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Customer Attribute: Success
Everyone wants to be successful, but what does success mean?
A strict definition of success is the achievement of a desirable goal. But what’s the desirable goal? As it turns out, American conservative and liberal customers think differently and similarly about what success means and what the goal is. The answers touch on themes of money, position, empathy, social differentiation, and more.
Understanding distinct differences and similarities between red and blue customers helps you better align your business with how your market thinks. Success is one of thirty-one attributes (and counting) that this newsletter and forthcoming book explores to help delineate conservative and liberal markets.
The idea of success is one of the most interesting attributes because it can be tied to how a customer wants to feel about themselves and be perceived by others at home, in their community, and at work. Brand choice and product selection are one way to create a persona that reflects a vision and fulfillment of success.
When diving into specific attributes like success, I’ll draw upon three sources of evidence: our foundational model for conservative and liberal customers rooted in social anthropology, the historical roots for how the two groups formed, and available contemporary research.
The foundational model was developed in a previous article, so I won’t go into the details again here. But here’s the summary diagram for references.
Remember that there is thematic variation in strength both horizontally and vertically. In other words, customers can exhibit stronger or more moderate tendencies with liberal-Egalitarian themes or with conservative-Positional themes. Individualist themes underly both groups, also to varying degrees.
The Individualist Foundation for Success
For many American customers - but certainly not all - success means financial success. That’s a reflection of the Individualist foundation for both liberal and conservative customers. It’s the simple measure of wealth and income.
The Wall Street Journal reports on this Individualist foundation through its reporting on competing businesses. There are winners and losers with winners simply becoming bigger, more profitable, raising more money, or other simple financial measures.
This represents a culture of individualism that extends to their reporting on such things as their ranking of colleges and universities. For the Journal, school rankings are tied mostly to the financial success of their graduates compared to other factors, such as engagement, environment, and resources. This works fine for those who are more financially individualist, it clearly does not work for anyone who leans more Egalitarian or even more Positional. It bears little relevance to those who wish to eventually work in education, the arts, non-profits, armed forces, protective services, or government service. It’s only relevant if someone defines success as financial success, which is wealth or income relative to others, a common underlying individualist definition of success.
Silicon Valley represents a culture that is moderately liberal and Egalitarian yet with a very strong individualist tendency. Success in Silicon Valley is financial success even with mild moderation from more liberal-Egalitarian tendencies.
As detailed in the development of the customer model, individualism is the American customer foundation because it best represents the ideals of the American Dream - anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. Individualism reflects the early founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a tagline for American individualism.
Egalitarian and Positional Influences on Success Perception
Despite this strong individualist foundation, there are also success themes that emerge from the more liberal-Egalitarian and the more conservative-Positional cultures. More liberal customers in the Egalitarian group operate within a more “flat” structure where there is objection to power and strong leadership. Success in this case can’t be hierarchical as it is with the more conservative-Positional customers.
Success for more liberal customers can be expressed many different ways, but always within a culture model that seeks to maintain equality. Expressions of success can include a focus on uniqueness relative to the group rather than ranking higher. Success is also derived from the group’s natural tendency to have empathy for wider circles of people who are perceived to not have an equal footing in participating in the American Dream. In all cases, for ore liberal customers, success is to the side not from being above.
For more conservative customers, success can be tied to position and hierarchy. “Rank” is an indicator of success in this case, which implies set definitions within a hierarchy. Conservative customers will consume some products and services to demonstrate clear signals for achieving rank just as generals use stars and medals.
Mary Douglas, whose work in social anthropology is used to develop the customer model above, notes that there is a strong through-line between individualism and positional cultures. When someone achieves success in a strong individualist culture, there is a pull to develop hierarchy and tradition to protect the success. In other words, American customers who rise above their peers using financial measures for success may exhibit tendencies to preserve wealth through establishing rank and hierarchy, effectively excluding others. This represents the tension that can exist when balancing individualist and positional tendencies.
The Historical Roots of Success Tendencies
The desire of more liberal customers to define success through distinction and uniqueness can be traced to the start of urban modernism following the end of the Second Industrial Revolution and World War I. Out of the collision of these two events, urban modernism centered on a rejection of the past in favor of exploring new ideas and searching for universal truths. That searching leads to endless experimentation with new ideas.
The desire of more conservative customers to define success through hierarchy can be traced to the rejection of urbanization and modernism in favor of a more traditional way of life, sometimes defined within the context of rural values. In both cases - with urban modernism and more rural conservatism - parallel paths emerged in the development of philosophy, literature, architecture, arts, and ultimately, brands and products.
Research: Horizontal, Vertical, Differentiation, and Position
Nailya Ordabayeva, now an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Daniel Fernandes, while at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, published the result of a study in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Better or Different? How Political Ideology Shapes Preferences for Differentiation in the Social Hierarchy.”
They comment, “We propose that conservatism leads consumers to pursue vertical differentiation in the hierarchy through products that signal they are better than others, and liberalism leads consumers to pursue horizontal differentiation in the hierarchy through products that signal that they are unique from others.” Their research employed example brands and statements to support their findings.
For example, the brand Ralph Lauren demonstrated support for more vertical differentiation and was associated more strongly with conservative customers. Conversely, Urban Outfitters demonstrated more horizontal differentiation and was associated strongly with liberal customers.
The researchers ran a similar comparison test with different statements about the color red. When research participants were presented with the idea that red was associated with luxury, it supported more vertical differentiation and alignment with conservative customers. When red was associated with non-conformity and difference, it supported more horizontal differentiation and alignment with liberal customers.
The Nuances of the Customer Model and Success
So here we have themes related to success for each group that align when you consider our model from social anthropology, historical roots of the two groups, and contemporary research. My only qualm with much of today’s research is that it doesn’t acknowledge an underlying foundation for both groups - that of Individualism.
For example, when considering the statements around the color red in the research study above, the idea of “luxury” is construed to be both vertical and conservative. There are certainly liberal customers with stronger individualist tendencies who are drawn to luxury brands as a signal of financial achievement, and to a degree, hierarchy. It’s the balancing of Egalitarian and Individualist tendencies that provide more nuanced understandings of American liberal customers and the balancing of Positional and Individualist tendencies that helps with understanding American conservative customers.
Your business can leverage these insights by first looking at the worldview makeup of your customers and your market. Your brand, products, retail stores, web site, and mobile apps are opportunities to align with the audience that makes the most strategic sense for your organization while thinking about what makes a customer feel and look successful. Alignment of your business to how your customers think is a source of growth and efficiency that costs nothing or very little. See this article for a more detailed discussion for assessing and optimizing your business to customer and market worldview.