Marketers Everywhere Are Rethinking Middle America Post-Trump. Inside One Effort to Help Them

We tagged along on an immersion trip to the Heartland

The election of Donald Trump didn’t just shake up the number-crunchers; it affected agencies and their clients, too.
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The polls were wrong. The strategy was wrong. The data was wrong.

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 9, 2016, 18 months of carefully weighted, religiously updated forecasts evaporated into the ether as Donald J. Trump scored a series of upset victories to secure his status as the 45th president of the United States.

But the election post-mortem hasn’t just been a crisis of confidence for the number-crunching community.

It shook people up on the client side and the agency side, according to 30-year ad industry veteran and consultant Avi Dan. He said, “The belief that we have reached a very sophisticated stage in data gathering and analysis has been shattered.” Crispin Porter + Bogusky chairman and co-founder Chuck Porter added, “If most analysts were so wrong about Trump and Brexit, are they really right about your airline or your car brand or your cereal?”

One New York agency executive described her team’s post-November mindset as “shell-shocked.” But where some see crisis, president Paul Jankowski of the Nashville, Tenn.-based New Heartland Group sees opportunity in a bitterly divided nation.

Reaching the great middle

Jankowski sometimes asks marketing executives to share their anonymous takes on those who’ve been lumped into “Middle America” or, to use a more loaded term, “Trump’s America.”

“You hear lines like: hillbillies, Bible beaters, right-wing extremists, modernized rednecks who are stuck in the past, wearing their ignorance and intolerance proudly,” he says of those brutally candid conversations. “It paints a picture of dismissiveness—a group that’s underserved. It’s not all country music, and it’s not all red states.”

Tweetstorms and tax forms aside, one of the key messages to emerge from the chaos of the Trump campaign held that politicians—like marketers—have ignored, derided or exploited millions of Americans for decades. As BBDO New York chief strategy officer Crystal Rix put it, “Trump realized that a lot of people felt that they had been left behind on an individual level.”

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Jankowski is a veteran of pop and urban music promotions who served as CMO of Elvis Presley Enterprises, negotiated a Pepsi deal with pre-fame Taylor Swift and helped secure Verizon’s sponsorship of Beyoncé’s first solo tour. He founded New Heartland Group in 2001 based on the belief that brands and agencies have failed to address many of the same people who cast ballots for the real estate magnate turned reality star.

“Stereotypes kill, and having expertise in the culture you’re trying to reach is critical,” says Jankowski. His agency aims to facilitate that expertise through a new twist on the time-tested theory of cultural immersion in which executives from the client and agency sides visit Tennessee for two- to three-day tours designed to help them better understand a massive consumer group.

My introduction to this practice begins at 8 a.m. on a crisp January morning, when a New Heartland van arrives to meet our group—which includes reps from Arby’s and its agency of record, Fallon—at the new Thompson Nashville hotel for a daylong introduction to the local culture.

Our first stop is Pinewood Social, a restaurant that serves egg white frittatas and coffee sweetened with house-made syrup by day and attracts area pinheads by night with its backroom bowling alley. Owned by New York finance veteran Max Goldberg and his brother Ben (who reference Per Se, Noma and Pappy Van Winkle in the same breath), Pinewood would feel right at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

As we move on to the Google-sponsored Entrepreneur Center and Nashville Fashion Alliance, we learn that the city nurtures a burgeoning startup community and that area fashion businesses like Justin Timberlake’s William Rast bring in nearly $6 billion per year. But to most, of course, the true face of Nashville will always be found in the whiskey-fueled honky-tonk bars of lower Broadway.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 27, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.