The Core Values Series about The New American Middle

The Core Value of Family

Note: This means all kinds of families: the traditional nuclear family, single parent families, blended families, extended families, and families of choice, i.e., families of friends.

what is the new american middle?

Previously, we explored a new consumer supergroup we call the New American Middle. While we think the name New American Middle (NAM) is a useful and apt description, it could be confused with assumptions related to geography (“Middle America”) or household income (middle class). Because of these limiting definitions, our first task is to unwind assumptions. In contrast to geographic or socioeconomic demographics, the NAM is defined by values. Once we understand the values and mindset of the NAM, geography and household income can be useful in further precision targeting, but they are the cart, not the horse.* The NAM presents an opportunity to activate at scale and to do so with fundamental relevancy. The secret to activating at scale is to understand the tectonic plate of values upon which this huge population builds their lives.

Driving strategy by concept is sometimes difficult for brands that focus their marketing on product benefits and competitive pricing. So, it bears repeating: to understand this new supergroup, we must understand their personal and cultural values, because values are what define their relationships with brands. Elsewhere, we have defined the “Core Four” values motivating the New American Middle. They are family, community, faith, and environmental stewardship. This article will introduce the complex value of family.

Recently, much has been written about the importance of values-driven branding, but not much has been written about what those values actually are and what role they play in the real lives of consumers. Brands that want to succeed with the NAM must understand the “Core Four” values, and then reflect them back to consumers in every aspect of their marketing. When brands reflect New American Middle values in relatable, meaningful, authentic ways, they will be rewarded with loyalty.

Core Value of Family

Setting Aside Existing Preconceptions

We all think we know how to define “family.” Most of those definitions are grounded in the experience of our own families. Hollywood also informs how we think about family, though it usually just reinforces existing stereotypes, especially stereotypes involving family units in immigrant or foreign communities (personally, I am not a big fan of the bumbling father stereotype, and since family is a “Core Four” NAM value, I suspect I am not the only one offended—perhaps there is a lesson here). The point is, as marketers, we must consider the fact that the audiences we seek to reach often come from, or are a part of, family units that are very different from our own. Relying only on personal experience or media stereotypes to understand multiple brand consumer groups has never been enough, and that is especially true now, when our society has witnessed so many fundamental changes and updates to traditional family structures.

Because of this, we encourage every reader to set aside their assumptions, biases, and stereotypes as we explore the core value of family.

Family Values

“C‘mon!” you might be saying. “What‘s new about family? Psychology 101 taught us that physical and psychological needs are rooted in our sense of family. It‘s Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs. I‘ve got this!”

We agree that the core value of family is so basic, so foundational to how our society constructs itself, and that‘s why it can sometimes be so hard to understand why it‘s so important even when it is changing right in front of our eyes. Our own personal experiences, and the centrality of family in most of our lives, often limit our appreciation for what family means to other people. And how a brand expresses its understanding of family can easily be the difference between winning or losing. You may have noticed an increase in interracial and same-sex relationships in advertising. This follows recent gains in LGBTQ and racial inequities. Some messaging is a mere hint, while others provide more leadership and are more overt in addressing these larger social issues. The goal is to strike a balance between both social responsibility and leadership while respecting the sentiments of your target consumer audience.

We are living in a time when the traditional family structure is changing faster than at any other point in history. The traditional nuclear family in the US now represents just about 50% of all families. One hundred years ago, the nuclear family would have been closer to 80% of the population. Even the nuclear family is no longer so nuclearthere are countless variants even within the 50% of Americans that fit the nuclear family label. Thirty or so alternative family structures make up the next 40% of the total population. The remaining 10% of the population is made up of literally hundreds of family types. While perfectly acceptable to those living in these families, these new family structures may stretch some people‘s notion of what family means. While the NAM population seems to be rooted in the more traditional, nuclear family models, the NAM mindset can be found in other family types too.

The traditional Western family structure has allowed generations of Americans to grow up, leave home, and find success. But to recent arrivals to America, this model often appears more interested in stability and in retaining their relatively comfortable position in society. Newer American families have embraced risk and disruption by deciding to seek a new life here in the first place. A focus on carving out space and providing a better, safer life for their children is foremost in their minds in the hopes that comfort and stability will follow. These particular family motivators would naturally inform any campaign targeting these specific communities.

