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Marketing to Middle America? Why You Should Rethink It

June 18th, 2019   ||    by Susan Kuchinskas

From Donald Trump’s surprise election win to massive viewership on shows like Fox’s The Masked Singer, Middle America is having its moment in the spotlight. But is marketing to Middle America a useful concept?

The 2016 election caused plenty of soul-searching for ad agencies and anyone marketing to Middle America. Had advertisers simply forgotten a major demographic? Or did they not understand this group at all?

This consumer group is complex. While it’s true that many advertisers focus too much on people aspiring to a coastal elite lifestyle, this is not a region nor a demographic that’s easily pigeonholed.

A Foreign Country?

Now, advertisers and agencies are rethinking their approach to marketing to Middle America, The New York Times reported. Some strive to look at Middle America as a foreign country, using the same tools they would for launching a product overseas: ethnographic studies and multicultural marketing agencies that have on-the-ground expertise.

Y&R, for example, sent the same cultural immersion team that had worked in Myanmar and Ecuador to Midwestern cities including Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Dick de Lange, chief strategy officer of Y&R North America, explained, “it’s important to not simply look at people through their data points, but really get at the heart of who they are through a more connected and thoughtful approach.”

To understand heartland consumers, HP used ethnographic tactics, essentially approaching them as an unknown culture. Researchers traveled to Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, and Richmond and conducted work sessions to identify participants’ shared beliefs.

An example of the results is a 2018 holiday commercial from HP showing a family torn apart by political differences—and then coming together over family photos that remind them of their bond.

Marketing to Middle America Can Include Everyone

HP’s cultural immersion teams identified two major perspectives dubbed “A Better Tomorrow” and “The Way We Were.” People on the left of the political spectrum embraced technological and social progress as the means to an improved future. Those on the right believed the country needed a reset back to a time when Americans were united and optimistic.

On the other hand, the research uncovered something that should be good news for anyone marketing to Middle America. Both sides of the political table agreed on some core values:

  • Protecting loved ones
  • Community and family
  • National security
  • Economic success
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Pollution and the environment

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t disagreement on how to promote and encourage those core values. But marketers who speak authentically to those values can create advertising that inspires without alienating.

Middle America Is Everywhere

The final concept that anyone marketing to Middle America must understand is that this is not only—or even primarily—about geography. PR Week reported that more than two-thirds of Americans define themselves as being “in the middle,” regardless of income level or region.

As HP found, this group is defined by shared values—not by shared zip codes. Reaching these Middle Americans requires more than geotargeting or even demographic targeting because they live everywhere. You can even find them in coastal cities.

Neither are they homogeneous, despite the shared values. As Fox Business noted, Middle Americans are more diverse than brands may realize and shouldn’t be stereotyped.

Brands must bring together as much data as possible to understand these consumers. Behavioral data, including TV viewing and purchasing habits, can be a better indicator than a Designated Market Area of someone’s proclivities.

Maybe the right thing for advertisers is to get rid of the concept of Middle America altogether and use rich data to find their target consumers everywhere, from sea to shining sea.

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