Last year I conducted extensive research throughout the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. The purpose of the research was to understand people who purchase and use four-wheel off-road vehicles (i.e., side by side vehicles (SxS)). For example, I met and interviewed owners of Polaris Rangers, Kawasaki Mules, and Honda Pioneers. I visited dealerships and stayed in local communities to gain a holistic perspective of these diverse communities.

From farmers to hunters, landscape companies to recreational users (e.g., trail riding), I met and interviewed hundreds of people. Living in California does not provide a realistic understanding of these potential customers. You need to meet them in their element. You need to drive the same streets they do, eat at the local restaurants they visit, and listen to their needs and frustrations. You need to sit in their kitchens and listen to their stories, go trail riding with them, and understand their purchasing behaviors and decision cycles.

I sat in freezing cold barns interviewing retirees who hobby farm. I drove with SxS owners on trails to understand how they use the products. And I met farmers to understand how the SxS vehicles help them get jobs done. It was a whirlwind of flying and driving thousands of miles, crisscrossing states for weeks at a time. It was a great excuse to escape the office.

The insights were used to guide new product development and help improve sales and marketing tactics. We wanted to create improved marketing messaging and imagery to better connect with this consumer base. After the exploratory research, I came across a great book that helped solidify our insights and helped develop our overall theoretical model of the situation.

Paul Jankowski wrote an excellent book titled, Speak American Too: Your Guide to Building Powerful Brands in the New Heartland. For marketers targeting the “Heartland” or rural America, this should be a required reading. It is a great read that presents a real and actionable overview of a target segment that most brands stereotype incorrectly or just avoid.

Jankowski is the President and Chief Strategist of The New Heartland Group (https://newheartlandgroup.com/). Located in Nashville, TN the New Heartland Group is a brand strategy, content creation, digital marketing and branded entertainment agency. The Group creates messaging and engagement platforms that connect with consumers in the New Heartland. In the book, Jankowski provides an excellent overview of this region and provides a guide for marketers to better engage with this untapped market.

The New Heartland consists of 26 states. Not just the Midwest, but outlying states that share the same values, beliefs, and activities. The list consist of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, southern Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, northern Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

The geographic profile of The New Heartland allows for a large agricultural economic base as well as opportunities for outdoor hobbies. These geographic characteristics (e.g., large tracts of land, flat and fertile earth, rivers, lakes) shape the mindset and activities of these people. The problem is that for most East and West Coast brand decision makers, they just don’t understand the region or people. It is extremely difficult to have a grasp of this segment without living there or spending a large amount of time interacting with these people. Most brands just don’t understand these customers and develop sales and marketing activities with outdated assumptions. Marketers continue to adopt past stereotypes which do not connect to these diverse customers.

So what should marketers do to improve the effectiveness of their marketing activities? First, read Jankowski’s book. Next, get out of the office and take a road trip. Meet customers on their own turf. Talk to them and understand their behaviors, needs, and wants.

The New Heartland is not just a bunch of white farmers. The region is comprised of a diverse group of people; different ethnicities, experiences, and desires. Jankowski identifies three key values which New Heartland people share openly in their daily lives:

  • Faith (not necessarily religion),
  • Dedication to local communities
  • Devotion to family (relationships beyond blood ties

Jankowski stresses the shared sets of values that people in The New Heartland live by. Unfortunately, many brands miss these key points. Focusing on faith (not religion), community (relationships/shared values), and family (relationships beyond blood ties) will allow marketers to engage much better. In addition, Jankowski notes Five Channels of Access for maximum engagement:

  1. Music – country, rock, etc.
  2. Food – BBQ, etc.
  3. Sports – college sports, NASCAR, youth sports, golf, etc.
  4. Outdoors – hunting, fishing
  5. Social Media

Too many brands focus on the East and West coasts, either ignoring the New Heartland or basing business decisions on incorrect assumptions. Reading Jankowski’s excellent book provides a guide to understand the region and its culture, as well as providing a blueprint to effectively design campaigns to engage with the people within this region. Speak American Too: Your Guide to Building Powerful Brands in the New Heartland is an excellent source of information to help reach and influence this hugely untapped customer segment. There are many opportunities for brands to enter new markets and properly engage with these customers.

From my personal experience, the time and effort to learn about this region was invaluable. Leveraging the new insights gained from the exploratory research resulted in the development of new sales and marketing strategies and tactics. In addition, the new insights provided learnings to improve segmentation and empower local businesses to better engage with several untapped customer segments.

I highly recommend Jankowski’s book. It is a great read and can provide excellent “nuggets” to improve your marketing activities. In addition, the book can be a great supplement to field trips to the region. One or two weeks driving around back country roads, eating at local restaurants, and engaging with people in their own environment provides learnings not gained from static data.

So, read the book as part of your exploratory research and hit the road! The New Heartland is waiting for brands that “get” the people in this region and provide them with solutions to meet their very diverse set of needs (compared to East and West coast attitudes, values, and beliefs). The more you understand these middle-Americans, how the geography helps shape who they are, and how their value structures differ from communities on the West and upper East Coasts, the better equipped you will be to succeed.

References

Speak American Too: Your Guide to Building Powerful Brands in the New Heartland by Paul Jankowski

https://newheartlandgroup.com/

https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauljankowski/2017/03/16/when-it-comes-to-the-new-heartland-seeing-is-believing/#b67c8e28d4ab

https://www.forbes.com/sites/pauljankowski/2017/01/06/series-exactly-where-and-what-is-the-heartland/