Marketing Toward Middle America Might be Tough, But Worth the Effort

When it comes to marketing, there’s one cardinal rule that brands need to follow: know your consumer base.  Familiarity with consumers’ values, wants and needs helps companies successfully target and connect with their audience and generate steady revenue.

New York City dwellers are constantly being bombarded with scantily-clad men and women in ads selling the latest jeans, perfume, or other beauty wares. Manhattan residents are so accustomed to those types of images they may not even look twice at the latest racy Abercrombie & Fitch or Calvin Klein billboard that popped up across the street that in other areas of the country would be considered offensive.

A lot of purchasing power lies in America’s heartland, and businesses that are able to successfully capitalize on this loyal, growing population stand to reap many benefits. But when it comes to attracting this Middle America customer base, marketing experts say brands should think twice before assuming they can utilize a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy.

Paul Jankowski, author of How to Speak America: Building Brands in the New Heartland, who  has worked with large corporations like Pepsi and The Country Music Awards, and says many companies are missing the mark in branding to this consumer base. He refers to the “new Heartland” as not just being states in the Midwest, widens the net to include many states in the Southeast and Southwest regions of the country.

“The message to brand builders is simple: It’s acknowledging the role core values play in buying behavior. When you’re doing your creative, keep this massive segment in mind instead of doing creative for creative sake.”

Jankowski lists faith as the top value of consumers in the new heartland, but cautions that it doesn’t always mean religion. Although he noted a 2008 Pew Research Center survey that shows that 9 out of 10 Americans believe God exists. 

He cited a 2010 POM Wonderful TC campaign that included a series of commercials featuring Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and desire, Persian mythology warriors and a naked, almost mythical-like “Eve” lying on the ground with a snake slithering over her. By portraying  Eve as a mythical being instead of Biblical figure, he said, “you just managed to potentially offend about 90% of the world.”

 “The question is - when you’re doing your creative, you might look at it and say that’s a beautiful shot, but does that resonate with many people in the country?” he said. “Be cognizant of the role of faith … may play in the lives of this massive consumer group.”

Jankowski cites NASCAR as a great example of brand loyalty in the heartland, saying the sports’ sponsors stay in tune with fans.

“People in the heartland want to feel a kinship to the companies they buy from,” he said. “Do the companies share similar values? Do the companies have right labor relations with people who actually market the products? Are they located here or not? I think there’s definitely a connection between brand loyalty and the way the company behaves.”

Robbin Phillips, president of Brains on Fire, a corporate branding and identity company based in South Carolina, works with companies across the country and agreed that shared values and interest can help determine marketing strategies, but lessens the importance of geography.

Brains on Fire recently worked with the craft division of the consumer products company Fiskars to help it reignite interest in its products by targeting a niche audience: crafters. They brought in people from across the country to be Fiskars ambassadors, “Fiskateers,” educating them about various crafting products and then sent them back to their communities to spread the word.

The company targeted “everyday women” across America and executed a successful campaign, Phillips said, “because we’ve tapped into those shared values … people can sort of unite around a common cause or purpose.”

“Moms who share a passion for scrapbooking or sharing memories … those people tend to be wired the same way no matter where they are,” she added.

The Fiskars’s case is an example of how geographic lines are blurring these days, partly because of social media. “It’s made it possible to reach people in more remote areas than it ever did before. …In this case, we’re really connecting people to people and people to shared passions,” Phillips said.

Mary Pat Mueller, president of Texas-based Door Number 3 Marketing, agreed that the Internet, combined with immigration and a more mobile work force, are eroding the effectiveness of generally marketing to Middle Americans as a lump group.

“Middle America is much more textured, and rich in diversity of mindsets. It’ll take some time, but I envision that before too long we’ll be to a degree the demographic doppelganger of East and West Coasts,” Mueller said.

Mueller stresses that Middle Americans shouldn’t be pigeon holed or generalized when it comes to their brand preference. A common misconception about this consumer base, she said, is that they are “fairly bland in their lifestyles and tastes. “

“Perhaps Middle Americans have a reputation for being more grounded, more tied to traditional values such as religion, but that NASCAR dad does yoga and takes his kids to see Drake because he kind of enjoys it, too. And, he’s a closet foodie, only his domain is the BBQ pit, where he is highly inventive.”

With so many advertising messages on the airwaves, Internet, billboards and other mediums these days, it’s not so much that Middle America is necessarily being ignored, rather, that they are misunderstood by some brands.

“Sometimes Middle America may feel stereotyped and that loses some patina,” Mueller said. “Yes, I live in Texas, drive a Ford F150, have a few acres, but my children are half Persian, speak a fair amount of Farsi and Spanish and have passports with lots of stamps."