Marketing to the Heartland

How to build brands for the U.S. faithful

Most marketers don’t understand the American Heartland, a unique segment that is ever evolving, and requires constant attention for brands to remain relevant. But being underestimated and underserved means it presents a huge opportunity for brands that become Heartland savvy.

There is a new Heartland that is as complex and diverse as the rest of the U.S. It’s comprised of the Midwest, Southeast, and parts of the Southwest—which have more in common than you might think. It includes large, cosmopolitan cities, small rural towns, and spots in the middle of nowhere. Its residents are corporate executives, factory workers, celebrities, soccer moms, debutantes, tobacco farmers, and former U.S presidents.

Marketers no doubt conduct volumes of market research to find ways to engage these customers. But if you want to form a deeply rooted relationship with the 177 million “new Heartland” consumers, you must first understand their lifestyles and core beliefs.

What I found was a very strong common values system that can determine whether the Heartland is won over or turned off. It’s called faith, and it's a vital lens through which Heartland residents view your brand. 

Faith is a massive tenet of America, not just in the Heartland. Notice I didn’t say Christianity? Although that’s certainly the most prevalent, it’s the basic faith in God or a spiritual power that leads us to contemplate our existence here on earth and what happens after we die.

Faith is particularly important to people in the Heartland. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life ranked states based on belief in the importance of religion, worship service attendance, frequency of prayer and absolute certainty in the belief in God. For the country as a whole, 56 percent of Americans claimed to have strong religious beliefs. When broken down by state, 21 Heartland states reported rates of strong belief that were higher than the national average (some much higher), while only two non-Heartland states did—Utah, not surprisingly, and Idaho.

Of the states where fewer than half of the people reported having strong religious beliefs, only one Heartland state made the list (Wisconsin) compared with 15 non-Heartland states.

The impact of this runs much deeper than how we spend our Sunday mornings. Faith plays a role in nearly every aspect of our life, from our purchasing decisions to political leanings and media consumption.

According to a recent Yankelovich Monitor report, 40 percent of consumers say their “faith plays a large part in the decisions they make about the products and services they buy.” This could apply to the values of the company, the advertising campaign or the product itself.

Again, I’m not referring to a specific religion, church, or faith practice. I fully understand the dangers of affiliating a product with a particular religion, so I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting you embark on a church-based marketing program or pander to faith-based groups. As attractive as it may be, securing pouring rights in the mega churches probably isn’t a good strategy because of the cultural barrier worshippers expect between houses of worship and blatant advertising.

But what I am suggesting is that whether or not you believe in any higher deity is really not relevant. It’s also not important if you think faith is politically incorrect, inappropriate or polarizing.

Your personal beliefs do not come into play here.

As a brand marketer, it’s crucial you understand that your Heartland customer holds a strong faith that guides his or her life decisions. According to the Pew Research Center in a 2008 study of America’s faith: Nine out of 10 Americans believe God exists (these are nationwide statistics, not just from the Heartland). America is indeed a religious country, whether or not the Sunday morning pews reflect it or people are talking about it on the subway.

According to research conducted by the Barna Group:

-Women, who are widely credited with being the primary product purchasers and household decision-makers, also drive most church participation. (For example, women make up 53 percent of church attendance, and 60 percent of Bible studies and small prayer groups.)

-Baby Boomers are also big churchgoers. Adults age 45 and older make up 56 percent of church attendees (yet they make up only 52 percent of Americans).

-African-Americans are a significant percentage of the faithful. While Blacks are only 13 percent of the nation’s population, they are 27 percent of the faithful that attend small prayer groups or Bible studies, and 30 percent of overall church attendance and volunteers.

Am I suggesting your brand gets religious? Of course not. This is about accepting the importance of faith, not certain religions, in the lives of consumers and to incorporate that into marketing decisions.

Paul Jankowski is the author of How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland, from which this piece is adapted. He is a 20-year marketing and the owner of Nashville, Tenn.-based Access Brand Strategies. Email: Twitter: pauljankowski1.