The Heart of America: 5 Questions on “New Heartland” Consumers

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Paul Jankowski’s Nashville-based agency the New Heartland Group has helped some of the nation’s leading brands—including Taylor Swift, Pepsi, Pizza Hut and Beyoncé—connect with consumers in the “New Heartland,” the massive cultural segment made up of the Southwest, Midwest, and parts of the Southeast.

In an effort to better understand this group, New Heartland recently surveyed consumers to provide a baseline study of New Heartlanders. The findings distinguish the geographic region as a unique cohort, and indicate that brand marketers typically misunderstand the demographic, which represents 60 percent of the U.S. consumer base—and an opportunity that many brands are missing.

brandchannel talked to Jankowski about the study’s findings, and the role that core values play in New Heartlanders’ brand discovery and experience.[more]

Paul Jankowski headshot

brandchannel: What are the core values that define the purchasing behavior of New Heartlanders? 

Jankowski: The three core values held most dearly are Faith (not religion), Community and Family. While these values are not unique to the New Heartland, they are more deeply rooted here. These core values live at the surface of everyday life and have a profound influence on the new Heartlander’s decision-making and buying behavior—big and small.

According to our 2014 New Heartland Consumer Insights Study, forty-five percent of New Heartlanders say faith is somewhat or critically important to them when making purchasing decisions, 81 percent say community as an advertising element is an effective means of getting them to purchase, and 62 percent of New Heartland women state their family’s opinion is a major influencer on buying decisions.

bc: Why do you think that many brands miss the mark when it comes to the New Heartland?

Jankowski: I think it’s clearly from a lack of education and understanding of the differences among New Heartlanders and non-New Heartlanders and how they connect with brands.

Too many brands and their agencies along the East and West Coasts assume that all Americans fit neatly into little categories: “Moms in San Francisco and San Antonio are driven by the same values. All twenty-somethings, regardless of where they live, follow the same music and fashion trends. Doctors in the suburbs of Boston have similar lifestyles as doctors in Peoria, Lubbock and Macon.” But it simply isn’t true.

Many brands are spending large amounts of money on advertising that is not connecting with this powerful cultural segment, simply because they don’t take the time to learn their language.

bc: Are there any success stories you can share about a brand that’s managed to capture the New Heartland demographic recently?

Jankowski: Just a Pinch is one of the fastest-growing and engaged digital platforms for food lovers across the New Heartland. This online platform was launched by American Hometown Media, the same founders that created the publishing group behind the successful American Profile magazine insert delivered to American households through local community newspapers. The JustAPinch.com website inspiration was created in response to the popularity and demand of the user-submitted recipes section of the newspaper insert.

American Hometown Media listened and learned from their core audience, and they discovered some interesting things about what their readers really wanted. Most food blogs and cooking shows showcase gourmet recipes with complicated ingredients that appeal to chefs. But in reality, most women who cook for the family don’t have the time or want to spend the money on making those types of recipes.

Just a Pinch eggnog recipe

The company also made another key observation that changed the way they delivered their brand messaging. They found that with food and recipes, non-professional photography was much more effective than professional photos. Women who saw a slightly grainy picture of a dish on a regular dinner plate in an everyday kitchen, experienced an instant connection—she would know instinctually that she could cook that because someone else had cooked that dish in their home kitchen. And a photograph of the woman who had submitted her recipe, her bio, and her personal comments about the dish established trust, and a sense of shared interests.

The results speak for themselves. In the first three years, the website has become the largest repository of user-posted recipes in the world, boasting an astounding 350,000+ community-submitted dishes to date. The company ended 2013 with 1 million registered users and 10 million unique visitors, and predicted that by the end of 2014, they will have 2 million registered users and 20 million unique visitors.

bc: What are a few actionable ways that brands can increase engagement with this demographic?

Jankowski: For one thing, make sure your creative team knows the role that faith plays in buying behavior in the New Heartland. Don’t discount and pander to these strong beliefs, but respect them. And remember—religion is not part of this conversation. Also, being faithful in the New Heartland doesn’t necessarily equate to being politically or socially conservative.

Another key understanding brands should have is that family units, not just individuals, are the foundation of the New Heartlander’s identity and number-one source for product recommendations. P&G’s big scoring “Thank You, Mom” campaign is a great example. New Heartland family traditions involve brands, and loyalty to a brand can be passed through multiple generations and extended families. Find a way to connect your brand with traditions that New Heartlanders hold near and dear.

Also, choose the right music can powerfully connect the New Heartlander with your brand. This is a proven brand-building tactic—from jingles and audio tracks, to full-blown artist sponsorship/branded entertainment campaigns.

bc: What do you think is the most surprising finding from the study?

The most startling finding is how little consumers feel brands understand them or appeal to them through their core values. Only 4 percent think commercials and ads appeal to their core values, and only 5 percent of consumers think that brands really understand them as a consumer. I

n fact, New Heartland women—who are very powerful consumers—are nearly 3 times more likely to say they feel overlooked by brands in advertising. That means an investment in knowing this powerful cultural segment and gaining even a tiny lift in brand equity here can be the difference between mediocrity and success.

—Paul Jankowski is Founder and Chief Brand Strategist at New Heartland Group (formerly Access Brand Strategies). His latest book is “Speak American Too: Your Guide to Building Powerful Brands in the New Heartland.” Follow him on Twitter: @pauljankowski

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