After disruptive growth come marginal gains

by Nigel Hollis | July 18, 2018

Which would you prefer? Disruptive growth or marginal gains? I suspect most of us would opt for disruptive growth. But while companies need to continuously seek ways to disrupt their category, few will find a meaningful way to do so – in part because of a limited view of what might be disruptive – and in the absence of disruption cumulative marginal gains can still produce a nice return.

In the absence of meaningful disruption – something to which the people likely to buy your brand will respond positively – then you better ‘sweat’ your existing brand assets and seek incremental ways to improve your return on investment. I was reminded of the power of marginal-gains listening to this episode of Freakonomics Radio. The show includes an interview with Sir Dave Brailsford in which he extols the power of incrementalism in helping boost Team Sky to win the Tour de France four times, and bringing home eight medals for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics, and a further 12 in 2016. Brailsford states,

“Physics and cycling go hand in hand. It’s a sport that lends itself nicely to physics, data collection, measurement, power and speed. And so, we could collect lots of data and analyze performance and we could feed that back to riders. And then we could work with them on small, very small, minor tweaks, minor changes that probably felt relatively insignificant at the time, but over time, would stick.”

But here is the thing, incremental improvement requires the same mindset that empowers true disruption; a mindset that questions everything and continuously seeks better ways of doing things. So Brailsford’s philosophy extends well beyond physical improvements, to making sure his cyclists get a good night’s sleep by installing their own pillows and mattresses in hotel rooms, implementing a hand-washing regimen to prevent illness, and identifying the best massage gel.


Brailsford’s winning philosophy is to produce at least a one percent improvement in every facet of the team’s performance, breaking it down into all its component parts, mapping them out, and then trying to figure out whether it was possible to improve performance even incrementally. Maybe none of the improvements will help win a medal on its own, but as Brailsford suggests, if something could contribute to a win then then it is worth doing.

Brand teams need to act the same way as Team Sky or Team GB. They need to map out all the ways that brand performance might be improved – not just product but target audience, go-to-market, user experience, communication, sales activation – measure the current performance, look for ways to improve, implement them and see if it makes a difference. And, if they keep an open mind, maybe in the process of doing so they will find a new way to completely disrupt their category and grow even faster.

On a final note, emulating Team Sky and Team GB’s approach is going to be difficult without measurement. Once you have mapped out every aspect of the brand, then you need to be able to measure whether performance has improved or not otherwise you will likely end up with random successes and failures not steady progress. But what do you think? Please share your thoughts.


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  1. Nigel, July 31, 2018

    Thanks for the comments. 

    Janet, I totally agree with you. There seems to be a prevailing belief that making noise is the same as building salience. It is not. However, can we have a shorter hashtag please! 

    Dave, your comment reminds me that the biggest driver of growth is choosing the right category and country. Fighting for market share is less productive on average...maybe because most brands do not approach that challenge the right way!

  2. Dave, July 19, 2018
    As well as being a good example of 'how to win', this also illustrates the importance of choosing 'where to play'.  Team GB specifically looked at sports where the chances of winning a medal were greatest - multiple medals available and relatively weaker competition.  They then targeted those sports for greater investment.  A good lesson for anyone running a portfolio.
  3. Janet Standen, July 18, 2018
    I love the sentiment of this article - which I agree with whole heartedly and fits with my origins in brand marketing, but it seems as if the whole world is focused on trying to find the exciting "quick win" that will be social media/fame-worthy rather than to do the more subtle and arguably harder work of identifying multiple incremental improvements that will slowly nudge the business forward.  Time for a new movement perhaps 3i as opposed to 3M, or #identifyincrementalimprovements?
  4. Ed C, July 18, 2018
    I like the idea of 1% growth on everything. Do that frequently enough and there will be notable growth.

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