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Red vs. Blue Markets: WeatherTech and Apartments.com
Businesses reap rewards or limit growth when they align with liberal or conservative customer markets. Sometimes the alignment happens inadvertently - leadership projects their worldview on the market, for better or worse. Few organizations will discuss it internally because it feels like politics. Yet it has massive implications for market share and the bottom line.
The right customer worldview alignment is like oil that greases every aspect of the business: strategy, product development, brand definition, call centers, communications, and more. When it all lines up, the business acts in sync with how the market thinks. It makes it easier for the customer to invite the brand into their home because they seem familiar, like a family member or friend.
Apartments.com is a platform for finding rental apartments. It’s a case of strong strategic alignment between the business and its market, although there are opportunities for improvement. WeatherTech is a seller of automotive floor mats. They are very successful yet have an even larger market waiting for them. Both focus on one market worldview. Both offer lessons in worldview alignment - how it works and what opportunities exist when considering customer markets as liberal or conservative.
We’ll look at three attributes: Leadership, product-market fit, and communications. Leadership creates culture and influences products and communications. The resulting organizational worldview may or may not align with the market. In either case, there are always opportunities for growth and efficiency, usually at a low cost.
Apartments.com: Market Alignment Can Be Even Stronger
This brand strongly aligns with its customers from a worldview perspective, yet Apartments.com can push it further to increase customer acquisition efficiencies, customer value, and profitability.
Leadership Worldview. Apartments.com was founded by Andrew Florance, who began working on real estate technology at Princeton in 1986. He focuses on revolutionizing the commercial real estate market through smarter data analysis. In addition, he has contributed exclusively to Democratic political candidates. All of this adds up to a leader who combines a classic American combination of individualism, a desire to create a better future, and potentially progressive values. I’m going to use this evidence to assume he has a more liberal worldview.
Product-Market Worldview. Apartment buildings are primarily located where the population is denser, and population density is a reliable indicator of market worldview. Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis found that the average population density for conservatives was 585 people per square mile and 1197 people per square mile for liberals. Customers with a more liberal worldview live in more urban and inner suburban locations.
In other research, Apartment List studied the voting habits of renters. Hillary Clinton won the renter vote by a stunning thirty percent in 2016 (Trump won the homeowner vote by six percentage points). From all of this, we can conclude that the market for Apartments.com is mostly liberal customers.
Communications Worldview. In 2015 Apartments.com engaged with actor Jeff Goldblum to star in what has become a well-received, enduring TV campaign. Jeff Goldblum plays Brad Bellflower, wo is the inventor of the “Apartminternet.” Patrick Dodson, vice president of marketing at Apartments.com, describes the campaign this way: “Brad Bellflower takes you on this futuristic journey of this high-tech world where he can help you navigate and find all these new, great features and places to live.”
A more futuristic theme aligns with an audience with a more liberal worldview. Jeff Goldblum, the celebrity spokesperson, potentially projects a more liberal worldview as he is liberal, having campaigned for Joe Biden. Then, take it for what it’s worth, but liberal customers actually prefer cats more than conservative customers - note the cat featured in the recent TV ad below. It’s safe to say that Apartments.com communications skew very liberal, cats or not.
The Apartments.com Opportunity. There is clear alignment between leadership (culture), the market, and communications with regard to a liberal worldview. This adds up to an optimized business for efficiently acquiring customers based on how customers see the world and think. Yet it’s also clear they can go further with this alignment, all without invoking politics.
Going deeper into how more liberal customers think can further reinforce market alignment with their primarily liberal audience. For example, Apartments.com could leverage liberal attributes around empathy, self-image, and aspiration. They could even push their current emphasis on a futuristic world further, such as predicting the future (customers with a more liberal worldview index higher for such things as astrology, fortune telling, and reincarnation).
From an advertising media standpoint, they could avoid costly television sports investments, such as the Super Bowl, as only half of that audience will match their market from a worldview perspective. Big sporting events draw liberal and conservative customers, often in equal proportion. The Super Bowl, however, is a stage where brands can really stand out. In addition, PR, product strategy, and overall media investments can be more finely tuned to liberal customers when the broader internal team understands the liberal worldview mindset.
