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"Super interesting - a new and predictive way to understand customers."
Mark Staples, Editorial Director
McKinsey & Company

How Red and Blue Customers Explore Products

How Red and Blue Customers Explore Products

Every product or service takes a customer on a journey to varying degrees. It’s a journey to meet a need or desire, and your product is the potential ticket. Insurance is the ticket for peace of mind. Skin cream can be a ticket for self-confidence. Or a cell phone carrier can be a ticket for managing finances. So the question becomes: What kind of journey does my product offer? Liberal and conservative customers have distinct preferences for how they explore the world and products.

Customer exploration builds on the attribute of change boundaries to shed additional light on how these two groups evaluate products and consider their options. Exploration is fundamental to making a purchase decision, no matter the category, price point, or whether the journey takes five minutes or five weeks.

The Idea

It’s easy to link exploration to liberal customers because exploration feels like experiencing something very different. But it’s more nuanced than that.

Similar to change boundaries, exploration for each group is dependent on having a context of familiarity. Liberal customers will be far more willing to explore the less familiar than conservative customers, but that doesn’t mean conservative customers don’t explore. Conservative customers explore within a more familiar context.

Can you “explore” the familiar? Absolutely. Think of making a purchase decision based on evaluating already familiar brands and products versus those representing something new from an unknown business. Both scenarios represent exploration.

Familiarity becomes a boundary for exploration as it is with change. With wider change boundaries, liberal customers will more likely explore beyond their comfort zone. On the other hand, conservative customers will explore what’s proven, which expands over time as newer options or products succeed and take hold in the market. This makes the products more familiar, especially when used by like-minded customers.

The Evidence

Psychologists often employ “The Big Five” when studying personality traits - Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Openness to Experience is proven to be positively correlated with a more liberal mindset and negatively correlated with a conservative mindset. That result has been replicated in many studies.

Now let’s apply this finding to actual exploration in the form of travel. Americans have the second highest propensity for travel in the world (after the Finnish). But where do they go? If you use a national boundary as one indicator of separating the familiar from the unfamiliar, liberal customers have a higher likelihood of exploring the less familiar because they tend to head overseas.

The top ten states for holding passports on a percentage basis are all “blue,” except Alaska. Voting “blue” in elections is certainly a strong proxy for having a more liberal mindset. The bottom ten are all “red,” with no exceptions. Yet both groups spend about the same amount of money on travel.

Industry publication Travel Weekly surveyed conservative and liberal travelers and found that “liberals are more likely to gravitate more toward five categories than conservatives: exploration, experiencing different cultures, experiencing new cuisines, self-discovery and meeting new people.” The number one reason for travel for both groups was relaxation. So you can argue that when it comes to travel, both groups seek to meet a need for relaxation, but choose different environments - different products.

Now let’s look at the idea of exploring something closer to home, with food. The same predisposition holds when these two groups go out for dinner. In a Time Magazine study of 200,000 customers, liberal customers preferred “a new restaurant that blended the cuisines of two very different cultures.” Conservative customers prefer something more familiar.


The first question to ask yourself when applying exploration to your products and services is what the journey looks like when customers consider your business. Are you promising something very new and unfamiliar, or is your business a more safe alternative that feels more familiar? The answers to these questions help determine which market will be predisposed to consider buying what you have. Either market is fine, or you may want to appeal to both - you just want to be intentional about who you need as a customer to meet your objectives.

Some businesses, such as international brands, will have built-in customer predispositions that are difficult to change. For them, the brand can inherently feel unfamiliar, no matter the product. In rankings of brand reputation for liberals and conservatives from Harris Interactive, there isn’t a single international brand in the top fifteen brands for conservative customers. There are three for liberal customers, including the number one brand, Samsung.

That doesn’t mean that conservative customers won’t buy from international brands. Instead, it means they will consume products from these brands once they become more familiar due to social proof. The liberal market will precede the conservative market, likely resulting in liberal-skewing customers. There are exceptions. Lexus is an international brand that skews conservative because the luxury sedan category as a whole skews conservative.

Any business can tap into how each group wants to explore, whether it involves the unfamiliar or familiar. This attribute can apply to brand, product design, product features, retail distribution, and communications. Choosing between the unfamiliar and familiar is not difficult - it’s just a matter of aligning the choice to your desired market.

This article originally appeared in the Red and Blue Customers newsletter

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