Meeting Middle Americans and Then Trying to Sell Them Stuff

Posted May 6, 2018 7:06 p.m. EDT

The commercial for HP features a large family enjoying Christmas dinner together — that is, until the words “global warming” are uttered. A heated exchange between two sisters follows, culminating in one shouting at the other to leave her house.

A younger member of the family excuses herself from the table and prints out photos of the sisters over the years, arranging them in the shape of a heart. Soon, one of the feuding sisters is taking a pie to the other as a peace offering. HP’s closing message: “If we never reach out, we’ll never come together.”

The commercial is one of many influenced by research that marketers began conducting after the 2016 presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory came as a surprise to a number of advertisers, spurring soul-searching questions about how well they understood Americans who do not live in coastal cities and what the sharp political polarization in the country meant for the messages they create.

When marketers for HP met to review a new ad campaign a month after the election, they said they found themselves asking, “Do we think the situation we are portraying here is relevant to the Trump voter?”

The result is that marketers are now making concerted efforts to learn more about Americans who live outside New York and California. HP’s recent research on marketing and political identity included visits to the swing-state cities of Cincinnati and Detroit. Late last year, the ad agency Y&R, using a division of the firm that had previously overseen cultural immersion projects in Myanmar and Ecuador, deployed strategists to immerse themselves in cities like Indianapolis and Milwaukee.

HP, which is based in Palo Alto, California, and sells personal computers and printers, used data from social media sites to figure out how people’s political bent influenced how they viewed technology and the brand’s message of “reinvention.”

“The notion was one tribe looking forward and the other tribe looking back,” Antonio Lucio, HP’s marketing chief, said in an interview. One group “derived the benefit of the Obama years in economic terms, in terms of opportunity — they’re all about technology, open systems, open society, diversity. The other one is actually like: ‘We need a reset. We’ve lost our way.'”

That second group, he said, is more “about family and community and faith and classical Americana imagery.”

The brand sought to find common ground between those “very different views of the world” through research in Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit and Richmond, Virginia, Lucio said.

“Normally in focus groups, you put like-minded people together and you get some insights,” Lucio said. “Here, you’re putting the reds and the blues together and you allow them to fight it out.”

Split into pairs or groups of four, people debated for the first half, then spent the second part finding topics that they agreed on. One of those areas was family, particularly extended family, which informed HP’s ad with the arguing sisters. The ad began running around the December holidays.

Y&R’s immersion project focused on understanding the family life and core values of people in Middle America, including their relationships with brands. These people were “frequently lumped into stereotypes or overlooked entirely by marketers,” the agency said when it announced the effort last year, adding that it hoped to emerge with insights that would improve how it communicated with such consumers.

The firm sent 14 strategists to four cities for two weeks each: Memphis, Tennessee; Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Phoenix. Moments from their journey, including visits to the rural outreaches of each city, were posted to Instagram.

A report on their findings noted that the Americans they had spoken with identified more with their communities than the nation at large and “preferred the comfort of fiery conviction to the lucidity of cold truth.” The report added that marketers should be conscious of a changing definition of success in the nation and the power of “an emotional appeal made with gumption” rather than, say, promoting a product’s superior qualities or rankings.

A spokeswoman for the agency said the research had been used in pitches to win new business.

As marketers have become more aware of “an urban-suburban-rural geographic divide,” it has had an effect on some of the settings and people who appear in advertisements, said Harris Diamond, chief executive of McCann Worldgroup. A recent Chevrolet commercial from the firm reflects that newfound awareness, he said. The ad features actual Chevy truck owners, several with Southern accents, describing the stories behind dents and scratches on their trucks.

“There has been a little bit of a reawakening to the fact that we probably went too far with respect towards pushing a sort of cosmopolitan, what some people viewed as an elitist, image,” Diamond said. “I think if you look at some of the campaigns that are out there, you will see more imagery that is more broadly associated with all of America rather than cosmopolitan America.”

As a result of its research, HP will design ads with consumers’ political leaning in mind — the same way it considers age, ethnicity and income when formulating its marketing plans, the company said in a report last month. Just as the company might design certain marketing for a Latino audience, Lucio said, “we’re going to have to test first and foremost whether a piece of content actually works across the aisle and whether there’s a possibility of custom-made content.”

More of that work will be visible over time, he said.

“We’re about to launch a campaign for the premium line, and it is going to have a couple of digital videos,” Lucio said. “And we said we have to make one for the heartland.”