Most importantly, they can carry their liberal worldview more strongly through their customer experience, especially with their website. Today, customer website interactions appear to be worldview neutral, almost generic, missing an opportunity for stronger alignment.
WeatherTech: One Worldview - the Right Choice?
WeatherTech is very successful in making floor mats for cars. They are also very aligned with a single worldview - does opportunity beckon from the other side? Maybe, maybe not.
Leadership Worldview. David MacNeil founded WeatherTech in 1989 to sell better automotive floor mats. After first marketing mats from England, he decided to manufacture mats in the United States. He is considered a “mega-donor” to Republican campaigns, although he was a strong proponent of fixing DACA to protect young immigrants. MacNeil is a self-made billionaire who is conservative.
Product-Market Worldview. It’s hard to get good data on the worldview makeup of automotive floor mat customers, but there is some evidence that they skew slightly conservative. Homeowners (versus renters) buy most cars, and we know from the Apartment List research noted above that Trump won the homeowner vote by 6% in 2016. There is also a possibility that the mats are sold more successfully into exurban and rural areas, but that is pure speculation. The conclusion here is that the market for car mats is enormous as it combines customers having both worldviews and may skew slightly conservative.
Communications Worldview. This is where WeatherTech takes a right-hand turn, projecting a very conservative image onto the market. Over the years, “Made in the USA” has been prominently displayed in their advertising and website. According to academic research, liberal and conservative customers react differently to such statements because they have different empathy “targets.” Conservative customers have more empathy for family and country, while liberal customers have more empathy for friends and disadvantaged groups. It’s why Republican candidates are far more likely to show the American flag than Democratic candidates. WeatherTech’s emphasis on “Made in the U.S.A.” strongly aligns with a conservative worldview.
Strong conservative themes also emerge in their advertising, including two TV ads linked below, where there is a substantial investment. The first ad focuses on the pride in making products in the United States and other conservative themes.
The second TV ad below is their most recent for the Super Bowl. While this TV ad doesn’t overtly address “Made in the U.S.A.,” it does invoke military-like teams descending from helicopters as a kind of “Special Ops” group to help customers with their cars. Military themes like this will resonate more with conservative customers than with liberal customers.
From a media investment standpoint, WeatherTech also advertises heavily with “automotive enthusiasts,” an audience that is primarily men and skews conservative.
The link between leadership and communications is also very clear. In a Chicago Tribune interview, CEO David MacNeil was asked how deeply involved he was in the advertising. He answered, “Neck deep. The creative has to be approved by me. Very often, I've had input into things or how things are written.”
The WeatherTech Opportunity. There may be no pressure on WeatherTech to grow in the United States as they are very successful with their current strategy. So why fix what’s not broken? Besides, David MacNeil owns the company and can do whatever he wants with it. However, given the size of the domestic car mat market and the number of potential liberal customers, it’s hard not to contemplate growing beyond the conservative customer market.
You can argue that diluting the WeatherTech message to make it worldview-neutral for conservatives and liberals could be a net negative. Maybe the heart of the brand’s success is its strong alignment with conservative customers. Rather than move toward a worldview-neutral brand stance, they could test products and communications with more liberal customers separately. This segmented or programmatic approach could enable WeatherTech to acquire customers from both groups efficiently and fuel future growth.
If WeatherTech can unlock the liberal customer market just half as much as the conservative customer market, they could achieve significant efficient growth. Their continued investment in Super Bowl advertising would also be far more efficient. As it stands, their current Super Bowl advertising is resonating far more with just half the viewers, effectively doubling the cost of the investment when compared to media that skews more conservative. An interesting challenge would be creating a TV ad with solid conservative and liberal themes together rather than trying to neutralize it for both.
Any Brand Can Unlock Growth and Market Efficiencies with This Type of Analysis
The process for evaluating worldview alignment is not complicated. It can also complement - not replace - any current market and customer insights. It just takes putting market worldview on the table and evaluating it dispassionately. It’s rare that the analysis doesn’t reveal interesting market growth opportunities related to overall strategy, product development, communications, and more. It starts with a small, internal meeting.