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How Liberal and Conservative Customers Think About The Future (With Your Products)
Two distinct visions of the future drive how they shop and what they buy
Welcome to the latest issue of Red and Blue Customers. This free weekly newsletter delivers research-backed insights into the differences and similarities between conservative and liberal customers. We analyze brand, product, communications, and market attributes to help you drive more efficient growth. Subscribe to join a fast-growing community that is curious about the intersection of polarization and business.
Every product changes a customer’s future to varying degrees. Whether unclogging drains, eating yogurt, or buying a new car, a product changes a customer’s present state to create a new future. Certainly, the new future created by unclogged drains may not be dramatic, but it’s hard to think of a product that doesn’t affect someone’s future, even if only a little.
Conservative and liberal customers think differently about the future and the present. How your product fits into each group’s perception of the future can determine whether or not your product becomes part of it. Alignment with perception of the future helps drive how efficiently your business acquires customers or increases customer value.
For conservative customers, the present is mostly acceptable. They are mostly content with how things are, so there’s no need to change it. For liberal customers, the present is full of flaws, and the world needs engineering to fix all of the flaws to create a better future for everyone.
The future is more known to conservative customers because maintaining the present assures a more predictable future. What’s true today will be mostly true tomorrow. When things don’t change, there are fewer surprises.
For liberal customers, the future is far less known because it’s uncertain when all the flaws in the present will be fixed and how fixes will be accomplished. In the meantime, there are a lot of problems. For liberal customers, the future is a source of significant anxiety because it’s more unknown. There is the distinct possibility that things won’t go according to plan in trying to fix the flaws, and in some cases, things may go horribly wrong. So there is a lot of concern and worry about the future.
No industry tries harder to re-engineer the present to create a different future than technology companies. They are designed from the ground up to try to create a bold new future. So it’s no surprise that conservative customers trust technology companies far less.
Pew Research studies perceptions of technology companies and found that 64% of conservatives believe technology companies support the views of liberals while only 28% of liberals do. Among conservatives, only 6% believe technology companies support the views of conservatives, an alarmingly low number for a huge market of about 130 million American conservative consumers over 18.
Conservative customers may not align very well with technology companies for various reasons, and one is the dramatic change that some tech companies offer. While liberal customers will more likely buy into a vision of a new, improved future, it may also come at the price of heightened anxiety.
Consider, for example, the more extreme forms of technology - driverless cars, social media algorithms, facial recognition, gene editing, brain chip implants, and robotics. According to a Pew Research study, in every case, liberals are far more concerned about the management of these technologies in the future than conservatives - by a gap of twenty to thirty percentage points. So here’s an example where a bold new future has the potential to run amok in the minds of liberal customers.
The liberal customer’s desire to make a better future also creates an inherent desire to understand the future better. Astrology promises to use the positions of the planets and stars to predict future outcomes. It’s one way to glimpse the future, assuming you buy into the methods.
In 2009, Pew Research conducted a study on religious beliefs that included “new age” beliefs in astrology and fortune-telling. As it turns out, liberals are almost twice as likely to believe in astrology as conservatives, with 30% of liberals reporting the belief versus 16% of conservatives. The same study revealed that liberals were more than twice as likely to see a fortune teller.
According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), there is also evidence that belief in astrology as a science is increasing, which they don’t consider to be a positive trend. Jim Lindgren, a professor at Northwestern University, studied the NSF data in detail to examine the differences between liberals and conservatives. He found that nearly half of all liberals believe astrology is “very scientific” or “sort of scientific,” while 31% of conservatives felt the same way. In a liberal worldview, astrology has a higher degree of credibility than with conservatives. More liberals want to believe it to help make sense of a less-certain future.
Your business can create a bold future for liberal customers or make a better present for conservative customers. Which route you take will depend on the market you want and who is buying from you today.
For example, technology - very broadly - can be perceived in many ways to appeal to conservative or liberal worldviews related to future perceptions. The same technology can be presented as making things run better versus creating an exciting new revolutionary world.
Of course, there’s a tendency for technology companies to project a more liberal worldview on their markets because the founders, software engineers, and marketers all skew liberal (for analysis on this topic, you can download a free copy of our Worldview@Work report on the Market Ideology website). It’s not a conspiracy - it’s just a natural outcome of one worldview predominating a culture. The only problem with an internal skew is if it doesn’t align with the market. In that case, it just takes a little self-awareness.
Projecting a liberal vision of the future can certainly help create significant success. For example, Apple’s iconic tagline, “Think Different,” is fundamentally about making a bold new future, appealing more to liberal urban customers. Walk around New York City or San Francisco, and you’d think the iPhone had a 97% market share. Then consider that the iPhone only recently passed 50% market share in the United States.
The Apple brand is well aligned with a more liberal urban market. That doesn’t mean that no conservative customers own iPhones. It means that selling into the liberal market is more efficient for Apple based on its brand and product DNA - they align with how a market thinks about the future.
Now consider Mutual of Omaha, the insurance company based in Omaha, Nebraska. Their market is traditionally more rural, conservative customers. Their current advertising campaign is themed, “Protect what matters most.” It’s literally about conservation, which will appeal to a market that wants to maintain the present state of things - the 130 million conservative customers. Certain types of insurance also have an older market, which will naturally skew more conservative.
Alignment with a customer’s vision of the future is a source of potential efficiency if a business makes it intentional. The business may determine there is a misalignment or amplify the alignment even more. This typically requires little or no incremental investment because aligning with a market is an ordinary course of business.