But, on an even larger scale, there are unexpected benefits to understanding what the value of family means to the NAM. By building a campaign based on the importance the NAM assigns to family, marketers can leverage the value-based brand messaging so that it‘s relevant to the individual and yet retains that relevancy to the wider NAM audience.

Remember—every brand has product. There‘s plenty of “stuff” out there with all sorts of exciting new features and benefits. But real brands must offer product that delivers more to the consumer than the time, capital, and materials that go into manufacturing that product. Intangible value is what brings exceptional return on a brand‘s investment. Family is where we launch our lives and where we retreat when we need to regroup. It‘s safe, encouraging, enabling. For the NAM, family is where an individual‘s meaning is developed and where it is reinforced over and over again, and brands that learn to harness its power will be the brands that win.

Targeting Opportunity: Precision and at Scale

Pandemic Impact

Family Dynamics Reinforced and Challenged by the 2020 Pandemic

The pandemic and lockdown(s) of 2020 had a significant impact on families. After the initial shock of a national lockdown, and after getting used to spending way more time with each other, many families began to think about the place where they lived—their house. If those walls could talk, many would have been screaming, “PAINT ME!”

Many families walked into the backyard to get some peace and quiet, and while there, they decided to plant some bushes, build a deck, and act on some of the backyard office ideas they found on Pinterest. Many families spent their quarantine working on home improvement projects, and as a result, shortages and back-ordered materials were reported by all the big-box retailers. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic may have revealed some cracks in our system for national readiness, and broke others open, but it also highlighted and reinforced the importance of other things, the core of value of family being a prime example.

Meeting Consumer Need (or Knead)

COVID-19 has put NAM values to the test, both reinforcing and deconstructing cherished beliefs. But in the middle of the middle, one thing became certain: we sure like to bake bread. Online searches for “bread maker” were up nearly 800% over the same time last year. If you needed a new sourdough starter, you asked your friends on Facebook, and one (or ten) of them would happily send a sample starter from their “mother.”

Sales of canning supplies also spiked as the summer unfolded and we had to figure out how to preserve all those new tomatoes and zucchinis grown on patio gardens. Maybe there is a campaign centered on the pioneering spirit in there somewhere? In the era of the pandemic, successful brands assist families as they pioneer new at-home experiences.

There are widespread reports concerning the erosion of consumer brand. This makes sense if we consider the erosion of brand meaning itself. Brand after brand has scaled up and focused on product in the belief that bigger is always better. What is lost is brand relevance. When brands sacrifice relevancy for efficiency they risk eroding their consumer base. We think that most marketers understand this, but without understanding the NAM individual and the NAM group as a whole, they are often left with an either/or choice. Even so, we see that consumer confidence in some brands does remain high. In some instances, it is higher than ever before. For instance, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer study indicates that the majority of consumers believed brands and private companies reacted faster than the government did when it came to responding to the pandemic. Sixty-two percent of consumers didn’t think they could get through the pandemic crisis without brands playing a critical role.

And by the way, we all dream in pictures, not in long strings of words, so showing is always better than telling when it comes to furnishing the consumer’s imagination.

Dreaming in Pictures

Each of us has a preferred reality somewhere in our fertile imagination. This is especially true when it comes to our hopes for our families. We want our families to be safe. We want them to remain healthy. We want them to have fun and be productive, perhaps even change the world a little bit for the better. We all want a better life and when we look outward, we look for brands that can help us realize the better life we imagine for ourselves and for our families. Brands that help us see those dreams, that help us better picture our ideals, are the brands that will succeed. Jerry Seinfeld might have been right when he joked, “nothing is fun for the whole family,” but brands that help us achieve our family goals will do better than those built on forces seen as status quo.

For example, Valspar’s new 2020 “When It Matters” campaign shows actual people painting. The event. The experience. People active and living in a space and making it better. By including people, they have parted company from the usual color cards animations, abstract splashes of paint, or beautiful rooms devoid of actual people. OK. A little messy, but well, aren’t all messes authentic? Consumers can be easily intimidated by the painting process. Valspar shows it can be done, and it can even be a little fun.

