While face-to-face is the essential element of community, we now live in a digital age, where community can be anyplace you find other members of your tribe of interest.
Note: A local, physical community, as well as virtual communities organized around passions and causes.
If you are unfamiliar with the term New American Middle (NAM), and you sell to what might be described as “Middle America,” then you will want to read on. What was once referred to as Middle America has morphed into a more diverse and complex group of consumers. Surprisingly, this mix of people is also unified by common underlying values and sense of personal empowerment
This article will introduce the NAM value of Community. Elsewhere, we have defined the Core 4 Values motivating the New American Middle. They are Family, Community, Faith, and Environmental Stewardship. The NAM also reacts negatively toward the perceived intrusion by big national influences (too big to fail, too big to care). We recommend reading this series as a precursor to this one.
Unlike previous conceptions of Middle America that equated socioeconomic class to places like the Midwest, or “the heartland,” this new audience isn’t solely defined by income or geography. The NAM is a mindset based on a set of values. The people who make up the NAM are least likely to live in a large city, or in the most rural locations. But it is an error to assume they live in just the traditional geographic “heartland.” This group is defined by belief, not location. One of the first tasks we must all face is to dismantle our assumptions toward this group. As marketers, it is worth the work to do so since we believe the NAM exceeds 50 percent of the US population. That’s right. Most of your customers are in the NAM, and you don’t yet know what that means. Emphasis on yet. Read on.
Recently, much has been written about the importance of values-driven branding. Understanding the NAM is understanding the values that matter most to them. Brands that want to succeed with this supergroup must understand what those values are. Authentically reflecting these values through brand expression is one big step toward success.
Representing over 50 percent of the US population means the NAM represents an enormous pool of purchasing power. Yes. There are plenty of products they buy on price or convenience alone. Yet our recent research has shown that when price is not the deciding factor, product quality is. We believe it is an error to think these Americans are looking merely for lowest price. Everyone knows what happens when price is all there is to say about a product: the pricing death spiral. Business has always been pressured to slash their price to win. We can blame the most recent pressures to the Amazon-ation of the economy. As they say, either we stand for something or we’ll fall for anything. Brands without a strong Why and Who do not know their consumers have only themselves to blame for falling profits.
Understanding the NAM enables marketers to more accurately target and speak to their customers and better defend pricing and profits. If there is nothing else to talk about than price, then your product is just one among many—and you’ve got yourself a commodity.
Here’s what our research revealed is important to consumers:
It is easy enough for a beleaguered category manager to believe it is all about lowest price as they try and sell poorly branded, undifferentiated products, or compete with desperate foreign copycat imports. And it is true that the NAM consumer doesn’t want to pay more than they have to. But they also want more than just “product.” And yeah, values can be compromised when a deal is dangled up front or when Amazon convenience wins the day (we all have those boxes stacked in our garages), but low price and convenience are not the whole story.
Take a look at these telling facts:
The NAM is not just interested in local issues—the NAM is also very well informed. What can any of us do about global issues except apply them where we are? Does local activation seem too small-minded or insignificant? Well, if change is going to take place on a large scale, it has to start from the ground up, and the NAM is all about grass roots up. The motto of the NAM might be “If everyone swept in front of their own door, the whole world would be clean.” That might seem provincial, but only if seen from the top down. The NAM does not respond well to “top-down big” influences. Grassroots up is where the NAM lives.
Community—a New Definition
In the past, the word community has often been used to describe a geography—a neighborhood, a physical social group, perhaps a group with a wider professional or interest base. These communities were based on face-to-face interactions—local, interest-based events, or professional gatherings, such as trade shows or conferences. The requirement for physical proximity created limitations to how much community influenced our lives. In the past, your community was where you were born or live or work. But there is a flip side to this truth.
Today, we choose our own communities. Today, marketers must provide dimension to the concept of community if they are going to engage with their customers.
While face-to-face is the essential element of community, we now live in a digital age, where community can be anyplace you find other members of your tribe of interest. Instant access to social media groups now connects us with others of similar interests. In order to redefine what “community” means, we must layer in these virtual communities.
The tangible community of neighborhoods, schools, towns, and regions has become more and more important to the NAM. Here is some evidence:
Community is an important value to the NAM. The community is where they retreat when threatened. Increasingly, they recognize layers of threats to their community, and they are now activating to prevent further financial and social erosion.
Smaller communities are no longer isolated like they have been in the past. They have become connected and part of larger national conversations. Yes, there is misinformation. Not everyone has experience or expertise sorting through and curating the information they find online. So set aside memories of a crazy old uncle who sends stupid cartoons or links in regard to fringe conspiracies. It takes a while to learn how to use new tools. A lot of people jump to a lot of stupid conclusions—as humans seem to do with new things.
