I want to chat with you about a critical issue disruptive brands inevitably face as they find success – how to avoid becoming just another generic player as you reach higher levels of revenue and customer scale.

I know this struggle all too well. When I joined The Black Tux three years ago after stints at big brands like Capital One and Facebook, I immediately noticed something.

Despite being a 10-year-old disruptor in the rental tuxedo space, our marketing had started losing that quintessential start-up spark. Our copy, while on-brand, felt too generic and dry.

This set off alarm bells for me. 


Because I've witnessed firsthand how quickly diminishing your brand's distinctiveness can impact the bottom line. 

I've seen too many former disruptors get comfortable, go bland with their marketing, and pay the price as sales stagnate and customers become confused about what made the brand special in the first place.

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Don't let the magic fade as you grow

When a startup brand explodes onto the scene, there are a few key things that make consumers fall head-over-heels:

  • A fresh, relatable personality and bold marketing voice that cuts through the corporate jargon. Early disruptors like Dollar Shave Club mastered this with humor and an attitude that resonated with niche interest groups.
  • A legitimately innovative value proposition that sticks it to the big, complacent players. Brands like Warby Parker got traction by offering better quality at better prices than their tired competition.
  • An authentic brand story and mission that customers connect with at a deeper level. This human element is increasingly important with Gen Z becoming the biggest spenders, with the majority seeking out brands reflecting their values.

The problem? 

As disruptive brands experience that growth curve, something seems to happen once they near $100 million in revenue. Gradually, the grit, personality, and human connection start to fade away.

Perhaps it's bringing in new marketing leadership from corporate brands who instill more rigid processes. Maybe it's spinning up that first sizable internal marketing team that loves to apply textbook "best practices." Or it could just be the perceived need to finally "act corporate" once you've achieved real success.

Suddenly, the humanized, tongue-in-cheek social media voice gets swapped for something blander. Those bold, in-your-face ads and emails truncate into generic promotions and product shots. Even the brand's core mission and founding story get deprioritized as it strives to become this vague, mainstream lifestyle brand.

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Brands that lost their spark (and their customers)

Allow me to illustrate the tangible costs of failing to maintain your brand's unique essence. You've likely noticed challenger brands like Allbirds and Dollar Shave Club in recent years. Their rapid expansions into new product lines and inability to continually drive home their original missions and personalities are big reasons why.

Allbirds is a perfect example. Their beloved sustainable wool sneakers were an instant cultural phenom when they first dropped. However, as they rushed to capitalize on that success and roll out new shoe styles and apparel over the years, they strayed too far from their simple, environmentally-conscious roots – confusing and turning off their loyal fans.

The Unilever debacle with Dollar Shave Club, oft-cited as a branding failure, happened for similar reasons. DSC's core value proposition appealed to its target demos in a major way. But inevitably, the marketing got more sanitized over time, losing what made it special.

The common thread? A gradual brand identity crisis where the original essence gets watered down as a result of scaling and flimsy new extension strategies.

This cycle keeps repeating because too many marketing leaders view growth as inherently at odds with preserving a bold brand persona. 

While growth and profitability are paramount for any company, there's this mistaken notion that being a real, truly authentic brand becomes inappropriate or unprofessional beyond a certain size threshold. 

Maybe it was acceptable for that startup challenger brand with $20 million in sales, but not so much for an established player pushing $200 million.

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The return to nostalgia and personal storytelling

The smartest disruptive CMOs have started leaning harder into nostalgic storytelling and personalized brand narratives the bigger they get.

Brands are finding serious success in rehumanizing their marketing through first-person storytelling and messaging that feels 1-to-1, not just 1-to-many.

No wonder conversational messaging platforms are all the rage for direct response these days. People want that personalized, nostalgic feeling they used to get with smaller brands, even at scale.

At The Black Tux, we've made it a priority to inject a lot more authentic personality and nostalgia-laced storytelling into our marketing. We want that original "wow" feeling, that human quality that won customers over in the first place, to endure as we continue scaling nationally.

For example, we recently overhauled our entire drip email sequence that helps customers plan their weddings. Instead of the old generic promotions and copy, the reimagined flow has more lifestyle and people-centered imagery with a warmer, more humorous written voice.

My favorite new touch? Kicking off the whole sequence by sharing an emotional story from our founder about the boxy tuxedo nightmares he experienced at his own wedding. It's nostalgic, funny, authentic, and hooks new customers into our origin story.

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We won't stop there, either. To drive more repeat purchases from loyal customers, we just finished a bold experiment where we sent 10,000 people AI-generated handwritten letters from our CEO. These letters not only celebrated The Black Tux's 10th anniversary but also gave each person a unique discount code for their next rental.

The catch? Our CEO's real cell phone number was included at the end. We outright admitted the "handwritten" part was faked by robots for scale purposes – but told recipients to text him directly if they didn't believe us! I'll admit I was nervous greenlighting that, but the CEO insisted, joking "What's the worst that could happen?"

The results speak for themselves. Hundreds of customers did indeed text him, sharing everything from nostalgic wedding photos to thank-you notes for our above-and-beyond service to “I don’t believe you” and “There’s no way this is real.” The surprise and delight paid off in spades when it came to driving more spend.

Having the "why not?" mindset with your marketing

Do these real-life attempts to keep our edge seem risky or unprofessional? You bet. But that's exactly the point!

Far too many CMOs get bogged down by fears of rocking the corporate boat, effectively stripping their brands of any remaining personality and spirit.

When it comes to making your marketing feel genuinely fresh and buzz-worthy, we have to be asking "Why not?" more often than not. That "Why not?" mantra is critical for all of us as disruptive CMOs if we want to retain our brand's disruptive sparkle over time. 

Ultimately, what's the worst that could happen?

A little bad PR or social media backlash if the bold marketing move flops? I'd argue that sanitizing and de-personalizing your brand communications is an even bigger risk today.

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Maintaining a consistent voice across channels

The simple antidote is regularly scheduled "message audits" to proactively course-correct before you stray too far from your roots. Make it a routine exercise, whether monthly, quarterly, or annually, to compile all your marketing messaging across channels into one place.

With fresh eyes, comb through your copy line by line and ask yourself:

  • Does this sound like it could be coming from any generic brand in our industry?
  • Does it still capture that distinctive personality and attitude that customers originally gravitated toward us for?
  • Where can we sprinkle in more relatability, humor, or personal touches to foster a stronger human connection?

Little disconnects across channels start to compound into a full-blown identity crisis over time if left unchecked. That's why no matter how mature The Black Tux gets as a company, we'll keep testing and interrogating our creative. 

At the end of the day, we're all marketing to the same wonderful, complex basket of human beings, whether they're buying tuxedos for weddings or managing a massive enterprise SaaS stack: They want human-centered communications from the brands they celebrate.

Closing thoughts

As disruptive CMOs working at all different scales, it's our responsibility to fearlessly maintain the raw, differentiated identities that put our companies on the map in the first place. 

Seek out unexpected platforms, try creative risks with a "why not?" spirit, and never allow processes or politics to strip your brand of its original magic.

That's the surest path to ensuring your marketing always cuts through the corporate clutter – both today and decades down the line.