The lesson of the Trump upset: Your reality may not be real

It's time for marketers to discard outdated assumptions about how certain 'types' think and behave, writes the global CEO of Havas Creative Group.

The United States, for much our history, has been a divided nation: Throughout time, we've seen splits of north vs. south, native vs. immigrant, black vs. white, red vs. blue, rich vs. poor, rural vs. urban, online vs. offline, and more. Aside from a few moments of unity, we've continued to be a nation of "us and them." That can cause friction, but it's also a source of our strength as a nation. It's our ability to be divided on issues but still pull together as one that makes us great.

However, as the digital divide gets smaller, the nature of our cliques and factions is changing. Our daily conversations take place not just with our physical neighbors, but also with our social connections across the country and around the world. Suddenly, America is a nation of 300 million-plus individuals connecting to customized networks that both strengthen and cross our traditional divides. And that means we can no longer make sweeping statements and assumptions about how any particular cohort will behave. This was made abundantly clear election night when we were treated to the spectacle of pundits and pollsters trying to come to grips with how their projections had been so wrong.

Havas Cognitive's EagleAi artificial-learning intelligence tool went against the crowds to accurately predict the Trump win. By moving beyond polling data—and without inherent political bias—it was able to see what was invisible to the probing eyes of traditional analysts. An important lesson for marketers who are clinging to last-generation software that's incapable of uncovering the truths hidden within the vast realm of "dark data."

Under-the-radar movements are by no means unique to the US. Last summer's Brexit vote was stunning, and it also showcased the extent to which the groundswell of opposition had been concealed—or simply overlooked by people who anticipated a different result. That's the real lesson: We can no longer go by conventional wisdom or by what the media and political heavyweights are seeing. The reality is far murkier and multifaceted.

Other countries would do well to take heed of the lessons of Brexit and Trump. My company's most recent global study has revealed that a near majority (45%) around the world believe their countries are moving in the wrong direction. Only around a quarter of respondents in the 37 countries surveyed are happy with the way things are going. This level of discontent has to be of enormous concern to political establishments around the globe.

Marketers, too, need to understand the challenge before us: With all the algorithms we're applying and all the content that's being shared and received by us, it's all too easy to lose sight of the truth that lives outside our own echo chambers and communications bubbles. We have to understand that our best customers may look, behave, and believe very differently from the narrowly defined personas we've created to represent them.

One example: A big demographic story of the past century has been the US migration to urban centers. And, yes, more than 80% of Americans are living in what have been classified as "urbanized areas." Dig deeper, and you'll see that this classification is broad. New York City and Chicago are urbanized areas, but so are Casa Grande, Arizona and Grand Island, Nebraska. Millions live in the exurban fringes, far from the big markets they're statistically living in. 

It's time for marketers to pay much closer attention to those living in the so-called flyover states—and to discard outdated assumptions about how certain "types" of targets will think and behave. What some have thought of as the fringe is now firmly woven into our country's fabric. It's no longer "us and them," but an infinitely more complex "us."

Andrew Benett is global chief executive officer of Havas Creative Group.

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