Why marketers should study biology – Part 2 of 2

The second nugget of wisdom marketers could derive from biologists is in the realm of genetics.

According to the great evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the international bestseller The Selfish Gene, DNA – the fundamental code of life – can be simply defined as:

A self-replicating, self-perpetuating sequence of biological information.

This principle undergirds not only every process in all the cells of our bodies, but also in every living  organism on this planet. We are, to Dawkins,  platforms for the replication of our DNA. DNA rules the world.

Why is this important? Genetics gave us, among other things, the extraordinary insight that our biologies operate on two distinct levels – the observable physiological level and the underlying genetic level.

To put it in a way that will lead to something relevant for marketers:

  1. At the genetic level, our DNA code is a) unique to each of us as individuals; b) therefore, a ‘signature’ that can identify us as individuals (unless one has an identical twin) and c) unchanged throughout our lives, unless we’re exposed to significant radiation. This genetic code is referred to as one’s “genotype”.
  1. At the surface level, our observable traits vary through life. One could have a recessive gene for blue eyes, but on the surface one might have brown eyes, or be wearing green contact lenses. This is called your “phenotype” (surface trait).

While our phenotypes change frequently throughout life,  our genotype is remarkably consistent.

As a nearly perfect analogy, when we talk about brands and their DNA, we are correctly referring to the unchanging genotype of that brand- the underlying principles or code that informs everything that brand does and says. Creative expressions and tactics, however, correlate to the brand’s phenotype, which is constantly varying in response to the environment, including competitive activity.

This is essentially the difference between branding and marketing. While they intersect and overlap for sure, solid branding is about identifying the genotype of that brand, and then being disciplined enough to not vary from it. Witness the debacle of New Coke in the 1990s, a spectacular example of a brand forgetting its genotype in the pursuit of competitive advantage over Pepsi (a brand with a completely different DNA).

(Note, this also says that brands within the same category can have totally different DNA. Meanwhile, brands in very different categories can often be found to have remarkably similar underlying meaning, such as Coke to Americans and Tim Horton’s to Canadians).

What we call “creative” and literally marketing tactics – are then about creating the right “phenotypes” for a particular audience at a particular time.

When branding and marketing are working well together, it’s because the client and its agencies have achieved an accurate assessment of that brand’s DNA- while varying and tailoring its marketing to adapt to environmental conditions. In this way, success in business and marketing is strikingly similar to the success of a species within an ecosystem. The same principles apply.