On March 13, 2000, sixteen Americans were taken to Tiga, a tiny Malaysian island in the South China Sea. It was a very eclectic group ranging in age from a 22 year old aspiring actress to a 72 year old retired Navy Seal. Their careers varied as widely as their ages, a sampling includes a corporate trainer, a district attorney, a civil engineer, a white water rafting guide and an advertising manager. They were left to fend for themselves – living off the land and sea.
Split into two groups, they were left to devise shelter, create fire, find safe water and seek out food. There was no established hierarchy, no system of governance and no designated leaders. The groups, referred to as tribes, were to compete against each other in reward challenges, the typical prize being food. Additionally, there were elimination challenges in which the losing team had to select one member who would be sent away. The competitions were planned so that it would take 39 days to eliminate fifteen people, leaving one person standing.
Logic suggests that it would be the challenge winners who would be able to leave Tiga given the lack of food, shelter, water and creature comforts. However, there was an incentive to remain – the final person remaining out of the original sixteen would be declared the winner – and receive a prize of $1,000,000.
Some referred to the competition as an experiment in human behavior, others referred to it as a contrived and meaningless social exercise. Its most basic purpose, however, was to create programming for television. Several factors combined to launch this production. To begin with, it was a concept which had proven successful in Europe. Added to that was a looming threat of a writers’ strike. The factor which had the greatest impact on the decision to pursue such a unique production was money. The costs associated with traditional programming – sitcoms and dramas – had become astronomical. Production costs to film sixteen people on an island was dramatically less. Reality television was being taken to new heights.
On the island, the contestants were focused on finding food and water to merely stay alive. To survive the game, they had to hone their social skills – forge relationships, build alliances, develop strategy and not become a target. They had to adapt to twists in the contest itself. They had to anticipate shifts in allegiance and loyalties and revise their own plans.
Each episode had its share of drama and humor. The action was unscripted yet story lines developed. Personalities became known – some liked by the viewers, others not liked at all. Physical and mental strengths were tested as were ethics. Some players engaged in manipulation, deceit and lies. Others were committed to integrity, loyalty and honesty.
The show’s ratings skyrocketed, averaging over 20 million viewers per week. The final episode revealed the winner of the $1,000,000. It was the 39 year old corporate trainer, an openly gay man with a propensity for being naked throughout the show – a unique character on a unique program. The finale drew 51.7 million viewers – by comparison, this year’s Academy Awards drew 37 million viewers this year.
What began as an experiment on several levels, proved the viability of reality television. The show has continued for sixteen years and thirty-two seasons. It has been filmed in some of the most dramatic and treacherous areas on Earth. A large part of its success is due to the fact that the contestants and locations change each season yet the challenges, social dynamics and basic premise remain stable. The show has vaulted dozens of its contestants to various levels of fame and fortune. There is an extremely loyal following which consistently numbers 5,000,000 viewers per week and double that for the finale. The show has been able to outwit, outlast and outplay virtually all reality competition to become a fearless brand – a true Survivor.
Fearless Brands remain stable – but never stop moving
The thirty-second season of Survivor came to a conclusion this past Wednesday (December 16, 2015) with its typical flourish. Three potential winners sat on a studio set which was a replica of the ‘Tribal Council’ site of the show – this one filmed in Cambodia. The show’s host and one of its executive producers, Jeff Probst, read the ballots which had been cast over a month earlier. The winner is determined by the votes of participants who had been ‘voted off’.
This season’s $1,000,000 winner was Jeremy Collins, a married firefighter with two children and a baby due any day. The vote was unanimous. Jeremy’s strategy was to be loyal, honest – basically to take the high road. Not every winner has exhibited those traits. Many were manipulative, by example, Richard Hatch, Season 1’s winner. He was not only diabolical on the show, he ended up serving time for tax evasion for not declaring his winnings.
Survivor is not short on controversy. Many consider it a disgrace and a blight on society – a bad example for youth and adults alike. Others applaud the human dynamics and interpersonal behavior as providing keen insight into the traits and tendencies of people in general. A few people who have played and lost have made allegations of improper direction by the show’s producers.
All of that is true to a degree – and none of it matters in regards to Survivor being a fearless brand. No brand is perfect. No brand will positively appeal to all people much less all of the time. There will always be haters. There will always be loyalists.
Whether you love the show, hate it or are completely indifferent – here’s what can Survivor can teach you about being a fearless brand.
Consistency builds trust – Fans of Survivor know what to expect from the show – at least at the most basic of levels. People will be placed in tribes, they will compete as groups and individuals, there will be deals, backstabbing, hunger, anguish and drama. Survivor started as a sound brand – passionate people creating a show featuring passionate people. Strong competitors, brilliant editors, and Jeff Probst – the face of Survivor. There is a familiarity – a trust – that the Survivor brand will be relevant to its fans.
Don’t stop evolving – While stability and consistency are critical, no brand can stop moving or evolving. Your brand must adapt, improvise and adjust over time – your customer base certainly will – their needs, wants and expectations will change over time. Survivor has implemented new ideas and new twists in every one of its thirty-two seasons. Some have been brilliant. Some have been dismal failures. But Survivor continues to evolve – and it continues to achieve stratospheric success.
There’s no need to spend six weeks in barely habitable wilderness to build a fearless brand. However, when you build your fearless brand, you’ll be in a position to realize great success. Great success puts you in a position to visit beautiful and dramatic locations, without having to starve and sleep on the ground. Find your purpose. Be consistent. Evolve with the times. Enjoy stratospheric success.