Election Lessons: Should 'Rural White' Be Its Own Cultural Segment in Marketing?

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Andy Hasselwander
Andy Hasselwander

Andy Hasselwander is not your typical political pundit, but his analysis of the election is something politicos and marketers ought to ponder. The head of Latinum Network's genYZ product team is immersed in research about 13-34 year-olds and multicultural consumers, what the firm considers to be the fastest growing and most influential consumer segments in the U.S.

He sees a lot of data on groups of consumers often disregarded by marketers, and thinks a lot about how those groups perceive marketing messages. Yes, his firm focuses on Latinos and Hispanics; however, for this conversation, Ad Age asked him to view some of the other consumer groups he evaluates through a political lens. After all, many consumers are also voters.

Latinum Network is based in Washington, D.C. and has 90 clients. The firm aims to understand why consumers behave the way they do, and to predict where they'll lead the economy of the future.

Ad Age chatted with Mr. Hasselwander about how the emotions of fear, anger and the desire for change played a role in this year's presidential election, what cues he thinks marketers should take from the election results, and why he thinks Donald Trump is a "great qualitative market researcher."

Ad Age: Since the election, political and marketing pundits alike have mulled what they call the "urban/rural divide." Donald Trump won the election in part because he appealed to rural white voters, i.e., people in smaller and less-dense suburban areas, small towns, smaller cities and DMAs. You've said you've seen this distinction in consumer data for years. Can you elaborate on that and how it applies to the 2016 presidential election and support for Donald Trump in "rural" areas, particularly among whites?

Andy Hasselwander: Well, we've been seeing for years that one of the biggest predictors of brand affinity, sensitivity to advertising, and use of technology was ZIP code density. It was just as important as ethnicity, and almost as important as age. I think what's different today is that "rural" is just as much of an identity as "Hispanic" is. Rural has a soundtrack (country music), a uniform, a food profile, a values profile. It's a culture.

So why is "rural white" not included in cultural marketing? I would just pose that as a question for marketers. For many years, though, I think advertisers were less interested because of the growth profile of the segment. It's not growing. Young people are leaving sparsely populated ZIP codes and secondary cities for the "creative centers." I think this election might change that, because even if the segment is declining, it's big and important. I would even add, and this is somewhat controversial, that leaving this segment out of the creative process more generally might be driving some of the resentment and division we are seeing right now, not just here, but worldwide.

AA: There was a lot of talk in advertising and marketing circles about how that dynamic, that so-called rural/urban divide should affect corporate marketers. Is it appropriate for corporate marketers to shift away from their urban millennial-centric -- and in many ways aspirational -- approach to brand marketing towards something reflective of the mindset exhibited by some Trump supporters?

AH: I don't view it as a shift -- I view it as additive. Advertisers and marketers just need to broaden their apertures. I would tell marketers to treat rural, secondary city, white America just like they treat any other cultural segment. Hire diversity (which includes people who didn't all go to the same northeastern liberal arts schools, for example); do research in rural areas and secondary cities; get outside of the comfort zone. I think it is so easy as a researcher to do "MEsearch" and not even know you're doing it. At the end of the day, a good insight is a good insight, but you're only going to get it if you force diversity on yourself and expand your definition of diversity.

AA: You've said that marketers are good at triggering lower brain functions. Can you explain how Donald Trump appealed to voters' emotions, in a scientific sense, in terms of emotions, particularly things like anger, anxiety and fear?

AH: Well, I think Donald Trump was a great qualitative market researcher. People missed this. He used two tactics that were free to him -- the rallies and Twitter. He would do a simple call-and-response in both. "Lock her up" played well in rallies -- he got instant feedback. On Twitter, he'd say things, and you know he reads all the responses and retweets. They were emotional pleas that got instant response, and he saw the energy they generated. So I think it was a combination of a very emotional thing he uncovered that generates anger and fear, and the instant market research to validate those insights, and use them literally the next hour or the next day.

I think everyone missed this -- how good he was at reading people through these two platforms, and changing his message to match the emotional energy he was feeling. He generated passion in people because the message was perfectly tuned, and they felt he was listening. I think this is one interesting thing about Donald Trump -- he really cares what people think about him, and he does seem very curious. I've heard this many times from many sources. The Gore meeting this week was a surprise to everyone. I doubt it was a stunt. I think he probably was really interested. He might not change any positions on this, but it's significant.

AA: Hillary Clinton seems to have hinged her campaign on appealing to fear and anger aimed squarely at Trump. If it worked for him, why didn't it work for her?

AH: It didn't work because fear doesn't get people to the voting booth, but anger and change does. I think Trump saw people were angry and resentful, and he gave them a voice, and promised change. So did Obama in 2008. It's the best word in politics: "Change." Find the itch and scratch it. Hillary counted on fear of Trump's behavior to drive her base to the polls, but had no message of change for everyone else. She totally missed the populist anger, and all these people who feel like they are left behind.

It's been said a million times, but her campaign was arrogant. They looked at the economic numbers, unemployment, the Pax Americana that we've enjoyed for 70 years now, technology, cities rebounding, and couldn't believe that people could feel anger and resentment at the status quo. You almost got the sense that they felt like they didn't deserve to feel it. Bernie [Sanders] was successful because he saw it, just like Trump, and gave a prescription for it. Hillary gave nothing but Obama 3.0. Which probably would have been fine, it was the lowest risk option, but we're a democracy, not a rational college classroom. To be fair, even with this, she's winning the popular vote by over two million, so that gives you a sense of how badly divided the country is… but the bottom line is, she didn't drive the people she needed in the states she needed to win.

AA: You've said that, because humans have a tendency to normalize or acclimatize, they often are prone to gravitating towards false equivalencies. How do you think this played out during the election? How might either party learn from how it manifested during the election?

AH: People quickly adapt to their surroundings; it's a survival mechanism based on millions of years of evolution. Taking the time to achieve historical perspective takes hard work. So yes, with this current election cycle and the behavior of the incoming administration so far, I think that there is a danger of normalizing previously politically/socially unacceptable behavior.

People think that our government runs the way it does because of the Constitution, and that the Constitution is inviolable. That's true to a certain extent. However, people forget that many of the things we take for granted (graceful transfer of power, the President talking to reporters, or behaving with a certain "Presidential" level of decorum come to mind) are to be found nowhere in the Constitution. Madison didn't write anything about Twitter usage guidelines. So many of these behaviors and procedures are based on norms and traditions, and when these norms and traditions are broken, eventually people will forget they exist. So I think it's up to journalists to be historians right now, and provide the public with historical perspective -- a normative base -- even in the face of all of the fake news garbage that is circulating.

AA: Lastly, are there certain types of research or approaches to research conducted for corporations and brands that you believe would benefit political entities?

AH: I think political entities have become too enamored with the individual race as a lens for all research. According to a 538 article from 2012, only about 35 Congressional Districts are left that can truly be considered competitive, so why do research with people in the other districts? The same goes for the Senate and Presidential races. Why do research in California? Why do it in Utah?

I think that this is a structural myopia that leads politicians and pollsters to miss broader trends. My advice would be to throw out districts and competitive races for at least the next year and get out into America and conduct broad psychological research. What are the roots of distrust of government? What are the anecdotes that people give when asked to describe their darkest fears? In consumer marketing, we call these "breakthrough insights." I guess in closing I'd say that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump had breakthrough insights in this election cycle -- and it showed.

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