And yet, people in marketing often assume they understand the public. So, a big shock came after the Trump's election in 2016. virtually none of them had predicted it. Now marketers are trying to understand Middle America so they can figure out how to sell to them, according to a New York Times report.

But given the attitudes and assumptions that get marketers into a spot where they don't understand large portions of their customer bases, how effective is this going to be? According to the Times story, market research groups have descended on cities like Detroit and Cincinnati and Indianapolis and Milwaukee. Time for important deep-dive analysis.

I'm not sure it's going to help them they way they assume it will. Here are two commercials. The first is from HP.

And here's the second.

Notice something in common? All the people are white. Now consider what the percentage of the population of those cities are white based on 2016 estimates by the Census Bureau:

  • Detroit: 13.6 percent
  • Cincinnati: 50.7 percent
  • Indianapolis: 61.6 percent
  • Milwaukee: 65.0 percent

Granted, these are only two examples of the marketing coming out of this research and companies want to reach people who voted for Trump. But commercials actually run somewhere, whether on YouTube or on television in specific markets.

In an attempt to understand the political divide and sell to people on either side of it, marketers are going to Middle American cities, talking to white people, and featuring them as the sole inhabitants in ads. And while three of the four cities mentioned as research sites are majority white, at most they're no more white than the country as a whole.

At the most generous, these companies are going to air commercials that tell non-whites they aren't part of the target market. In the name of crossing the political divide and avoiding the loss of some customers based on politics, the marketers are essentially letting politics drive their decisions and will lose some customers based on politics.

I could be wrong -- heaven knows I often am. But, really, have companies found that their sales have tanked with a focus on product features? HP, for example, "used data from social media sites to figure out how people's political bent influenced how they viewed technology and the brand's message of 'reinvention,'" which you can understand. But I'd wonder if attitudes toward technology and "reinvention" are a perfect split by politics. Probably not. More likely there's some significant percentage of any group by political affiliation that share attitudes toward technology.

Even the language surrounding the discussion sounds odd. Here's one paragraph of the Times story:

[Marketing agency] Y&R's immersion project focused on understanding the family life and core values of people in Middle America, including their relationships with brands. These people were "frequently lumped into stereotypes or overlooked entirely by marketers," the agency said when it announced the effort last year, adding that it hoped to emerge with insights that would improve how it communicated with such consumers.

The family life and core values of people in Middle America assumes that there is one group of people in Middle America and they share one set of values and family life. It certainly sounds like another stereotype, just one arranged differently than in the past.

Trying to understand your customers is certainly sensible. So is the attempt to break out of stereotypes and assumptions built on habit. Swapping one set of assumptions for another and potentially alienating groups of people isn't a good way out of long-standing blindness.

Published on: May 7, 2018
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