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.
Adweek

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.”

Adweek

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.”

So exactly who are those 62.9 million Americans?

“We often get caught in this bubble … where we don’t have a fundamental understanding of how 30,000 people can show up for a rally in Dubuque and just go crazy for a guy,” says Matt Oczkowski, head of product at the Trump campaign’s data agency of record Cambridge Analytica. “When you isolate a Trump supporter, you might say, wow, that looks a lot like a union worker from Youngstown, Ohio.”

This unnamed union member almost certainly doesn’t work in advertising. But he or she may well visit outdoor retailing giant Bass Pro Shops, which is both a Bailey Lauerman client and a key stop on every immersion trip led by Dennis and Jankowski.

Bass Pro Shops promises “endless amounts of taxidermy” and 150,000 square feet of floor space within walking distance of the Opryland Theatre, home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
Courtesy Bass Pro Shops

As manager Kirk Pickel leads our group through the chain’s colossal Nashville outlet on this day, I come across products I’ve never encountered before, like a remote control “turkey tank,” fishing drones and an assortment of Under Armour camouflage gear.

Several hours later, we sit talking camo over pale ales at Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company with three self-described “millennial rednecks.”

“Anything in camo, a redneck’s gonna buy it,” says Tyler, a passionate hunter who works with his father flipping mobile homes (New Heartland requested that Adweek not use the last names of its sources due to privacy concerns).

Arby’s vp of brand experience Jeff Baker, who joins us on the tour that day, discusses a related effort from late 2016.

“We identified a heavy overlap between our guests and outdoorsmen; specifically, hunters,” Baker later tells me. In order to promote its limited-edition venison burger, the chain painted several branches in camouflage and “invited country musicians to take part and try the sandwich,” which sold out in less than 15 minutes at one Minnesota Arby’s. (Rhett Akins didn’t participate, but he did approve.)

“That group is very sensitive to the forced and contrived,” says Baker. When asked about depictions of hunters in ads, film school student Taylor (who wants to work for the Outdoor Channel) responds, “They don’t even understand. It’s almost comical.”

The group agrees on loyalty to certain brands, with Tyler relating that he trusts Matthews boats, Honda four-wheelers and John Deere tractors.

Our chat skirts politics but debunks at least one stereotype. All three men identify as conservationists, with Tyler commenting, “The NRA is bullshit … they’re just in it for the money. I couldn’t care less.”

New Heartland’s Paul Jankowski (far right) talks brand loyalty at Yazoo Brewing Company with (l. to r.) local resident Tyler; Jeff Baker of Arby’s; Fallon group account director Chris Campbell; New Heartland senior account executive Jordan Harrison; another local, Carter; his friend, Taylor.
New Heartland Group

Making agencies great again

Agency leaders have been well aware of the challenges highlighted by Trump’s victory for some time. Saatchi & Saatchi New York, which works with Walmart, sent staffers on a cross-country research trip last summer to learn more about rural America.

But not all executives agree on how best to address the matter.

“The Saatchi project follows the same methodology that failed us,” says BBDO’s Rix. “The biggest challenge is not how to address ‘the middle’ but how to stop putting everyone in a bucket. When you look for what matters most to the people who matter most to a business, you’ll make a better ad.”

DeVeaux warns against “over-correcting” by targeting Trump voters with “one generalization following another,” and a different executive jokes about including “some guy in a MAGA hat” in every future focus group. Jankowski said such efforts would come across as pandering or “carpetbagging,” adding, “Let’s talk about things that matter and not make a political statement one way or the other.”

This year’s Super Bowl ads certainly didn’t follow that strategy. Even ostensibly apolitical campaigns like Budweiser’s embellished origin story attracted controversy, and many brands, such as 84 Lumber, spent millions on advertising’s biggest night to make broad statements about immigration and inclusion in a country still reeling from the most contentious election season in memory.

“I don’t feel like I need to pivot,” 72andSunny creative co-chair Glenn Cole says when asked whether politics had come up in recent meetings with clients like General Mills. “That said, I do think there’s a nervousness not to be perceived as political on the client side [because] their job, at the end of the day, is to sell more Cheerios.”

Jankowski argues that cultural immersion can eventually help move cereal, calling it “the third pillar of research beyond qual and quant.” Yet most of the agencies contacted for this article were either unfamiliar with the approach or rarely use it.

Y&R is an exception. Chief strategy officer Dick de Lange calls his practice “exploring.” When Y&R won the U.S. Navy review, for example, he sent a team to Texas to live among area military families for nearly a month.

“You can’t just spend a couple of hours in someone’s house,” de Lange says. “You need to meet their family and see how they prepare school lunches. There’s lots of awful talk about consumer journeys, but for us it comes from real life. You can’t outsource these things.”

Jankowski echoes that sentiment, positioning immersion as more valuable than any convention for companies from Dubuque to Detroit, New York to Nashville. “You’re a CMO or a CEO, you know what your brand is trying to achieve, and you’re going to delegate that?” he says. “Shame on you.”

Our day of immersion ends at L.A. Jackson, a Nashville hot spot perched atop the Thompson hotel.

As we recall the day’s experiences, Entourage star Adrian Grenier and Best New Artist Grammy nominee Kelsea Ballerini chat with their respective crews at opposite ends of the bar. Guests sip $14 artisanal cocktails and nibble on bacon kettle corn as the barely discernible tones of LCD Soundsystem blend into the din.

A New Yorker can’t help but think: This feels a whole lot like Brooklyn.

“We are living in a collection of bubbles,” says Greg Andersen the following week as we discuss the divisions currently beguiling the country, the marketing industry and the whole world. “We need to recognize that, look into some other bubbles and step inside of them to see what they’re really all about. On an individual level, we’re actually quite different.”

For Jankowski, that point is illustrated by executives who arrive in Nashville armed with MBAs and reams of research that still can’t quite account for the insights gained during one trip to a Bass Pro Shop. He says, “It’s so awesome to see the light go on when they think, oh shoot, OK. Now that makes sense.”

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