The Politics of Market Research

Back in 2006, I was working fairly closely with my mother’s company, Market Research Dallas and that included attending Market Research conventions. The Southwest Market Research Association (SWMRA) always meet in Las Vegas around March or so, and, being a gambler at heart, I was always more than happy to attend this conference. Melissa Pepper of Tammadge Market Research in Austin recommended that we have a round table discussion of the book, Applebee’s America. So I read it.

The basic thesis of the book is that American’s tend to organize themselves into groups that hold a similar lifestyle and “gut values” (a term which the authors return to ad nauseam through every aggravating chapter) and that 90% of the people in these groups are sheep which will look to the leaders of these lifestyle oriented cliques to learn (according to the book):

  • Where they should live
  • What products they should use
  • And who they should vote for

The book reeks of the typical business book whereby most traditional business processes like customer relations are suddenly reinvented in the author’s particular paradigm to become never before seen concepts that sound amazing, but, upon reflection, are really just a slick repackaging of the same ideas. The book comes back to the term “Gut Values Connection” over and over again as the way to build customer relations, and by that it means that what you do is not as important to people as what you stand for. The book goes into explicit detail of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election strategy and boils it down to the idea that the majority of Americans disagreed with Bush’s decisions, but that he was able to win American’s over by what he stood for in their minds.

The book recounts a number of conversations between people who seem to have voted for Bush despite not agreeing with the War on Terror or his fiscal policies because his campaign presented him as a straight-forward and simple man of principle as opposed to Kerry who was a elitist flip-flopper. The also recount a number of other conversations about people who voted for Bush simply because they wanted to belong with the group their neighbors belonged to (i.e. The Republicans) and voting for Bush allowed them to do that in their minds.

Of course, I hated Bush then and I hate him now. I had a difficult time reading accounts of Americans who voted for him either just because everyone else was or because his marketing presented him as a trustworthy guy when any close scrutiny of his administration’s policies as compared to his campaign pledges or his willingness to simply lie to get the country behind him made me want to pull my hair out. The book confirmed for me again and again that Americans were sheep who were being lead to the slaughter, but I’m now recounting this book, not as someone who is disgusted with American politics, but someone who is interested in marketing.

In essence, this book says to that how you appear to people is far more important than how you actually are; a truism that’s nothing new to marketing. But it gives different reasons than the traditional marketing textbook. According to them, it’s not your advertising or your product that determines whether you win or lose but how you relate to the community you’re trying to serve and how the image you project intersects with their core values. Their other primary example is Applebee’s restaurant which grew to dominate the casual dining business despite the fact that their food continually rated behind their competitors. They did this by building relationships with their surrounding community by doing things such as:

  • Putting plaques and trophies of the local little league sports team in the restaurant
  • Putting up pictures of their regular customers by the tables they liked to sit at
  • And endeavoring to learn the quirky preferences of their customers and make them feel at home by having their quirky preferences on hand when they arrived. (The example from the book was the Coronatini, a Corona beer served with olives, that a customer always ordered and how hard the Applebees worked to ensure that it always had olives ready, to the point of driving to the local grocery when they saw him arrive).

The disconnectedness of modern Americans is what the book keeps coming back to. Applebee’s was able to grow is restaurant business despite having worse food than its competitors by giving them a place to feel connected to their community. Similarly, megachurchs (which the book also spends a good deal of time on) allow for small groups to form which engender a sense of belonging and shared values. If one can appeal to these communities and their shared values, then one can win over the consumers despite having a less than stellar offering.

Furthermore, the book argues that roughly one in ten members of these communities tell the other nine how to think, what to buy, and who to vote for and that Bush’s 2004 re-election was made possible only by reaching out the these “navigators” and turning them onto George Bush. Finding and communicating with these navigators then (according to them anyway) is the key to controlling the members of a given community and, thereby, the key to controlling the nation. Therefore, according to the book, to gain ultimate control of the nations populace all one has to do is monitor the consumptive trends of certain demographic groups, use market research to find out what these demographics “gut values” are, and maintain a dialogue with the various group’s navigators. Given that this is an extremely market research intensive process, it’s little wonder we were reading it as part of a market research conference.

The predictions of this book have not been borne out by later events. At least, not for the Republicans. Applebee’s Ameican says that the Republicans had a huge lead on the Democrats in terms of using their “life targeting” techniques to identify navigators and in different cultural niches and that the Democrats would have to catch up or be left behind. However, D Magazine reported that the Republicans faired very poorly in the 2006 election despite (or perhaps because of) their dependance on this new way of thinking. Election consultants said that the North Texas Republican efforts were “too fancy” and that it cost them a lot of positions to the Democrats.

Of course, I’m going to assume that the authors of Applebee’s America would say that this is simply because the Republican party was no longer making a “gut values connection” with voters anymore, but the horror stories of Republican door-to-door vote canvassers who were finding a hostile audience of non-Republicans who “kicked them off their driveways and yelled at them.” That indicates a fundamental disconnect between the people that they were trying to reach and the people whose doors they were ringing, and that would indicate a flawed methodology.

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