America isn’t a homogenous country. How localized should advertising go?
While President Obama presided over the annual custom of pardoning some Thanksgiving turkeys last week, it was different here in Seattle: Our mayor pardoned a box of Tofurky. Seriously.
Such an oddity fits in with the culture here. But let the mayors of Kansas City or Omaha try that and see what the reaction would be.
Having lived and worked in the Northeast, Deep South, Rust Belt, Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest, I can attest that America — or ‘Murica if you prefer — is a big country where people, attitudes, and purchasing habits can be quite different. It’s not just a land homogenized with Applebee's and Best Buys, even if it appears that way.
So how do marketers keep up? Can small brands customize their appeal to people in different parts of America as effectively as big brands? Is it worth the time and effort to acknowledge local or regional differences?
The old figure of speech was that marketers needed to see if something “plays in Peoria” before it would ultimately be successful. But Peoria doesn’t have a Whole Foods or Uber service, at least not yet. And that doesn’t mean its residents are less worthy or less desirous to marketers, they just live a little differently.
Regional or local targeting is yet another very complex area brands are grappling with. While we have the ability to reach people with different marketing messages based on where they live, it takes more labor to do it effectively. Often, it’s the less sexy ad work — display ads, search results, Facebook posts, emails, direct mail — that’s most often localized by large brands. I notice it the instant I open a browser when traveling in another city. The ads, news articles, and other content seem a little more focused on where I am.
Marketers who automate the process of localizing their digital marketing increase the probability of getting it right, but they still leave room for error. It also takes heavy doses of regional insight, and the ability for us in advertising to understand people we don’t necessarily live near or socialize with.
Many stores do have the merchandise mix regionally balanced. It’s why you likely won’t find too many snow shovels in a south Florida Home Depot. But in terms of marketing and messaging, few brands take advantage of the differences in the mindsets of Americans in different parts of the country. I’ll never forget working on a tourism account where the head AE seriously said of our target market “They drink Coke” as if it was a deep insight and a distinguishing characteristic.
Advertising and marketing people also must keep in mind that that brands can mean different things to different people based on where they live. For example, we have a Carhartt store in downtown Seattle, which I guarantee you isn’t often frequented by those whose jobs require them to get dirty.
More effective localization requires deeper strategic thinking, perhaps even multiple creative briefs, or at least a detailed breakdown of regional nuances for every assignment. And the incremental sales or awareness gains may not be worth all the time and effort spent to localize everything. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that few brands I’ve ever worked on, or agencies I’ve worked with, ever really drilled deep into regional or local differences with real insight.
Still, we need to be careful not to overgeneralize about Americans, even if every media outlet seems to do it (and I do it, too.) I’ve read many stories about how Millennials tend not to value car ownership these days. While it may be a considerable expense, a car or truck is still a necessity for most people who don’t live in an urban area, near any sort of rapid transit, or who have a decent-sized commute. That’s not going to change in many parts of America, in any generation.
There was a poll popping up on my Facebook page recently asking people, “How many states have you visited?” I think everyone in advertising and marketing should tackle a few new ones in 2015, like I intend to. That doesn’t mean visiting the requisite hipster coffee shop or boutique hotel in a city as advertising people often do.
Getting out of your time zone and getting out of your comfort zone are two different things. I was reminded of that last week as I was flying back home from Las Vegas, which in many ways is the precise opposite of Seattle in terms of its attitude and people. We left 70-degree weather and landed in the snow. Good old American dollars work equally well in both cities, but I could clearly see that they’re not spent the same way in each city.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
Visit his copywriting website, see his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.
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