tesla. For more than 10 years, the car manufacturer’s purpose has remained consistently clear. Their mission is “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.” Because this objective is straightforward and practical, employees and consumers with shared values are quick to become strong ambassadors for the brand. While bringing electric cars to the mass market is an audacious goal, it has driven Tesla’s disruptive innovation and established their business as the leader in alternative energy vehicles.

Warby Parker

According to an episode of the How I Built This podcast, the co-founders of Warby Parker started the company with a clear mission in mind: “We believe that everyone has the right to see”. This underlying purpose is what inspired the eyewear company to become the first that sold affordable eyewear online, for less than half the retail price. To further fulfill their purpose, they also give a free pair to those in need for every pair purchased. While their professors at The Wharton School said the model would never work, Warby Parker disrupted the eyewear marketplace and has since become a company valued at over $1 billion.

S’well Bottles

A small but impactful company that has disrupted the reusable water bottle marketplace is S’well. In 2010, former accountant Sarah Kauss started the company with the lofty purpose of ridding the world of plastic water bottles. She did this by creating an innovative new market category: fashion-forward reusable water bottles that function like a fashion brand, designed to keep drinks hot for up to 12 hours or cold for up to 24 hours. The company partners with organizations such as UNICEF, (RED) and many other charities committed to solving the global clean water crisis. With purpose at their core, S’well has become the fastest growing woman-owned company in the United States.

As a brand consultancy, we’re at the crossroads of purpose and disruption and decided to create our own “unconference”, InsightOutside. After attending the same sustainability/purpose conferences for the past several years, we felt they had become stale and we were seeking something more than lackluster panels, name tags, and stagnant hotel air conditioning. Our ideas for the retreat are around combining hands-on workshops, unconventional speakers, adventure, and small groups of like-minded business leaders to have real conversations at the campfire, not forced 15-minute networking coffee breaks. We have a clear purpose and are hoping this is a disruption in the conference world that will create real innovation and new ways of thinking.

When starting your next project or venture, keep two things in mind: 1) have a clear purpose and 2) solve a problem. You might just be the next big disruptor, innovating with purpose.

How purpose unlocks disruptive innovation
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