Last year’s election and inauguration sent politicians and marketers alike scrambling, trying to determine where they had failed to understand a large segment of consumers. While there was abundant data on these consumers, in order to gather actionable insights from it, the creative industry needed to spend in-depth, face-to-face time with people across the country to build a richer, more nuanced understanding.
So the creative industry—from Arby’s to Fallon to Saatchi—launched initiatives to better connect with consumers all around the country. Here at Y&R we sent 14 strategists to cities across the U.S. over a period of 8 weeks, living and working in different neighborhoods. With so many conclusions voiced about the "real America," we sought to better understand what sets modern Americans apart, how they view themselves and what role brands play in a shifting national landscape.
We ultimately discovered that characterizations of the American identity have shifted in profound ways, resulting in implications for the strategies marketers should tap to reach them.
The rise of American exception-ism
American exceptionalism ideology traditionally holds that the United States is unique among nations for its democratic ideals and personal liberties. While the American character has always been defined by democracy and liberty, we found that our defining quality in today’s world is not exceptionalism—but rather, exception-ism.
At one time, being American was our primary identity, understood as a singular definition of overarching values and ideals, like freedom and individualism. People sought to assimilate, becoming part of the massive melting pot and striving for the American Dream. But our concept of being American has evolved, characterized by exceptions to the rule—exceptions brought about by investing in smaller communities with their own interests and shared values.
In this new era of exception-ism, our primary identities are more closely tied to the niche communities with which we align than our nationality. These communities celebrate those qualities, causes, issues and ideologies that set them apart from the rest of the nation—the qualities that make them the exceptions to the aggregate.
More often than not, these communities transcend geography—interests, hobbies and passions also create online and offline connections that contribute strongly to this community-first identity structure. A music-loving city like Austin has more in common with Nashville, New Orleans or Brooklyn than it does with Dallas. An online community sharing tips for the best hiking spots and camping sites across the country creates stronger ties than belonging to the same PTA.
People want to express what is unique and interesting about their communities and their homes, often in terms of how these traits are different than the national narrative. In Milwaukee, we found people proud of their Midwestern sensibilities: work hard, learn to take care of yourself, prioritize family time. And supporting mom and pop shops is a strong cultural value, in contrast to the narrative that the Midwest values big business manufacturing and the jobs that come with it.
In Phoenix, people framed their community and their lives through the lens of being a city in a desert, an often overlooked area of the States. In Memphis, southern hospitality wasn’t just a saying—one man told us that, "It’s a great feeling to know if your [car] breaks down, someone’s gonna be there to help you out."
Ultimately, local and personal pride tied to interests is now stronger than national patriotism. The brand of America is taking a hit, falling from #4 on the annual ranking of the 2016 Best Countries to #7 in 2017. "Made in America" has lost its sheen; "Made in Detroit" is much more appealing.
From aspiration to affirmation—what exception-ism means for marketers
In light of the ways that American identity has shifted, the way brands market to consumers in the U.S. must shift as well. Brands used to represent aspiration and its fulfillment—but in today’s world, marketers don’t need to sell an untouchable, enviable aspirational ideal, because people aren’t looking for one. They are proud of what they already have, and they are proud of what their own communities are producing. Brands should be affirming these consumers, offering achievable aspiration that condones their lifestyle choices.
Additionally, the creative industry needs to take the hierarchy of needs into account and tier our marketing efforts accordingly. It’s common sense that Airbnb would market differently to a single mom looking to take her kids for a weekend beach trip, versus a wealthy professional with travel points to spend—yet too often, our marketing oversimplifies the consumers we want to reach, offering them something that is far outside the realm of possibility. Marketers must have a safe, local, relatable space within their messaging, even if they are a large global brand.
In the end, what we see in today’s America is ultimately very American—the desire to create one’s own identity. Marketers who understand these shifts in identity structure will ultimately reach their consumers most effectively, taking into account all of their complexities and nuances. So, find the rule, but pay even more attention to the exceptions.
Alexandra Burke, is Global eXploring Director and Associate Strategy Director at Y&R.