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INSIGHT | TIMES BOARD OF ADVISORS

Darwin Marketing: A Natural Selection?

March 16, 1997|MICHAEL SCHRAGE | MICHAEL SCHRAGE is a consultant and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of "No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration."

Rigorous studies of identical twins reared miles and families apart reveal the most provocative consistencies. For example, a University of Minnesota twins survey found that if one twin smoked cigarettes, not only was it likely that the other twin was a smoker but also that they both smoked the same brand.

Coincidence? Or might our genomes predispose our willingness to be influenced by certain stimuli?

But genomic influences are literally just a beginning. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Frank Sulloway's controversial examination of birth order--recently published as a book, "Born to Rebel," offers compelling empirical evidence that firstborns and later-borns behave differently precisely because of their place in the family. Sulloway's findings indicate that firstborns are far more likely to be conservative and authoritarian in behavior whereas later-borns are likely to be more innovative and receptive to new ideas.

Sulloway documents this powerful influence of birth order everywhere, ranging from which families supported the French Revolution to which scientists resisted or embraced new paradigms in physics and biology.

At the core of Sulloway's hypothesis is a simple and straightforward tenet: The principles of Darwinian natural selection, competition and differentiation powerfully shape human behavior. Indeed, more and more biologists, sociologists, psychologists and ethologists who study the intricacies and complexities of animal and human behavior now acknowledge the importance of evolutionary theory in understanding why living organisms behave as they do.

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The nurture of nature matters every bit as much as the nature of nurture. Obviously, this emerging ecology, psychology and sociology of the genome has enormous implications for medicine, culture and society. But it has become increasingly clear that Darwinian explanations of human behavior are going to become the dominant influence in the future evolution of business and marketing. The importance of demographics and psychographics in marketing will inevitably yield to the importance of genographics.

When the General Electrics, IBMs, Exxons, Procter & Gambles, General Motors, Unilevers, Sonys and Disneys look for marketing strategies for the next millennium, they won't be looking to Peter Drucker or Tom Peters or Ted Levitt for inspiration and ideas; they'll be looking to Charles Darwin. "Darwin marketing" is destined to become the organizing principle around which companies position, package and price their products and services for their customers.

Take the Sulloway hypothesis. If firstborns, as a group, have a different predisposition to new ideas than later-borns, that is very useful information for a company marketing a breakthrough innovation. Clearly, direct-mail solicitations sent to potential customers who are later-borns should read differently from those sent to firstborns.

Sulloway's Darwin-driven insight gives marketers another powerful way to segment and capture customers. Any innovation-oriented company that is "not" testing Sulloway's firstborn/later-born hypothesis in its own marketing initiatives is doing a disservice to itself and its shareholders.

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More important, it is doing a disservice to its customers. While it's not clear that marketing distinction between firstborns and later-borns is as significant as the marketing differences between, say, men and women, it's a sure bet that the differences are statistically significant. Companies that are practicing Darwin marketing are sure to get a greater bang for their marketing buck.

Indeed, it's important to stress that Darwin marketing does not assert that "genetics is destiny." On the contrary, Darwin marketing makes no claim on predicting the behavior of any one individual. What Darwin marketing does superbly well is what the history of population biology does so well: It predicts the likelihood of certain characteristics within the population.

Darwin marketing isn't about predicting the behavior of any one firstborn; it's about predicting, on average, how a large population of firstborns might respond to a given stimulus. Darwin marketing doesn't predict a particular roll of the genetic dice; it is a market mechanism for loading the dice that, over time, yields disproportionate returns.

Indeed, Darwinism is as global a phenomenon as they come. Of course, science is at the very beginning of genomic and Darwinian explanations of human behavior. Businesses and marketplaces are barely cognizant of the implications that Darwin marketing and its fusion with genomic science must bring. Scientists are already comfortable attributing certain traits--intelligence, shyness, sociability, to name a few--to genetic influence.

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