The printing press brought access to knowledge and changed to the world. The spread of information has only accelerated since. Pamphleteers like Thomas Paine (Common Sense) helped prepare colonists for the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Every community has its own newspaper.” Updating that to today, we might edit Poor Richard’s Almanack to read “Every community has its own website or Facebook group.” If people do anything well, they adapt and organize, eventually making progress.
Finding like-minded people and building consensus is now common among any small group. They waste a lot of time, but when values and intelligent conversation are at the center, small groups can make big changes. Think of recent social changes and the power of previously unconnected groups.
When we think of the common-word community, we might be tempted to fall back on cliches. The NAM is very sensitized when their values are ignored, or mishandled, or dismissed by big media/government/corporate “echo chambers” on the East Coast or West Coast. And don’t get them started on “polls.” It is increasingly risky for any institution, organization, or brand to ignore these newly empowered communities where the NAM spend their time—and money.
Let’s now look at what we call virtual communities.
The role of influencer emerged as soon as Facebook popped up. Soon after influencer marketing became a thing, corporate sponsorships appeared. The well-informed NAM grew suspicious of influencer bias. Of course, we’ll all take notice of influencers with millions of followers. But with the influence of big corporate sponsors, suspicion has increased among the NAM. We are seeing a corner being turned as authenticity and unbiased honesty is increasingly questioned. Evidence of this increase in global demand for transparency can be seen in Norway’s new law that requires influencers to actually disclose photo retouching. We can all escape to fantasy and entertainment anytime we want. That is not the news—but we are just tired of unhealthy and impossible beauty standards. Transparency and honesty—those are the new standards.
Currently, microinfluencers—who better represent peer review, personal interests, and credibility—reflect this search for online relevance. Companies used to pushing the easy big-media button avoid the work that it takes to communicate relevance to smaller groups. It is easier for digital marketers to point to big traffic numbers rather than take the time to build relevant engagement. Anyone can buy traffic (just spend more). And whistle past the digital cemetery of the digital ad fraud that still plagues the industry.
Companies used to pushing the easy big-media button avoid the work that it takes to communicate relevance to smaller groups. It is easier for digital marketers to point to big traffic numbers rather than take the time to build relevant engagement.
The secret to getting more from our ad dollars is to focus on engagement, not the flimsy traffic metric. In order to gain engagement, marketers must know their consumers better. This means managing and addressing them in smaller interest groups. Once we know our customer groups, their interests become more visible, and what we present to them can become more relevant.
This is not the way of the big ad agencies that are addicted to big media spends. Why do these old fashioned methods persist in a world of new tech? It’s just easier to work top down, “at-scale”, like in the good old days. Targeting audiences and producing relevant content is time-consuming. It’s a lot of work to think small and scale up. Grassroots up. Local community up. There are a number of influences that have changed how marketing works. First, all markets have become fragmented. Reaching them takes new tools. Second, the physical geographical markets themselves have begun to come together, to define and fortify themselves. These communities are becoming fiercely defensive against perceived intrusion by big influences taking their resources.
There are so many options these days. It’s great. What’s bad is that there are so many options these days. Media channels and knowledge of new marketing techniques have proliferated. This means the ability for marketers to access communities as a whole are also become increasingly complex. The one or two big things that used to work have broken into dozens, maybe hundreds, of smaller methods and tactics. This proliferation is reflected in the wide and bewildering array of software and tools available to marketers. Context is required to choose the right tools. Understanding the NAM, your consumers, is a big part of that context.
Fragmentation is bemoaned by those who ruled supreme: big brands and the big ad agencies that took their big media dollars. Advertising has been the one-stop solution for decades. But advertising doesn’t work like it used to. But all is not lost! The same proliferation that frustrates former “mad men” actually serves the general population. Fragmentation is not seen as a bad thing to anyone who has a special interest. These days, anyone can find anything at any time. The public can find what they’re looking for. They can look at product reviews and compare prices. Anyone can “publish” their opinions on social platforms. Of course, it’s true that when everyone is an “expert” and an “author,” authorship can lose its authority. Whether informed or misinformed, the results can be the same—expectations go up. Consumers expect the brands they support to listen and respond with relevant content and customization of products and services. Ignore them, and they’ll take action. If brands respond with overpromotion, the consumer loyalist will turn off. If brands treat the NAM as a mere transactional consumer, they’ll turn and burn on social media. Bad news travels faster than ever before. Understanding the communities where our customers live—tangible or virtual—is the key to brand success today.
