Updated: Sep 26
There has been an undeniable theme of inclusivity and humanity in the ads coming to our screens lately, no doubt a resulting effect of an election season that has forced the country to take a long hard look at itself like never before. For brands and marketers, the question of how to correctly move forward in a divided America is the big piece of the puzzle that has yet to be solved.
Aside from the fact that celebrities, politicians, legislators and average American citizens are creating political statements by using their voices, marketers and brands are facing an unprecedented amount of public scrutiny as consumers are increasingly wanting their spending power to be recognized as an extension of their own belief systems, which means the brands they consume must be in line with their own personal value systems.
While the idea that brands possess similar values as their consumer base is not entirely new, the intensity of consumer expectation is forcing marketers to make decisions around brand messaging strategies sooner than anticipated. Navigating the new consumer landscape can be tricky as marketers must balance what is expected of them from their consumer base as well as what their own moral credence is as a brand. In this situation, the wrong step forward could incite boycotts & protests but the lack of a position could also spark public outrage. So, in this increasingly multicultural reality, in a racially divided nation, how do brands navigate the weight of cultural expectations and manage a successful way forward?
1. Start from the Beginning
Historically, insights regarding consumer consumption habits, preferences and shopping behaviors have been segmented by a variety of factors, with ethnic heritage being a primary variable of segmentation and difference. But, as race is becoming increasingly difficult to define and capture in today’s growing multicultural America, marketers have been tasked with finding new and better ways to connect with and to be cost effective when doing so.
The answer may actually be easier than you think. When reanalyzing the way consumers have been defined and segmented, it is very clear that race can no longer be a leading variable for difference and consumer understanding. The reason for this is simply because there is an even greater measurement that must be taken into account first — the importance of socioeconomic status and how it shapes consumer reality.
The promise of upward mobility and scalable social classes through hard work and vigor has been at the center of the American dream for centuries and it is essentially the most common unifying factor of American citizens, before gender and race. Poor citizens, no matter their ethnic background, will always wish for economic situations better than their own. Middle Class families also work for increased security and stability for their families.
What upward mobility looks like, how it feels, what it inspires, and how soon it takes shape is where the cultural differences lie and it’s within this space that marketers can create universal messaging with nuanced cultural appeal.
2. Understand how access plays a key role in consumer’s lives
The life of a social striver, or, a consumer striving to put themselves into better economic situations is complicated and nuanced based on a variety of factors, most of which are related to their socioeconomic status, or wealth and education. These factors, play a pivotal role in influencing and informing their purchase decisions, and preferred brand affiliations.
Marketers must also keep in mind consumers’ family history. For instance, a 1st generation social striver is often the pioneer of his/her family unit- the first to get through school, to get a degree, or to obtain a corporate level job. What his/her journey to upward mobility looks like will differ greatly than someone who is an expected social striver, or a person who’s family has already set the bar for upward mobility and who has crafted the pathway forward for future generations to do the same. In both cases, the journey will likely not be a linear one, but it will definitely be easier for the social striver who’s path as already been mapped out. In his book, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance speaks about the power of social access, and more specifically, his own lack of knowledge on the importance of such a resource; a common mindset for many first time social strivers without a network to rely on. Availability of access is essentially the place in the journey to success where cultural and ethnic differences create the largest division between consumers. It is a well-documented fact that one’s own race and ethnicity directly impacts the kind of education they receive or have access to as well as the types of job opportunities that may come their way.
3. Accept that traditional frameworks of success no longer apply
There is a belief within the media world that consumers prefer to see versions of their aspirational selves in media as opposed to the reality of their actual situations. This may be true for some categories such as beauty and fashion, but overall, candid reality is a space that is growing, and will only continue to do so. Somehow, we’ve lost the notion and idea of what an everyday, hardworking American looks and feels like. For many Americans portraying average families, in average or budget conscious situations is more appealing than images reflecting less than attainable or relatable lifestyles.
ABC’s President, Channing Dungey echoed these sentiments and stated “With our dramas, we have a lot of shows that feature very well-to-do, well-educated people, who are driving very nice cars and living in extremely nice places… But in recent history we haven’t paid enough attention to some of the true realities of what life is like for everyday Americans in our dramas.” Her desire to change this dynamic is evidenced in the network’s revitalization of the popular series Rosanne, which focuses on a more middle-class American reality.
Despite this, Dungey still believes that there is room for the kind of stories and images that dominate the media landscape today. This is especially true for marginalized groups that have historically been stereotyped and denigrated on media platforms for centuries, namely, African Americans who often prefer to see more positive images of themselves reflected in storylines. However, as the narrative landscape has become more diverse, there exists room for a larger breadth of ethnic experiences to exist without completely besmirching an entire race of people.
4. Get comfortable with the complexities of the marketing paradox
When determining the best way to visually represent the cultural world of such a divided nation, the new challenge for marketers will be to fully understand the complexities of consumer ideologies and the paradoxes that lie within them. More specifically, within the age of political correctness (which admittedly may be a dying era) when asked, consumers will almost always state that they desire an inclusive, diverse environment where everyone is accepted as they are, and they expect to see this reflected in the brands they consume. However, it is often the case that consumers’ own realities do not reflect their diverse aspirations, as their own personal worlds tend to be more culturally conservative & homogenous. Because of this, marketers must figure out how to appeal to consumer expectations by reflecting aspects of their idealized worlds through brand messaging while making sure to not alienate them by choosing to neglect their actual realities.
Managing to stay relevant by acknowledging diversity in a turbulent, politically-charged marketplace is both uncomfortable and necessary. The key to cracking the code is for strategist to actively reexamine the outdated frameworks they’ve traditionally used to shape and measure consumer realities. Only then can they begin to create (and test) new strategies that resonate with their key audiences in memorable and meaningful ways, while also playing a part in the current cultural conversation.