David Plouffe, the operational mastermind of Obama’s 2008 campaign, is now a senior executive at Uber. In a recent interview (and do read, or preferably listen, to the whole thing, it is utterly compelling), he draws a parallel between his current employer and Donald Trump:
“The Trump thing is a living, breathing, growing organism that there are no rules for how you deal with it. I mean, my understanding is he’s not even running any advertising in Super Tuesday states. So, you know, I work for Uber now. We talk about how Uber has disrupted the transportation market. He’s disrupted politics.”
I love the vividness of that organic metaphor, how it evokes an idea of Trump as a voracious alien, devouring the Republican party – or perhaps the country – from within. After Tuesday’s results, it is clear it’s now up to Hillary Clinton/Sigourney Weaver to figure out how to vanquish the alien before it kills everyone and crashes the ship.
But it’s the comparison to Uber I’m interested in. Plouffe is alluding to “disruptive innovation”, a theory which describes how established brands get flipped over by upstart competitors. The term was coined by Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, and has since been embraced by Silicon Valley. Although it may better be described as a principle rather than a theory (it has little or no predictive power) it’s a useful lens through which to view any domain transformed by a scrappy, apparently inferior newcomer.
So how does it work? Here’s Christensen:
“’Disruption’ describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments…”
Camera manufacturers were initially contemptuous of the crude photographs produced by mobile phones with in-built cameras. Consumers wanted beautiful pictures they could print out – that would never change, right? So the incumbents focused on their high-value customers: people willing to pay for expensive cameras.
That meant they overlooked those consumers, many of them young, who were willing to sacrifice quality of picture for the convenience of being able to take pictures they could instantly share with friends. Over time, more and more consumers – young, old, poor, rich – converged on this short cut to what really mattered to them: shared moments. The other stuff – pin-sharp definition, shutter speed control, glossy prints – suddenly seemed unnecessary. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
Not all upstarts are disrupters, in the strict sense. Christensen argues that Uber, though successful, is not disruptive, because it doesn’t offer what he calls a “low end” innovation – an alternative that may not be high quality but makes up for it in some other attribute. Uber is actually a superior service to minicabs in several ways. Nor does Uber target “non-consumers” – people who didn’t like any of the existing alternatives and can only be reached by a new kind of product altogether. Its customers are generally people who already take taxis.
Trump, however, is a true disrupter. He has taken on the entrenched institutional might of the Republican party and won, without spending nearly as much money as his leading competitors, and he has done it by targeting an overlooked segment: voters who are indifferent, frustrated, or furious with the existing options. He offers a low end alternative: he doesn’t do policy detail, or make beautifully produced ads. He can’t point to a record of consistent positions or political achievement. But he gives voters a short-cut to something they long for: authenticity.
These voters are drawn to Trump’s disruption because they have, themselves, been disrupted. The country they grew up in was one in which good jobs were plentiful, marriage was between a man and a woman, and there was a white man in the White House. Republican politicians have promised for years that they would stop, or roll back, these changes. But they have failed to do so. They didn’t fail honestly: they knew that they didn’t have a hope of doubling the economy’s growth rate, or stopping gays marrying, or impeaching the president. They took their voters for fools.
The reason Trump can do almost anything he likes and remain popular is that he doesn’t do this. Yes, he exaggerates, but voters recognise that he does so to make a point. Love or hate him, he is what he is. Conventional Republican politicians are flailing for grip on ground that is moving beneath their feet. Trump’s voters see this, and think, “Yeah – so now you know how it feels.”
Disruptive innovation begins at the low end, but it doesn’t end there. Here’s Christensen on what happens next:
“Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.”
I think we can all agree that the Republican party elites did not respond vigorously to the threat of Trump. Jeb Bush made the classic mistake of doomed incumbents: he assumed the disrupter would disappear of its own accord because he simply couldn’t imagine why any consumer/voter would accept such an obviously inferior alternative. Marco Rubio, for all his talk of innovation, failed to recognize the power of this genuinely new phenomenon until it was too late.
The question is whether, once Trump has secured the nomination, he “moves upmarket”. Can he start to appeal to mainstream voters without sacrificing the attributes that have driven his success? Can he successfully reposition himself as a moderate; a tough deal-maker capable of bringing Washington’s polarised parties together because he isn’t in hoc to either of them?
If he can, then American politics will be changed forever. Disruption will have occurred.