Since graduating college in 1991, I’ve had the privilege to live and work in two amazing US cities – New York and San Francisco. Both of these cities are great places to live and to visit, but the experience of life there isn’t even close to being representative of the rest of the country Â - and importantly, of the people you as a marketer want to use your brand.
Letâ€™s start with some facts â€“ which continue to shock and awe many marketers:
-The average household income is $50,054 (SF Gate via US Census Bureau, 2011 data)
-The average Â family savings account balance is $3,800; 25% of families have no savings at all (statisticbrain.com via IRS and Federal Reserve)
-The median age for marriage is 26.6 among women, 28.6 for men (About.com via US Census Bureau, 2012 data)
-The average age for women to have their first baby is 25.1 (Babycenter.com via CDC, 2008 data)
One of my favorite stories of shock and awe happened when I was an Account Executive at an advertising agency in NYC.Â The president of my clientâ€™s division â€“ company not to be named, but the product was canned pasta â€“ decided that their â€śnew & improvedâ€ť canned pasta should sell for 50Â˘ more than the current product, and that we should explore how to talk to consumers about the increase in quality and price. We were in Charlotte, doing research with their target audience â€“ lower-income families.Â A woman whose profile stated that her family of 5 lived on an income of $15,000-$19,999 looked the moderator squarely in the eye and said (Iâ€™m paraphrasing here, as the conversation happened in 1996): â€śyou tell that rich president of your company that while heâ€™s in his big office in the big city, Iâ€™m trying to feed my family.Â And just because your price goes up 50Â˘ doesnâ€™t mean I get another 50Â˘ in my grocery budget. It just means I will have to buy less food.â€ť
I had a similar experience as a moderator, just a few years ago.Â I was doing research with people who use pre-paid debit cards, focusing on single mothers who make less than $25,000 per year.Â We sometimes do a â€ślotteryâ€ť where all respondents who get to the facility 10 minutes before group start time have a chance to win another $50 on top of their incentive.Â As I walked out of the room to get final questions from the backroom, one woman asked â€śdo you know who won the lottery?â€ť and I said Iâ€™d find out. When I came back in, I casually mentioned that oh yeah, Jacquie had won the lottery. Jacquie, a single-mom working at Wal-Mart, began to cryÂ – and the other women in the room hugged and congratulated her for the win.
And recently, working on a project for a TV network, there was absolute silence in the room when listening to the tape of an ethno where a 42 year-old mom from outside Atlanta talked about being ready for her youngest to go off to college. Shock and Awe – because everyone in the room was either waiting to have kids or had kids in diapers or kindergarten.
These are the moments that can define you as a brand strategist, marketer or researcher.Â Do you really understand and empathize with your audience â€“ their challenges, joys, stresses? Do you know how they use their money, their time, what they value? Can you have compassion for their difficult realities? It really is so easy to think about the world through a very fortunate (and often hard earned), but less relevant, lens.Â So, what to do to avoid the troublesome â€śshock and aweâ€ť? A few thoughts:
- Be armed with the facts â€“ not big sweeping numbers that belittle reality (e.g. $50,000+), but a real and thoughtful overview of what your consumersâ€™ lives are like
- Talk to your consumers â€“ lots of them – in their real life environments, as often as you can
- Do research outside your comfort zone â€“ instead of LA and NY, consider Sacramento and Baltimore (and keep in mind, Chicago does not represent the entire middle of the country)
- Never ever make a decision based on what you, your family or your friends might like (unless the category/product skews to people of your socio-economic level)
- Ensure that the senior decision makers are engaged with #1-4
At the end of the day, for most brands, the â€śreal peopleâ€ť who live outside of the major business centers can make or break your business.Â Avoid the shock and awe (in your financials) by really getting to know them.
Sara Schor, Sterling Strategy