And by the way, we all dream in pictures, not in long strings of words, so showing is always better than telling when it comes to furnishing the consumer’s imagination.

Subaru—A Case Study for Big Enough

Dogs are our best friends. Subaru has gone big with dogs in their advertising and has done so in a way that feels very personal. Even non-dog-lovers fall head over heels for those adorable driving dogs. Like a faithful friend, the Subaru brand demonstrates its commitment to its customers by supporting multiple charities that benefit dogs and pets in general.

And it’s not just dog-lovers—Subaru has made the word “love” synonymous with its brand: “Love. It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru.” It is the right kind of love too. Some automakers want us to love the style or performance of their vehicles, but Subaru owns the kind of love associated with the core value of family. It’s a massively important difference from loving a car for how it handles or because of new color and trim packages. Subaru has positioned its brand in a decidedly different way from how most car manufacturers do. We love our families. We love the dogs in our families. That’s why, Subaru suggests, that we lovingly pass our safe and reliable Subaru down to the next generation of the family.

For such a small presence in a big category, Subaru has found a valuable market position, one that has helped Subaru regularly sell more cars than might be expected for such an outsider brand. Much of that success is due to the fact that the brand understands the power of marketing around the core value of family. It is difficult to compete in an industry dominated by giants. Subaru has decided: if you can’t be first in a category, then invent a new category and be first in that one!

Subaru has also found a big way to be little. They’re just big enough. It can be done.

Subaru has positioned its brand in a decidedly different way from how most car manufacturers do. We love our families. We love the dogs in our families.

Values Application for Brands

Brands Need to Be Big, Yet Small Enough

The NAM orbits around four big universal values: family, community, spirituality, and environmental stewardship. Understanding the “Core Four” values can greatly increase relevance in small grassroots campaigns to individuals and small demographic clusters, but because these values are universal to the NAM audience, they can also be applied large-scale to the group as a whole. This is an important distinction, since messaging that is both personal and taps into the sentiments of a mass audience is uncommon.

When addressing a large audience, national brands tend to focus on product features and benefits. As they get closer to a point of conversion, they shift to messaging this in a way that’s more targeted to the individual. As we stated before, everyone has product. A general product pitch can easily become just part of the market noise. Consider the failure of traditional advertising to communicate relevance. Consistency of brand message is a fundamental ingredient to success.

Understanding the NAM audience provides a clear pathway from large-scale advertising to personal grassroots, bottom-up marketing relevance.

Application—Home Decor Brands and the NAM

Over the years, our agency has conducted multiple surveys exploring consumer decisions on color-trended home decor. Here are some of the generalized findings:

  • The majority of consumer respondents cited family as the top influence in making a final decision on home decor products. Our surveys have found that between 50% and 60% of consumers cite the product’s importance to their family as a primary motivation to purchase. The choices are related to special gatherings and family comfort.
  • Other “Core Four” influences such as environmental stewardship and community (local, virtual, and a brand’s internal community culture) rose and fell based on the product being studied and the context of the purchase. Family was the common and primary influencer.
  • A home is where memories are made and a better life is realized, and therefore consumer decisions are based on much deeper meaning and purpose.
  • Consumers make many home goods choices based on how those products enhance the family experience. Many home improvements are not related to the home’s valuation but instead relate to the quality of the family life they support. Supporting family life is the main reason for making most home improvements unrelated to reselling or flipping.
  • House improvements are primarily made to increase the investment of the family’s home.

In reviewing multiple surveys and studies—many conducted by our agency—consumer sentiment regarding home decor may be summed up with the following responses:

“I want to create memorable spaces for my family. When we gather, I want something that reflects who we are and who we want to be. I want peaceful but also fun colors and items so we all look forward to being together even more.”

“I want choices so I can use my creativity to express myself and the many activities appreciated by my family. I want to be able to explore and enhance my family’s experience. I choose beautiful products that reflect who we are and that bring additional meaning.”

“I want products that are unique and show artisanship. Everything seems like it comes from a big-box store, but my family isn’t. There are so many choices out there. I don’t want to settle for me-too products when my family gets together.”

The majority of consumer respondents cited family as the top influence in making a final decision on home decor products. Our surveys have found that between 50% and 60% of consumers cite the product’s importance to their family as a primary motivation to purchase.

