“Stereotypes kill--especially in marketing.” So said Paul Jankowski, chief strategist at Nashville, Tenn.-based brand strategy agency New Heartland Group.
Jankowski was specifically referring to preconceptions about what he calls the “New Heartland,” home to 60 percent of American consumers living in the Southwest, Midwest, and Southeast. The area claims a wildly brand loyal population that many brands dismiss or overlook, said Jankowski, author of the book “Speak American Too: Your Guide to Building Powerful Brands in the New Heartland.”
As former CMO for Elvis Presley Enterprises--who also held senior marketing positions at Gibson Guitar, SFX Entertainment/Live Nation, and MCA Records, creating promotions for the likes of Ford, Pepsi, Beyonce, and Blake Shelton--Jankowski has logged enough hours in New York and Los Angeles during his 25-year career to discover that marketers on the coasts don’t understand those who live in the region in between. They’re not simply a bunch of sweet-tea-swilling, NASCAR-loving, pickup-truck-buying folks. It’s a diverse region tied together by what Jankowski has defined as three core values that guide their buying behavior.
“The New Heartland isn’t more American than anywhere else in the country, but it does have its own language, a language that’s built on distinct dialects, colloquialisms, inferred meanings, local definitions, and tradition-rich nuances all driven by long-standing cultural influences,” Jankowski wrote in his book.
CMO.com talked to Jankowski about his baseline study of the region’s consumers, the value of the U.S.’s vast interior region to brands, why the “New Heartland” is a culture rather than a demographic, and how not to alienate half of the country with your next campaign.
CMO.com: How did you become interested in researching what you call the “New Heartland”?
Jankowski: Living in Nashville and doing business on both coasts gave me a unique perspective as to how brands look at this part of the country. It was being dismissed on a large scale. As a consumer and as a brand builder, I claim this audience and look at it a little differently.
CMO.com: Why should marketers pay closer attention to consumers living in what some dismissively call the “flyover states”?
Jankowski: The sheer size of this group and the depth of their brand loyalty should be enough to cause brand marketers to change their ways of looking at this culture. They’re wildly passionate and loyal to the brands that actually build relationships with them.
CMO.com: Your research says that 41 percent of consumers said they are more likely to buy products and services if the commercials and ads appeal to their core values. You have identified three core values that bind this very large and diverse group together. Can you tell us more about each and how they influence this group’s relationships with brands?
Jankowski: First, I want to make clear that these core values are not exclusive to the New Heartland. They exist throughout the country. They’re just a little more on the surface here. The region is a mosaic of cultural influences and traditions. But, based on deep research and hundreds of conversations, we uncovered a common core of values that ties all these groups together.
The first is faith. That does not mean religion. Marketers want to pigeonhole the whole middle of the country as conservative, evangelical Christians. I’m talking about faith in general—in God, in a higher power, in your brothers and sisters.
The second is community. We live and stay in our communities for generations. Some statistics in certain Midwest states show that that the vast majority of residents never leave their home city, much less their state. How they interact with their neighbors and support their communities is critical.
Finally, family is a massive core value. They care what their families think. The most powerful marketing is word of mouth. And we’re not just talking about the traditional nuclear family. It’s about more than blood relationships.
CMO.com: Just 4 percent of the New Heartland consumers you surveyed said commercials and ads often appeal to their core values, while 42 percent said these ads rarely appeal to their core values. How can marketers remedy that?
Jankowski: The purpose of discussing core values is not to pander to them. The key message is to be aware of how these core values play into the buying behavior in the New Heartland when it comes to the creative execution of a campaign.
One brand that comes to mind is Pom Wonderful. They had a beautifully shot spot featuring Eve, lying naked with a snake slithering across her body, suggesting that the forbidden fruit was actually a pomegranate. If you knew the role that core values play in the New Heartland and that Eve is a central figure in the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran, when creative comes along with something like that, you’d suggest trying a different approach.
CMO.com: Why do marketers tend to miss the mark when trying to reach these consumers?
Jankowski: It’s lack of knowledge. I see it very frequently when I review suggested creative using country music talent, for example. Nine times out of 10 they put the guy in a cowboy hat in a pickup down by the river. It happened again this week. Not everyone who sings country music is into pickups. The artist I’m referring to is more GQ than pickup, but the creatives didn’t take the time to research how he was positioned. It shows a lack of commitment to learning about this audience. It’s offensive to the artist.
CMO.com: You also call out five channels that are key to reaching this audience: music, food, sports, outdoors, and social media. Tell us a bit more about each.
Jankowski: They’re not the only ways to engage these consumers. But our research revealed that these five channels laddered back up to the three core values. It’s where leisure time and disposable income are spent.
Music is a massive passion point for this group. Country music takes top rank, but it’s not the only type of music consumed here. Youth sports are huge. And college football edges out pro sports by the sheer size and number of options we have.
We have an outdoors culture, although activities vary based on climate and region. There’s lot of hunting and fishing, and we have more golfers than any other region based on our size and the accessibility of courses. There’s a whole community around food. We don’t go to a barbecue in the summertime. We eat barbecue.
As for social media, we’re like everyone else. It’s a huge part of our lives, and marketers need to look at it like they look at it with everyone else.
CMO.com: Is there any risk that in sharpening focus on the New Heartland, marketers could alienate the other 40 percent of the American population?
Jankowski: I think the bigger risk is that this group feels alienated because brands are maniacally focused on the coasts. In some cases, the New Heartland comes downstream from that. Everything after the Hudson River is filler until you get to the West Coast. There is a huge opportunity to embrace this group and bring it back into the fold.
I don’t think that if you lean too much on the core values of the New Heartland, you’ll alienate the “cool” people on coast. We’re not some down-home, sit-on-the-front-porch-and-drink-iced-tea people. We’re massively diverse, tech-savvy, fashion-forward, white-collar. We’re educated. We have money to spend. There are so many aspects to this audience that people dismiss. If you stereotype, you’re going to lose.
There’s a huge opportunity to grow brand equity for those companies that take the time to immerse themselves in this area and get to know the culture. It’s not a demography. It’s not a geography. It’s a cultural segment, with nuances and values that tie this passionate group of people together.