Survival Of The Fittest
by Jerry W. Thomas

  • Survival of the Fittest
    Everywhere business leaders turn, they find nice-sounding, easy-to-swallow, seemingly plausible solutions to their problems.
    The academics, consulting firms, journalists, magazine writers, professors, and the business-book authors churn out one managerial or marketing theory after another, each promising to revolutionize the business world and offering unlimited success to those companies that will buy into the theory or truism—and pay the consulting fees or buy the books.

“Re-engineering,” “Customer Loyalty,” “Benchmarking,” “Change Management,” “Customer Relationship Management,” “One-to-One Marketing,” “Customer Journey,” “Consumer Experience,” “The Ultimate Question,” “Net Promoter Score®,” and “Agile Marketing” are examples of the theories, ideas, or truisms that sweep through corporate America. Corporate leaders talk to their peers, copy their competitors, and copy one another. The theory or idea becomes more popular—and soon everyone begins to believe it because they hear and see the theory or truism everywhere.

Do any of these “canned” theoretical solutions really work? In some instances, the latest marketing theory or managerial fad might work, but for most businesses, the pursuit of popular managerial and marketing theories, fads, and truisms is at best a waste of time and at worst a prescription for disaster.

The central questions are: Why do some companies thrive, while others perish? Why do some companies make extravagant profits, while others scrape by on bare subsistence? What is the secret to success and survival?

Charles Darwin pondered these very questions during the nineteenth century as he thought about the survival and extinction of biological species. Did he discover any ideas or concepts that might be relevant to business and marketing in the twenty-first century? We can think of nature and ecological systems as vast “free markets” of perfect competition, where all living organisms compete with one another for limited resources (sunlight, water, minerals, etc.). Businesses and brands also compete within a vast and interconnected struggle for resources (time, money, labor, materials). Is the survival of a business or a brand akin in any way to the survival of an animal, a plant, or a bacterium? Is it possible that success and survival in the natural world might be analogous to success and survival in the business world?

Before attempting to interpret Darwin, a little story will help set the stage. While driving through the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas a few years ago, I was amazed at the tough, scrubby plants, bushes, and cacti growing in the desert. It was remarkable to me that these plants survived and flourished, with only about 8 to 12 inches of rainfall a year. All the plants, it seemed, were covered with stickers and thorns to protect them from the hungry jaws of rabbits, deer, javelinas, and coyotes. “These plants are invincible. They are destined to rule the earth,” I thought to myself. “These plants can exist with virtually no water and can fend off the wild beasts of the desert.” But, as I pondered the invincibility of these thorn-laden flora, doubts began to surface. Had not these desert plants been given the opportunity, over millions of years, to conquer the earth? Why had they failed to spread?

I had always interpreted the “survival of the fittest” phrase to mean that the biggest and strongest win, or the toughest wins, or the fastest wins. I was interpreting “fittest” as in “physical fitness.” But I was wrong. By “survival of the fittest,” Darwin did not mean that the toughest will survive, the swiftest will win, the strongest will succeed, or the biggest will dominate. What Darwin meant was something far different. Darwin said that the organism that best “fits” its environment (or better fits its environment) has the best chance of survival, hence the term “survival of the fittest.” The plant or animal best “fitted” to its natural environment would be the most likely to survive and thrive. The tough West Texas shrubs and bushes thrived because they were best fitted (i.e., best adapted) to the harsh, dry climate of the Chihuahuan Desert. These same water-conserving plants transplanted to East Texas (a forested, high-rainfall area) would quickly succumb to competition from the rapidly growing pines, sweet gums, and oaks. The smaller, drought-adapted desert species would not have a chance.

What does all of this mean for the strategy of a business or a brand? It means that the company and/or brand best fitted or best adapted to its environment (its markets, its customers) is most likely to survive and most likely to flourish. It means that companies or brands not well fitted to their markets and customers will fade away.

So, how does a company or brand ensure that it is best fitted to its markets and customers? First, the senior management of the company must be open-minded, willing to listen, intellectually honest, and able to accept the truth. Everyone in the organization must feel free to tell the truth to senior management, without fear or apprehension. If an environment of free speech and acceptance of truth is not present among senior executives, a company will never be best fitted to its markets and customers—no matter what else the company does right. Let’s assume that your company has made it over this first hurdle and that senior management wants to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Second, the company must have a competent, experienced marketing research department (or “Consumer Insights Department,” if you prefer) with at least one or two experienced senior researchers. These senior researchers must have the courage to tell senior management the truth, no matter how ugly or unpleasant that truth might be. Ideally, the Research or Insights function should report to the Head of Marketing (since so much of its work will be focused on marketing issues), but with easy access to the CEO/President whenever needed (alternatively, research could report to the Head of Strategic Planning or directly to the CEO/President). The research reports from this experienced team of researchers must present objective facts, evidence, and reality as it really is, without any distortion, cleansing, or shading to please the pride and prejudice of senior executives. A highly competent, truth-telling marketing research department (and open-minded, truth-seeking senior management) are the two most important factors to ensure that a company/brand will become best fitted to its markets and customers.

How this research department is organized is important. One person, or one team, must be responsible for all research and analysis related to one product category and/or to one brand. This one research person, or one team, must be involved in the design of all studies and the analysis of all data related to its brand, including customer comments, social media data, and sales data from other departments. In this structure, the researcher (or research team) is the integrator and assimilator of all information about one brand, all over the world. This research team does the product testing, the advertising testing, the tracking, and the package testing; it reviews Nielsen data, it reviews sales data, and it reviews customer comments and social media data from elsewhere in the company. What the research team learns from one source, or one type of research, can be cross-checked against other sources and other studies. What the research team learns from advertising testing might help in the interpretation of the advertising tracking data and aid in the design of the next product test or package test. The research team quickly becomes an expert on its brand and can provide in-depth analyses and marketing recommendations that help a brand fit and adapt to its markets in an optimal way.

The Research/Insights Department should not be organized by type of research, with one person responsible for advertising research, one person responsible for product testing, one person responsible for tracking, etc. In this organizational scheme, the researchers are like the blind men feeling different parts of the elephant. No one sees the big picture. There is little cumulative learning across projects. It is far better that the researcher becomes an expert on the brand and its markets/customers, rather than becoming an expert on a research technique, such as advertising testing or product testing.

Ideally, the research team should be integrated with the marketing/brand group. The researchers must be, and be viewed as, an integral part of the marketing team for that brand. They will be involved in the day-to-day discussions about brand tactics and strategy. The research team must be the expert on the brand’s markets, its customers, and their preferences, and the team must consistently represent the customer’s point of view within the brand marketing group.

A pet peeve—please don’t call this department “Consumer Insights.” “Research” is a stronger word and positioning, and commands greater authority. After all, marketing research is the application of scientific methods to the solution of marketing problems. Let’s call it what it is, the “Marketing Research Team,” not some watered-down, weak-kneed, low-octane “Consumer Insights” group.

And, remember that your competitors don’t have a highly competent marketing research department and your competitors don’t pay any attention to what their researchers are telling them, anyway. So, ignore your competitors; they don’t know what they are doing; focus on building a world-class marketing research team that can keep you in tune with your markets and your customers. Set the example. Let other senior executives be amazed to see you studying and mastering the research findings coming from your supercharged marketing research team. Let them see you make wise decisions based on facts, findings, and in-depth knowledge of your markets and your customers. Adapt! Your company will survive and thrive by becoming the fittest of the fit.

About the Author

Jerry W. Thomas ( is President/CEO of Dallas-Fort Worth based Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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