Millennials in the Middle: Don't Ignore The Heartland

Millennials In Heartland Have Different Values Than Coastal Counterparts

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The millennial generation is forcing change in the way we think about workplace culture, societal norms, political views and even the way we build brands. Countless studies have tried to determine how to define and reach millennials, with the consensus being they're elusive and hard to understand.

But that fog of mystery starts to lift when you look at this group geographically, and more importantly, culturally. Turns out, professional millennials (ages 22-to-34) in the "new heartland" of the country -- made up of the Southwest, Midwest and parts of the Southeast -- differ significantly from their coastal counterparts, claiming their place as both the most powerful and most disconnected consumer buying segment.

Understanding the cultural nuances that exist between professional millennials in that region versus those on the coasts -- and how these nuances affect their buying decisions -- is one of the most critical marketing challenges currently facing brands.

It's baffling why most marketers don't pay special attention to what they usually refer to as "fly-over states" or simply "the middle," particularly since the new heartland is home to 60% of U.S. consumers and makes up the nation's largest buying segment. It's a very diverse cultural group, making these millennials even harder to reach if you don't have a clear understanding of what makes them tick. They are a mix of races, ethnicities and religions, but wholly united by a shared set of core values that include faith (not religion), community and family.

While these values are not exclusive to this group, they are more deeply rooted and openly discussed in the heartland than on the coasts. These characteristics drive purchasing decisions and brand loyalty, making it dicey for marketers who don't have a realistic handle on the values, interests and purchasing behaviors of the region's pro-millennials.

Misunderstood and alienated

A recent study by Prince Market Research, commissioned by New Heartland Group, shows heartland millennial women are the most disconnected from advertising than other groups. Alarmingly, the gap grows exponentially with age as women's buying power increases -- by the time they are in their 30s, these women are an astounding 16 times more likely to feel disconnected by advertising than other groups.

They tend to marry younger and have children sooner, pushing them into the role of household lead decision-maker earlier than their coastal counterparts. The challenge for brands could hardly be greater: The moms who hold the household purchasing power are the same ones who feel the most misunderstood and alienated from marketing.

What's a brand to do? One answer is to revise messaging delivery based on the group's stage of life. In most cases, the overarching message doesn't need to change, just the way it's delivered in terms of channel, tone and call to action.

For example, if you want a millennial to purchase a specific type of car, think about the benefits that vehicle might have to millennials who will be using the car as a family vehicle, versus those who will be using it primarily as transportation for themselves to and from work.

There's also a clear divergence in lifestyle decisions. Heartland millennials tend to be more focused on getting married, buying a home and building a family much earlier in life. The biggest priority for coastal millennials, on the other hand, is to make a satisfying job choice, and they more often seek graduate degrees than heartland millennials. Brands can benefit from this intelligence, since each lifestyle path brings with it different products and services that sync with their stage in life.

Have faith

Faith (not religion) is one of those rarely talked about subjects in the advertising world because it can have a polarizing effect on people, but brands should be wary of ignoring it. Faith represents the biggest difference in values between the two geographic groups: Almost half of heartland millennials rank it as one of their top-three core values, whereas less than a third of coastal millennials feel that way, according to the Prince study.

As marketers, we don't need to talk about the Bible or secure pouring rights in mega-churches to win over heartland millennials. But we do need to think about how faith plays a part in this group's reactions to brand messaging, and consider whether our marketing content could come across as insensitive, offensive or rooted in misguided stereotypes.

Take, for example, Pom's 2010 "Eve" ad, which hypersexualized a key figure in religious texts. While the ad was beautifully shot, the overall message had potential to offend people of many different religions -- obviously not the brand's intended effect. A simple consideration of the role of faith could have avoided this creative blunder.

Understanding and accounting for the clear differentiation in lifestyle among professional millennials based on geographical culture should permeate all brand planning and execution.

While most brands haven't done a particularly good job in distinguishing and addressing the geographic and cultural differences of millennials, the good news is marketers who now understand and address the nuances of this powerful segment still have an opportunity to build relationships with consumers that can last for generations.