How marketers should speak to America’s ‘New Heartland’
The ‘New Heartland‘ is more than just flyover states. It consists of 26 states in the Midwest, south west, and most of the south east woven together by a common thread of culture, values, and lifestyles. It’s an area that has seen the rise and fall of industrialization, has served as an incubator for everything from the world’s greatest musicians to entrepreneurs and has, in most recent years, defined the course of politics and presidential elections. So why do marketers continue to ignore this powerful consumer base and what should they be doing about it? Author Paul Jankowski explains.
The New Heartland accounts for nearly 60% of America’s population representing approximately $7tn in buying power, yet this massive group is largely overlooked and underserved by brands and their agencies. Many CMOs at top-tier companies still adopt the same tired stereotypes. This lazy approach drastically limits the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and the building of long-term brand advocates.
As a brand strategist, I’ve witnessed coastal brand dismissiveness of the New Heartland for more than 25 years. In 2009, I’d had enough. I wasn’t sure how to articulate what I and my fellow New Heartlanders were feeling, so I got in my F-150, armed with a Sony Handycam, and took a trip — a long one, actually. I drove roughly 2,500 miles through the New Heartland and asked questions like: ‘what do you really care about, what are the most important parts of your life, and how do you self-identify?’
There were a lot of heartfelt answers, but what I heard the most revolved around core values, such as faith (not religion), connection to community, and an unwavering commitment to family. It’s those values, combined with lifestyle activities, and cultural touchpoints, that help define the New Heartland customer.
You can’t understand the heartland if you’re in a skyscraper
I‘ve spent the last several decades committed to understanding the New Heartland and helping educate brands and marketers on how to connect with New Heartland customers. Through our research, we’ve learned that 95% of New Heartland residents don’t think brands understand them — and they’re right! One failed marketing plan after another proves that you simply can’t build brands in the New Heartland from the 42nd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper or in a sprawling open-office campus on the west coast.
For a brand to succeed here, it’s vital to understand our cultural roots, where our loyalties lie, how values impact our buying behavior, our attitudes about life, how we spend our time, and how we discover and engage with brands.
I’ve worked with a diverse array of brand teams and their agencies. For the most part, they don’t want to be bothered with the New Heartland customer because this group hasn’t earned its way into the accepted way of thinking. If it’s not LGBTQ, Hispanic, African American or Asian, it’s not a segment worth looking at; however, the truth is, the New Heartland is all of those, woven together by unique cultural traditions, faith affinities, lifestyle passions and distinct attitudes.
Building brands in the New Heartland doesn’t come from a focus group, big data, or a survey; it stems from an understanding of the deep roots and heritage that is held close to our hearts. New Heartlanders have their own language built on distinct dialects, colloquialisms, inferred meanings, local definitions and tradition-rich nuances.
Does your creative depict environments and scenes that New Heartlanders are familiar with and relate to? Does the copy in your ads use terms that are a part of the New Heartlander’s daily vernacular? Have your brand partnerships with influencers and celebrity endorsers aligned with this group?
Why the New Heartland buys
I can tell you why the New Heartland doesn’t buy: 71%don’t feel that commercials, ads, and brand content relate to them personally. Over the last dozen or so years, we’ve funded research that has identified three key influences that shape New Heartland buying behavior:
Culture: the setting, context, story, and language of a place
For a brand to truly stand out, it needs to build an honest rapport with customers through an understanding of how they live their lives. New Heartland culture can be defined around 10 pillars including proximity to family, preference for the outdoors, church as an organizing element of daily life, and a deep respect for generational ties, among others. Each of these cultural markers impacts the elements of a campaign from the narrative of an ad to the characters cast in a photoshoot.
Values: traditions that matter most to a person
Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset is quoted as saying: “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” Many marketers get in the habit of looking at the country as a whole and letting those insights direct their strategies. I’ve commissioned several studies of the New Heartland, and the results of each one has been the same. In this part of the country, faith (not religion), community, and family are the overriding guiding principles of life. For example, faith is somewhat or critically important to the purchasing decisions of 81% of New Heartlanders.
Lifestyle: the passions and activities people can’t live without
There are five channels marketers can use to access New Heartland buyers and none of them include Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. These channels are the passions and activities that occupy a customer’s time, and in the New Heartland they are music, food, sports, the outdoors, and technology. What marketers really need to know is how important addressing these lifestyle touchpoints in your advertising is to the buyer’s journey. Our research shows that 47% of New Heartland customers agree brands have a better chance of attracting them as a customer if they appear to understand their lifestyle activities.
Donald Miller, in his bestselling book Building a StoryBrand, suggests that brands are focusing too much on their story and neglecting the end user’s role in it: “In every line of copy we write, we’re either serving the customer’s story or descending into confusion; we’re either making music or making noise.”
Investing in truly understanding the New Heartland customer will ensure your brand is always making the kind of music they actually want to hear.
Paul Jankowski is author of The New Heartland Speaks: The Marketer's Guide To Reaching America's Most Powerful Cultural Segment.