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Summary: How Polarization Reveals New Market Insights for Growth
Polarization between conservatives and liberals is everywhere, including in your markets. While polarization drives a fair amount of negative news, it also reveals market distinctions businesses can leverage for growth at low cost.
Over the past twenty years, the American national market has split between liberal and conservative customers, with each group aligning with different brands, consuming different media, and buying different products. A recent Harris Poll ranks the top ten brands for liberals and conservatives, and only three are common to both sides – Trader Joe’s, Patagonia, and grocer H-E-B. The leading retail brand for liberals was Target, while for conservative customers, it’s Home Depot.
Similar differences hold for TV viewership and broader media consumption. Conservative customers prefer traditional family entertainment and militaristic themes, while liberals prefer fantasy and horror. For different product choices, automobiles are an easy example: Conservative customers skew higher for domestic pickups and luxury sedans, while liberal customers prefer international sedans and SUVs.
Looking at markets as conservative or liberal feels controversial because it feels like politics. The solution is to focus on the worldview, not politics. Think of worldview as the customer’s vision of the world they want to create for themselves, which can lean liberal or conservative. Politics reflects the preference for leadership in that worldview. Brand and product choices reflect how customers want to assemble their worlds and be perceived by others.
Academic research in social anthropology and social psychology demonstrates differences in preferences that businesses of any size can use to better align with their markets. Here are three examples (there are dozens):
Everyone wants to be successful, but it means different things to the two groups. For conservative customers, success is more vertical – it’s about rank, power, and rising through a hierarchy. Success for liberal customers is more horizontal – it’s about distinction and uniqueness. Think about these differences in how your products make your customer successful. Is it more about power and being in control or setting a customer apart?
Conservative and liberal customers both have empathy, but for different groups. Conservative customers have greater empathy for structured groups, while liberal customers have more empathy for wider, less structured groups. For example, conservative customers have more empathy for family and country. Liberal customers have more empathy for friends and strangers. Think about this difference regarding sources of product validation. Who is talking about your product to influence decisions?
Liberal customers are more open to new experiences, making them more likely to try new, innovative products. As a result, liberal customers are important targets for early adoption. Conservative customers wait until new products are successful and become more familiar. As a result, liberal customers are prone to be less brand loyal, while conservative customers are more brand loyal, potentially having higher customer value. Liberal customers create critical early success, while conservative customers create sustainable success.
Note that none of these three distinctions invoke any politics. The focus is on how the two groups see the world and think. It’s a layer of customer insight that works with what you know about customers today, such as gender, age, income, and attitudinal or behavioral traits. It’s also a new lever for growth that’s relatively easy to implement.
To take a small first step, look at the worldview makeup of your market, customers, and communications to see if there is alignment. The data might be right in front of you. Your customer database software or service might be able to report any liberal or conservative skew among your customers easily. If not, you can use urbanicity as a proxy. If your customers skew urban, then they skew liberal. Conservative customers will skew more toward exurban and rural. If your customers over-index for living in the suburbs, it gets a little trickier because the makeup of suburbs can vary.
You can also use age as a proxy for worldview as a start. Younger customers will skew liberal, while older customers will skew conservative. Some groups have significant skews. For example, 70% of millennial females are liberal or lean liberal compared to 59% of millennial males. Looking at demographics won’t give you the exact picture, but it can get you started.
The same analysis can be applied to your market. Apartments.com, for example, has customers that skew liberal because apartments tend to be in more densely populated, urban areas. In 2016, Hilary Clinton won the renter vote by 30%. By conducting this type of simple market analysis, you can get a sense of how your market thinks from a worldview perspective and compare it to your customers.
If your business conducts brand tracking studies or market research, it’s now essential to control for liberal and conservative worldviews. All you have to do is add a question to your surveys or research recruitment efforts that asks if someone is conservative or liberal or leans in either direction. You will likely see distinct differences in research results between the two groups. Without the question, you risk performing research with one group while your market leans towards the other. For example, in one research study we conducted in the fitness market, conservative customers preferred a focus on strength, while liberal customers preferred a focus on overall fitness.
Online survey tools often balance their “panels” or participants to reflect the national census but are rarely controlled for liberal or conservative worldviews unless you add the question. You’ll be surprised to see, for example, how many female respondents in online surveys are conservative, which skews results.
Once you look at your customers, the market, your communications, and your product through a worldview lens, it’s often easy to see whether there is alignment. Your brand, products, and communications resonate more when you improve alignment. Your media investment choices may also shift, improving the efficiency of a substantial investment.
The result is faster brand building, lower customer acquisition costs, and higher customer value. It’s not difficult to test these ideas in small doses using digital media before you make any significant commitment, all without invoking any politics.
The analysis is straightforward. Choosing to do the research is another matter. It requires acknowledging that there are two worldviews in your market and among your customers. This means setting aside one’s worldview predispositions to align a business to a market. For some, this will feel uncomfortable. What if your market has a different worldview from your own? It requires a dispassionate attitude in a worldview-passionate world.
If you’re unsure about performing this kind of analysis, consider this: One of the most interesting collateral benefits of this type of exercise is how it reduces divisiveness rather than amplify it. By better understanding “the other side” through market worldview analysis, that other side will seem a little less crazy and a little more familiar. Your beliefs won’t change, but your understanding of the broader context will. As John Stuart Mill once said, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”