Survival Of The Fittest? Don’t Make Me Laugh!

The horsemeat scandal and an aggressive piece by Mark Ritson in Marketing Week (Kill the Weak: It’s the Marketing Way) has again highlighted exactly what’s wrong with modern business practice.  A basic lack of responsibility and morality which has enabled companies to build and abuse extraordinary levels of power.

I know Ritson loves to court controversy, but this time he’s stepped over the line.  His ridiculous assertion, when we are knee deep in another breach of trust scandal, does our industry no favours.

This macho, Neanderthal attitude – it’s survival of the fittest!  There can only be one player left in the game! – is exactly why we’re in this mess.  At the risk of stating the obvious, if there’s only one player left, then it’s not a game anymore, is it?

“Weak brands must die, and strong brands must kill them”.  Really?  So competition is not in the customer’s interest?  The supermarkets and Amazon destroyed the small (and not so small) businesses on the High Street and the Banks swallowed the building societies.  That all worked out well, didn’t it?

This latest crisis was created by the supermarkets, especially Tesco, the very business Ritson applauds.  Apparently, Tesco destroyed the local butcher ‘because the local butcher was crap’.  Good grief.  Funny how people are now returning to their local butcher in droves…

Personally, my 25 years in marketing has never been under-pinned by a desire to ‘kill the weak’.  Being number one is not the same as being the only one.

The real issue here is that the horsemeat scandal is the latest in a long line of immoral practices.  It’s another breach of trust in something fundamental – we can’t trust the bankers with our money, we can’t trust the hospitals to look after us and now we can’t trust the food industry with our dinner. The supermarkets created the climate that has allowed this to happen.  Their race to the bottom has made the food chain so complex and opaque that no one knows what’s what, who’s to blame and whether the problems that occur are down to criminality, ignorance, laziness or sharp practice.

The root cause of so many of these evils is ‘outsourcing’.  That innocent little word that has destroyed our economy; sending UK jobs abroad (from manufacturing to call centres) and devolving NHS care and key public sector services to third parties in an effort to drive costs down to an unrealistic and unsustainable low.

Outsourcing breaks the link between role and responsibility and creates so many steps in the process that in the end no one has ultimate accountability for the ‘whole’ (it wasn’t me!  A big boy did it and ran away!).

So now we have a society run by big organisations that are anything but fit for purpose.  Survival of the fittest?  Don’t make me laugh.

If this latest crisis has one good outcome, it’s that the people who’ve been sleepwalking round the supermarkets thinking it’s great to be able to but a family-sized lasagne for £1 are starting to question how that price was achieved.  Just how the suppliers, their employees, the animals and the environment were screwed in the process.

Perhaps this ultimate breach of trust will make everyone start to think about that previously middle class obsession – provenance.  Or more simply, what the hell is in that ready meal?  Wouldn’t it be great if this was the turning point that kicked off a High Street, and small business, revival?

This week, an Ipsos-MORI poll asked people to say who they trusted to tell the truth.  Politicians, bankers and journalists came bottom of the table, trusted by around only 20% of the population.  It’s a shame the survey didn’t include supermarkets, but ‘business leaders’ managed only 34%.

Honesty may seem like an old-fashioned word, but it is what consumers want, and is what marketers need to deliver.  As for big business, how about you stop lining shareholder pockets and start ‘in-sourcing’ again?



  1. Hilton Barbour February 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    Sam – my simplistic POV is that Joe Consumer shouldn’t get off lightly either. We’re as culpable as the efficiency experts who recommend outsourcing as a way to manage costs.

    In the US the same folks who bemoan the death of the small businessman and the corner convenience-store, still go to WalMart expecting to pay $100 for all their Xmas gifts and a week of groceries. Sadly those are separate realities. There’s a genuine reason one cut of meat costs $10 and another costs $1.00. The metaphor of “champagne taste on a beer budget” rings particularly true in these scenarios.

    Joe Consumer doesn’t deserve to be totally absolved from this (very sad) situation.

  2. Sam Bridger February 18, 2013 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Hi Hilton. Thanks for your comments, nice to hear from you. You’re absolutely right, but as I do believe the majority of consumers have been ‘sleepwalking’ – not questioning it because they didn’t know they should (‘they said it was ok!’), or didn’t have a choice (‘can’t afford better’) or were just genuinely ignorant of the issues. The food industry, and the big retailers, however, created the system and knew exactly what they were doing…

  3. Jon baker April 21, 2013 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    Great article Sam, thank you. It expressed a great many of my thoughts on the subject. Although I’m not totally sure the blame lies with outsourcing. Outsourcing done well doesn’t cause a problem, doing it badly like many do, certainly causes a big problem.

    Most firms that outsource processes don’t rally understand what they’re outsourcing and therefore the result can only be bad. Add that to the fact that, as you rightly point out, many firms then think that they’ve outsourced their responsibility and be result is disaster.

    Honesty is most certainly the key word here, we need a lot more of it in marketing, business operations and in general. Thank you for a great article

    • admin April 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jon for your feedback, glad to see it hit a nerve with you! My challenge is ‘outsourcing done well’ seems to be as rare as hen’s teeth. It inevitably involves UK job losses, (the effects of which amplify all the way down the supply chain and can destroy whole towns) and/or suppliers being screwed down on price and therefore compromising on quality and/or safety. I’d love to hear of some good examples, for sure.

      And sadly, in the news this week, we again hear of one of the most devastating consequences with the collapse of the factory in Dhaka (over 330 dead at time of writing, to add to the hundreds who also died recently in Indian clothing factory fires). It’s another example of a long, opaque and unaccountable supply chain. I hope anyone buying Primark’s £3 bikini for their week on the beach now thinks long and hard about exactly what price was paid…

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