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.

Our next stop is publishing giant Warner/Chappell Music, where we meet with the songwriting duo Rhett Akins and Ben Hayslip, better known as The Peach Pickers.

“People in New York and L.A. forget what happens in the rest of America,” Akins says before he and his partner run through an impromptu greatest-hits set. “Drive an hour outside of Manhattan and you’re in a cornfield.”

The Peach Pickers’ Rhett Akins (l.) and Ben Hayslip have written dozens of pop-country hits.
New Heartland Group

Country radio ranks a close second to pop among Americans ages 25-54. It’s biggest among young people living outside major urban areas despite hewing to strict guidelines that forbid even oblique references to sex and drugs. Yet brands almost never approach Akins and Hayslip for collaborations, despite the fact that the team has written smash hits for singers like Blake Shelton and collaborated with pop artists like The Chainsmokers.

As we prepare to leave their office, Akins shakes my hand and asks where I grew up. I reply South Carolina, to which he responds, “You get it.” No questions asked.

But what, exactly, is “it?”

The heart of the matter

Jankowski’s “New Heartland” includes 60 percent of Americans, stretches from North Dakota to Orlando, Fla., and bridges the urban/rural divide between Chicago and Lebanon, Tenn. (pronounced LEB-uh-nin). His vision of the “cultural segment” took shape during a 2,500-mile drive in a Ford F-150.

“I asked the question: What do you care about as the essence of who you are?” Jankowski says. The answers are overwhelmingly centered on three, self-defined “core values”: family, community and faith, the latter not necessarily synonymous with religion.

That isn’t to say that the “coastal elites” don’t have families, take communion or wave hello to their neighbors. According to Jankowski, residents of the varied communities within this great interior are simply more likely to wear those identifiers on their sleeves.

Data: New Heartland Group 2015 Pro-Millennial Study white paper

New Heartland managing director Shari Dennis, a New York native who previously held C-level roles at agencies like BBDO Atlanta, explains the cultural disparity: “At a party in New York, people will ask, ‘What do you do?’ ‘Who do you work for?’ ‘Do you know this person?’ In the Heartland, the first questions would be, ‘Are you married?’ ‘Do you have kids?’ ‘What church do you go to?’”

One of the industry’s key mistakes lay in assuming that Americans share a common dream.

“Not everyone wants the mid-century modern home, the vintage muscle car and the organic diet,” notes Greg Andersen, a veteran of New York and Los Angeles agencies who recently returned home to run Bailey Lauerman in Omaha, Neb. He attributes the nation’s current troubles to “a sort of moral, cultural or geographic tribalism that has led to this ‘us versus them’ existence.”

Recalling the confusion that peppered his election night Facebook feed, CP+B Los Angeles chief creative officer Kevin Jones wonders whether aspirational advertising may have had its day. “People are really angry—meanwhile, [brands are] advertising an upscale lifestyle,” he observes. “Those two things are going to be in conflict.”

That sentiment is hardly new. Dan recalls a Walmart creative review 15 years ago in which representatives ruled out coastal competitors. “They told me, ‘We want an agency where people actually drive to work,’” he says.

Performance analytics firm Fluent helps connect brands and presidential candidates alike to the fabled “Walmart shopper.” CMO Jordan Cohen declines to say whether Fluent worked with Trump but cites data indicating that Trump-leaning consumers are more likely to click on ads that promise to help them earn money, save money or win money.

“The ads that work with ‘Middle America’ are about what a brand could bring to my life today,” Cohen says. “That’s very different than the way Madison Avenue has been thinking.”

Trump voters and ‘millennial rednecks’

This perceived disconnect goes both ways. “If you ask people in the center what they think of New Yorkers, you will get a lot of negativity as well,” says BBDO New York CMO Tara DeVeaux, adding, “I have learned since November 9th that there is no typical Trump voter.”

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