America, like the rest of the world, has seen dramatic transformation in recent years. Economic, social and cultural change has made people increasingly confused and anxious. Every day they are bombarded with ‘uncertainty’ news. They are feeling the pressure financially, and in their overall sense of security.
Trusted institutions have proved to be unworthy of the public’s goodwill, whether banks, big business, politicians or media channels. This has resulted in an increased sense of cynicism towards ‘big brands’ and their claims. The audience is less willing to believe the hype, and much more focused on coping with their everyday pressures and realities.
Previously, there was a lower-income American audience segment that was easy to define by their socio-economic indicators. These were the people who were facing a pressured financial reality: struggling with money and struggling to find opportunities for themselves and their families. It used to be the case that this was more prevalent within certain key cities and states.
However, the new ‘anxiety cohort’ is in evidence right across America which includes, but is not limited to, lower-income Americans. This is an audience that is defined as much by their attitudes and behaviours as by their demographics. They are united by their experience of modern America, rather than their racial, ethnic or socio-economic characteristics. To some extent, these are the lost Americans, irrespective of whether they are from a blue collar or white-collar background.
This cohort is cross-demographic but their attitudes tend to be socially conservative. Their beliefs and experiences unite them, leading to shared responses to the modern world – and specifically the modern America – around them. They have all-but given up on trusting authority. They are inherently cynical of anything beyond their immediate experience and control. They believe in the American dream – but do not feel it is delivering for them.
Behaviourally, in their everyday lives, this frustrated audience is just focused on providing for their families and creating the best life they can in difficult and seemingly unfair circumstances. This takes two forms: ‘coping’ (trying to get by) and ‘edging’ (trying to get ahead, even if only in small ways). Most of their lives they are coping but, when they can, they look for ways to gain an advantage.
That’s why many of these people voted for Donald Trump. It was a reaction to the status quo, which they believe has worked against them for too long, leading to their having to cope. They want to believe that Donald Trump will “drain the swamp” and provide opportunities for them to edge ahead.
It is the changes in the modern world which have created moments of disruption which switch the cohort’s cognitive processes from ‘normative’ to ‘informational’ social influence.
NORMATIVE SOCIAL INFLUENCE (NSI): this is the normal default position of the audience. They know which factors, e.g. brands or political parties, they like, they know how the category normally behaves. They don’t waste too much time thinking about their habitual decisions.
THE DISRUPTION MOMENT(S): the audience’s brand (or the category) suddenly does something that ‘jolts’ the audience to reconsider their choices. This is the moment that the audience switches from being less aware, to more aware: they actively start to think about their relationship to their brand and to the particular category.
INFORMATIONAL SOCIAL INFLUENCE (ISI): the audience is now searching for new information to help them make up their mind about their brand / the category. Depending on what they hear at this stage, they will either go back to their original low-interest relationship to the brand or, if they hear negative views, they will switch out.
Assessed based on the available evidence, this cognitive switch happened during the election of President Trump:
NORMATIVE SOCIAL INFLUENCE (NSI): the ‘anxiety cohort’ – especially in the poorer ‘rust belt’ states – had given up on the whole political process. They didn’t normally vote because they didn’t feel politics represented or positively influenced their everyday lives.
THE DISRUPTION MOMENT(S): Donald Trump entered the political fray. As an anti-politics candidate, he disrupted the normal flow of politics to such an extent that a previously disaffected audience suddenly sat up and took notice.
INFORMATIONAL SOCIAL INFLUENCE (ISI): this audience cohort searched around for information. Their trusted news outlets and friends were saying that Trump was going to be the first politician to help the everyday Americans: those who, they felt, other politicians had treated as worthless. Suddenly the audience felt politics was relevant to their everyday lives.
They voted, often for the very first time, for Donald Trump. However, it should be recognized that, while they have put their faith in him, they are cautious to believe in him unconditionally. He may turn out to be just another over-promising authority figure.
Talking with this ‘anxiety cohort’.
They have become more active: reclaiming their pride with every purchase or vote. They are demonstrating to themselves and others that they are taking back control through their choices. Their sense of identity, therefore, is made not from their demographics but from their recognition of the attitudes that make them part of the new cohort (self-actualisation). Brands must reflect and espouse these attitudes and values to cut through and stand a chance of being adopted by this cohort.
Yes, these people still want value. However, because they are unifying as more of a powerful group in their own right in modern America (feeling that they have been directly responsible for electing the president), they want more. This increased sense of expectation and opportunity needs to be reflected in brand offers.
The real success of brands targeted at this audience will come from demonstrating that their offer is not simply a matter of value, but also a tangible way in which the audience can edge ahead as a consequence of buying into them. Brands should be positioned as in some way re-righting the wrongs of other more established and / or expensive competitors.
Communications to, and conversation with, this audience must demonstrate that the cohort is taking a tangible step forward and that their new opportunities are being realized. Putting them in control of their immediate ‘here and now’, even in a small way.