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced and accelerated all of these “Core Four” consumer values. The 2020 Pinterest trends report revealed the following increases in the types of pins related to home updates with family as a focus:

“Too Big to Care”

The American dream is often expressed in terms of growth. The trouble is that, these days, the corporate American dream is not always a family’s dream. In addition to the positive motivations of the “Core Four” NAM values, this population has also developed an allergy to big institutions, politics, technology, and banking, all of which are seen as a systemic direct threat to the core value of family. As a result, the NAM tends not only to resist, but also to react against these big influences. A further exploration of this can be seen here.

More to the interests of our clients is the impact of the “too big to care” influence among NAM consumers. On one hand, the NAM expects brands to play a part in social engineering by standing for values that are similar to theirs. Thus, big brands can only remain relevant by using their power to fill in during the 2020 COVID crisis. Ogilvy’s 2020 “Small Unites” campaign is an excellent example of reaching down into the soul of the community. It reaches the individual but does it in a big, universal way. At least in our small-ish community of Fort Wayne, the spots are sponsored by Chase. It is an excellent example of a big initiative that recognizes the value of small retail and the integrity of small towns everywhere.

Others who rise to the top include brands that reward frontline workers or help offset the increased need for food banks for displaced workers. Consumers turn to the brands they trust to fill in where they otherwise see failure among the other big influences. They look to brands that are taking leadership positions. Though these brands may be big, they take action to demonstrate their societal responsibilities.

The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer reported the following about consumers:

  • 62% believe brands should play a critical role in fighting the pandemic
  • 90% of global consumers expect brands to take care of their own employees during the pandemic
  • 89% expect brands to support frontline workers with free or discounted products
  • 83% expect brands to help bring people together and to show compassion

But brands that remain overtly focused on just transactions, or disingenuous brand positions such as “greenwashing,” are what we call “too big to care” brands.

Most consumers want to know how a brand is making a difference. They expect to hear how their favorite brands are making a difference from all forms of media. It is serious enough to warrant clear messaging to the target audiences.**

Positioning: NAM Family Values

White space can usually be found by comparing NAM values among brand competitors. Too often, brands design campaigns based on audience profiles or personas, but these campaigns are missing deeper motivations that could be added for much higher message relevancy and resonance. For many brands, understanding the importance of these “Core Four” New American Middle values can mean owning a space that is missed by their competitors.

At Britton Marketing & Design Group, we work with a lot of paint brands. Much of the industry creative tends to feature beautiful rooms, but not many beautiful faces. And of course, a consumer ad is not about an engineered chemical or even the concept of color. Paint is a product we use in our homes and the rooms in which our families gather. We repositioned one underperforming brand specifically for millennials, a group interested in making their space specifically about them. The marketing focus was placed on the people in the rooms, not just somebody else’s beautiful room. Success happens for many reasons; however, it must be pointed out that success began after people were mixed in. This brand has since increased market share.

Menards, Home Depot, and Lowe’s TV commercials commonly lead with paint. They do this by showing people enjoying the process of painting. For those of us who have painted, it might be a stretch, but those first-home buyers see people just like them and it makes a difference. These smart big-box home improvement centers concentrate on paint even though they have tens of thousands of products in their stores. From years of working in this segment, our agency has learned that paint buyers typically spend over three times more than other shoppers.


Hopefully, this article will help brands rethink the definitions of family and the ways in which brands can activate using this core value. Transactional relationships might work for commodity-oriented brands, but for brands that aspire to elevate consumer affinity (and profits!) by being more, well then, let’s talk.

By Jeff Britton, CEO and Cofounder of Britton Marketing & Design Group and [B]RIGHT Brand Performance Group
** Beware the “viral attitude.” Care should be used when attempting to lighten up the current mood with attempts at humor or a form of escapism. Like jokes about Lincoln’s assassination, it’s still just way too soon!

White space can usually be found by comparing NAM values among brand competitors. Too often, brands design campaigns based on audience profiles or personas, but these campaigns are missing deeper motivations that could be added for much higher message relevancy and resonance.

Read More About the Core Values that Drive Relevance and Resonance with the New American Middle Consumer. 

New American Middle