This is not the way of the big ad agencies that are addicted to big media spends. Why do these old fashioned methods persist in a world of new tech? It’s just easier to work top down, “at-scale”, like in the good old days.
Communities have been defending themselves from large intruding influences in a number of ways. One powerful reason is the siphoning of local and regional assets (talent and capital). The aggregation of businesses in large metropolitan centers and the resulting urbanization has taken resources away from second- and third-tier American cities. The NAM is educated and sees what is happening.
Across the country, smart community leaders are taking action and fighting back. It is not just Detroit that is resisting decline, reinventing itself, fighting to retain jobs, fighting to attract them. Every second- and third-tier city realizes that their communities are fighting for jobs in an increasingly global job market. They are compared against the promises of prosperity in the big city. They know quality of life is the starting point. And communities across the country resent—really resent—being considered the middle-of-nowhere, flyover, incidental populations. The NAM sees their values and experiences to be in the center of everything that works and provides and is worth having.
One of the leading regions to step up and take a stand against this attrition is northeast Indiana. The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership (NEIRP) has organized and unified 11 counties—former competitors—and transformed the region. In the 1980s and 1990s, the region’s population stood by and watched as their vibrant manufacturing and Fortune 500 base withered and relocated elsewhere. In 2006, the Partnership formed to reverse the trend.
A decline in average wages and population and a low percentage of post-high-school education did not bode well for future prosperity at this time. The usual economic-development efforts didn’t produce much results. The region began to understand that without concentrating on quality of life, there was little incentive for talent to remain. Without talented workers, why would a business relocate to northeast Indiana? So NEIRP set out to transform the region through quality-of-life development. In 2012, they took under advisement the concepts in the book The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton. For instance, the ongoing financial success of the United States can be achieved only if smaller communities succeed. Concentrating resources in a dozen or so of the largest population centers is not going to be enough. Undeterred by global competition, and seeing the horse had already left the barn, NEIRP began closing the massive barn door.
In the 15 years since NEIRP was formed, many advances to the region’s cultural quality of life were made. A minor-league baseball park was constructed downtown (the public’s support and full attendance helped the team [the Fort Wayne TinCaps] rise to High-A Central status).
State grants have been applied across the region to refurbish small theaters; establish parks, including a major riverside super park; and provide seed funding for over two dozen quality-of-life projects. The $42 million grant was leveraged to attract over $250 million in additional investments.
This focus on quality of life turned the tide. The population decline was slowed and reversed. The pandemic accelerated relocation to the Midwest and “boomerangers” returning home to be closer to family. Economic-development efforts are now yielding better and better results. With entire communities standing up to the largest global influences, the NAM has found new hope close to home. Community has been a core value for a long time, and by 2021 it has been reinforced and given new dimensions.
John Sampson, recent president and CEO of NEIRP, responded to us with the following statement:
“When speaking to the economic growth and vitality of communities, we are living in an era when the demand for a skilled workforce is in the driver’s seat. Communities that are successful in working together across all sectors to attract, retain, and provide access to a skilled and growing workforce will be winners in the global war for good jobs. Population growth is central and critical to this challenge. But growth alone without careful consideration for the current and future needs of employers will be short-lived. Indiana’s recent investments in the state’s communities are evidence of the urgent priority necessary to sustain efforts of communities outside of Indianapolis that demonstrate a deep commitment to attract people and accelerate economic growth. Population growth is the bedrock for all future economic growth.”
Northern Indiana understands that quality of place is essential to retain and attract talent, but our region is not alone. Even a casual online search will find hundreds of other communities across the country tackling the same difficult problems. They all understand that nobody is going to come and save them. especially as they fly back and forth and look down from 30,000 feet, they have realized they must do it themselves.
Also, as a Hoosier by choice I must put a plug in for my adopted town of Fort Wayne, the home of our agency, and the country where the NAM lives. It is one good example of a NAM city. We have little under 270,000 people in the town, yet 75 languages are spoken in Fort Wayne Community Schools.
It is a similar situation in other NAM centric cities:
Compare these numbers to the 170 languages spoken in the massive NY City School system or the 92 spoken in the LA Unified School District and I’d say the cliche of nondiversity, as is often reported, needs to be updated. Fort Wayne has a way to go before we can be satisfied. We all have a way to go. Humans have a long way to go. Like others in smaller communities, I bristle when I hear a stereotype or some dismissive Midwest cliche. Of course, there needs to be more progress, but please stand aside while we are busy making it. Marketers will benefit when they update a flat, outdated perception of the world in which the NAM lives.
