This summer’s “Drink Positive” national ad campaign for Lipton iced tea uses country music trio Lady Antebellum as the face of the "new heartland," a group of Americans connected not only by geography between the coasts but also by a similar mindset larger than just the Midwest. Paul Jankowski, chief strategist at Access Brand Strategies, argues the region—home to 60 percent of U.S. consumers—should be seen as one that also encompasses other parts of the country. Jankowski is proud to be one of them, as a Memphis native and Nashville resident who previously worked as CMO at Elvis Presley Enterprises. ABS has been retained by marketers like Lipton and Mountain Dew, with Jankowski recommending and signing Lady Antebellum and country music singer Jason Aldean for Mountain Dew. As the author of How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland, he has done research about a consumer group he feels is largely overlooked. He spoke to Adweek about why marketers are missing out on an increasingly important opportunity and why, in these tough times, there may be a little heartland in all Americans, no matter where they live.
Adweek: Why do you call it the "new" heartland and what are its cultural nuances and core values?
Jankowski: I call it the "new" heartland because many people reference it as the flyover states and I think it’s much broader than just the Midwest. Anecdotally it’s always been considered the Midwest but what makes it the new heartland is that geographically I define it as the Midwest, parts of the Southwest and parts of the Southeast that are bound together by the same core values. They’re core values that aren’t necessarily exclusive to this region but certainly are perhaps more deeply rooted there.
Tell us more about those core values.
Growing up as a card-carrying member of the heartland, I know what daily life is like and after doing business on the coast I got a dose of reality about the distinct difference in the ways business is done and the way different cultural groups are viewed. So after spending over 20 years going back and forth, I decided to dive deeper and see if what I thought was representative was also represenative of the overall feelings around the heartland. I did a lot of interviews; I got in my truck and just drove around for thousands of miles and listened to people. I asked them "What’s the most import thing in your life, what drives you when you wake up in the morning?" and they said it is core values such as faith, community and family. Those were the things that were most mentioned.
When you talk about "speaking American," what do you mean?
"Speaking American" means to be culturally relevant. The sales volume of a lot of brands comes out of this new heartland region and this is a great opportunity for brands to check the way they’re looking at this segment and make sure they are taking at advantage of it. When you look at how core values play into buying behavior, it causes you to pause and ask: "Are we really maximizing our communications to this group through our creative?"
Why has this segment largely been overlooked by marketers? Is it because of the concentration of ad agencies and media on the East Coast?
I think there is a myopic view. We operate in areas of comfort and when we don’t know a group it’s easier to look at advertising creative for the sake of coming out with some beautiful creative. But at the end of the day, does it resonate with 60 percent of U.S. consumers and is it culturally relevant or is it creative for the sake of creative? This group has been underserved and has been dismissed. Worst of all, are the use of stereotypes: It doesn’t matter if it’s a stereotype about the South or stereotype of a certain culture or one about a race. That’s happened a lot as it relates to this massive group of consumers.
What are the stereotypes? Hicks, rednecks, Nascar?
You hit it. And things like slow and dim. There are pockets of truth to stereotypes but once that’s the way you do business you’re missing the broader opportunities and that’s what’s happened. In the new heartland, there’s a vibrant art scene, there’s a huge amount of technology happening and entrepreneurial development. There’s higher high-school graduations rates.
Given recent years of tough economic times and job uncertainty do these new heartland values, focusing on community and family, resonate more strongly with consumers?
When we’re challenged economically, spiritually, professionally where do we go? We tend to go back to a place of comfort, a place of familiarity. The economic times have absolutely driven people back to their core values and family. But this is not a conservative versus liberal conversation. If you’re thinking it’s about "red" and "blue," you’ve already lost.
Are there certain product categories that are more suitable to this positioning or is it based on the demographics of a specific brand’s consumers?
This is more category agnostic. It’s such a diverse group of people. If you look at the numbers, there’s 177 million people in the heartland. However, the domestic auto industry have done a great job establishing themselves in the space; distilled spirits and beer do very well as does wireless. My last research showed that if you looked at the highest use of voice minutes, it’s in the South. So if you know that the South is using phones and more voice minutes wouldn’t that be a great opportunity to do a digital campaign or one using mobile?