Honestly, it’s a little humbling to write about emerging consumers after such a tumultuous election. Great Lakes GrowthWorks is in the business of understanding people. We’re tasked with listening to their perspectives and through analysis and research – empathetic, qualitative research – we translate their voices into predictions of behavior that guide innovation. It is both an art and a science. Our track record is pretty good, if I do say so myself. The success of our projects is evidence that our interpretation usually plays out as expected in the ‘real’ world. But what we do isn’t fundamentally different from our political counterparts. If they got the public so incredibly wrong, where do we get the confidence to say that we’ve got it right? That we’ve got the pulse on what Americans want and where society is headed? Are markets more sensitive or responsive than politics? Or is cognitive bias driving us towards an understanding of consumers as we want them to be?
While I’m taking a moment to reflect, at least I’m in good company. The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece on advertisers now rethinking their approach to the public. Ultimately, many of the executives concluded that they had focused too much on aspirational images of the urban coastal elites.
“The election will have spooked the liberal elite away from high concept, ‘make the world a better place’” advertising to “a more down-to-earth ‘tell me what you will do for me’ approach” said Robert Senior, worldwide chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi.
So their big takeaway is to go more local – which is entirely in-line with what we already understood as the direction of the market. Consumers are increasingly drawn to personalized, locally sourced or produced goods from purpose driven brands, even while they may have their own take on how a product should embody those qualities. Great Lakes GrowthWorks is a lean research machine that spends quite a bit of time with customers in their own context, focusing on qualitative ethnography at least equally to online polls.
A shift in advertising specifically, and methods of understanding and communicating with the public in general, may indeed be overdue. However, we don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Senior’s assertion that messages must replace ‘make the world a better place’ with ‘tell me what you will do for me’. These are hardly contradictory approaches, for all that the phrasing and juxtaposition suggest a battle between altruism and selfish pragmatism. After all, consuming socially conscious or sustainable brands delivers benefits for both the individual consumer and the world at large. To argue otherwise is an oversimplification that falls further from the mark than ever. The Global and the Local aren’t two separate worlds, nor are Individual Consumers and the World opposites. The world is comprised of individuals, so that which benefits the world benefits me (not to mention all those psychological and emotional benefits of doing something nice and affirming my identity by aligning my purchasing habits with my values).
Really, any time people are divided into neatly constructed groups, defined in opposition to the other, it creates not only a loss of nuanced understanding of the diversity within groups but also a contentious atmosphere of ‘us vs. them’. Just recall all the think pieces on baby boomers vs. millennials.
Switching from one group to another is not the answer to a perceived division. Rather, we must employ our skills and experience to better understand the intersections and points of divergence in a network. Because the urban and rural do not exist independent of one another, nor are their interests necessarily at odds. There is a great deal of common ground which is being neglected by those whose narratives thrive on themes of alienation and competition.
Is the backlash really against aspirational images of urban living being foisted upon disinterested individuals or are people rejecting those images out of frustration with their inability to realize their aspirations? Do people in cities, suburbs, small towns, and the countryside value significantly different things? Or do they pursue similar values in different forms by different means? Likewise, people can hold the same values but prioritize them differently, with varying degrees of sacrifice being acceptable. We know better than this. We know that answers depend on how you frame the question.
THE SAME CONSUMERS REVEAL DIFFERENT VALUES & PRIORITIES ON DIFFERENT OCCASIONS.
For one thing, while politics and household consumption may be influenced by the same macrotrends, the degree of conscious thought that goes into selection is very different. The urgency of the stakes is not on anything like the same scale. The factors contributing to a decision in an election are dramatically different from daily life. People’s small, everyday purchases reflect certain trends, but in a voting situation people may be overloaded by years of campaign coverage, or may make decisions based on a single issue, or just generally give a different degree of thought when questioned about a political issue. People see the direct impact of their purchasing decisions, often immediately, so brand usage is a more tailored view of personal values and needs. On large complex issues that arise in elections, people aren’t as well informed and may not directly feel the effect. So they’re more open to external influence or their ultimate vote may not clearly reflect their values.And of course, framing plays a vital role.
SO AFTER SOME SOUL SEARCHING, WE FEEL PRETTY GOOD ABOUT OUR UNDERSTANDING OF CONSUMERS.
While the election results have been very thought provoking, we did not see the emergence of some mysterious group, once relegated to shadows. Nor do I believe this is a great call to change the course of our society or industry. It is however, a sharp reminder that our research methods must remain thorough and the narratives by which we frame our understanding of the world are terribly powerful.