If you like to discuss politics these days, you will probably also happily embrace giant nests of murder hornets. (Our agency does not espouse any particular political agenda, or seek to apply our knowledge of the NAM to political campaigns.) But in spite of politics, we can learn from politics. For instance, there is a documented grassroots uptick in regular citizens—and especially women—running for political office. First it was democratic women in response to Donald Trump, and then it was Republican women in response to non-Trump. It’s a polarized (but strangely united) response against both kinds - any kind - of big government. Right or left. Big is bad.
Stepping back from the obvious reasons why, we see the underlying agreement and motivation shared by both ends of the spectrum—essentially a unified belief that anyone can make a difference. How could we do worse? Newly empowered, women (the middle of the NAM) are activating to defend their families and communities against intruding and unwelcome influences. Until recently, entering politics was unthinkable for many Americans. Their Core 4 Values are not merely good ideas—because of them, the NAM is activating in real terms and seeking change at all levels of society.
As more NAM female political candidates enter and win political seats, we expect to see less polarization. Rejecting the good/evil political model, newly elected NAM officials are more likely to seek a human scale, to look for common ground, and to take a position closer to the political middle.
There is a reason why home-improvement TV shows continue to increase in popularity. There are reasons why the largest big-box home stores, and locally owned stores like Do it Best and Ace Hardware, all lead with paint in their advertisements. Families (Core 4 Value Number One) live in communities (Core 4 Value) in a building that they call home. The purchases they make for their family home are deliberate and very personal. When is a simple pine 2x4 more than just a regular plain-old pine 2x4? When it is used to build my deck, where my family gets together on our weekend.
The vast majority of the NAM lives in these homes. As they continually make their homes their own, they often start with paint. Home-improvement retailers know that when a customer buys paint, they usually buy lots of other things too. The transactional value of a person painting is many times that of those buying a hose, a lawnmower, or a lighting fixture. A paint sale means high-profit applicators, and while they’re at it, flooring and window treatments and faucets, etc. The last time I took a peek, paint buyers bought more—by a multiple of 300 percent—than nonpaint buyers. Here are some triggers for buying paint:
Note that painting happens more often for families that are more affluent, especially those with creative interests, and especially for families that include “color aficionados.” These aficionados are primarily female. Both survey and point-of-sale data indicate that women historically pick the paint color, and the male of the house buys the rollers and ladders and does the painting. Gender roles are bound to change, but up until now, painting at home has followed traditional gender roles.
There are as many housing forecasts as there are influences driving the forecast either up or down. Sellers in expensive markets often buy in secondary markets. This relocation is what many communities are counting on as part of their growth strategy.
Take a look at these additional notes on home improvement:
Note that painting happens more often for families that are more affluent, especially those with creative interests, and especially for families that include “color aficionados.”
Community is one of the Core 4 Values of the New American Middle. Since few communities are perfect, consumers now assert themselves and their values, demanding more from those tangible communities—whether that demand means local sources for food, support of entrepreneurial small businesses, or better consideration of quality-of-life issues. Quality of life supports family recreation, safety, and a “human scale.” Quality of life means fewer hassles and distractions, producing enough emotional space to allow the exploration of personal interests and expression of faith. If not, the NAM activates to the point of actually running for local political office.
Add dimension to the traditional concept of community. Traditionally, geography was synonymous with community. Now you can add virtual communities of interest. Newly empowered, consumers can now choose virtual communities to enhance their actual geographical space. They can live here and work there. Going deeper yet, geographical location might be described by demographic data points, and directly apply to housing and home-improvement brands. But the chosen communities are better described by psychographics, mindset, and the deep Core 4 Values. (Live here. Think there?)
Like the other Core 4 Values, Community has been authenticated, reinforced, and expanded in scope. Successful brands will be those who understand and authentically reflect the NAM Core 4 Values. If they do not, then they will watch their brand meaning/equity/value devolve into a mere commodity product driven by lowest price.
By Jeff Britton, CEO and cofounder of Britton Marketing & Design Group and [B]RIGHT Brand Performance Group
While face-to-face is the essential element of community, we now live in a digital age, where community can be anyplace you find other members of your tribe of interest.
Family is the core of everything. Brands that want to succeed must understand the “Core Four” values, and reflect them back in every aspect of their marketing.
How sustainability and environmental stewardship plays a major role in the brand decision-making experience and in the life of the New American Middle.
Faith among the New American Middle has a broad spectrum of applications. It is centered on a spiritual quest for meaning, but today’s NAM consumer looks for answers in many places, not just places with an altar.