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Red and Blue Brands: New Harris Data, Seven Takeaways

Red and Blue Brands: New Harris Data, Seven Takeaways

Liberal and conservative customers value brands differently, according to new Harris-Axios poll data. The stark differences in the rankings reveal that, more often than not, there are two markets with different wants, needs, and desires. Moreover, those two markets - conservative and liberal - can rank the same brand highly, but for different reasons. There’s a lot to study here. 

A note about the chart: The Harris data ranks “brand reputation,” a strong indicator for a market having a positive market predisposition. The Harris study also labels the two groups as “Democrat” and “Republican.” We’ve replaced those labels with “Liberal” and “Conservative” because it’s the worldview that matters for brands and businesses, not the political party.

Politics is just one expression of a customer worldview. The brands customers buy, where they choose to live, and even their choice of profession are other expressions of worldview. Certainly, there is a very high correlation today between worldview and political party affiliation, making the label switch easy. 

Let’s look at seven takeaways from this data.

1. For most brands, half the national market is far more efficient

Two-thirds of the top fifteen brands lean significantly toward conservative or liberal markets. That means one of the two markets is more efficient than the other in terms of customer acquisition cost and value. The business question is one of alignment - if optimizing to one group or both makes more sense. For some brands, geographic location will answer this question. If the brand is in predominantly liberal or conservative customer markets, focusing on one worldview and how those customers think may make more sense. 

By proactively looking at customer worldview - without invoking politics - brands can better understand potential alignment to create a stronger product-market fit. It starts with comparing customer worldview to that of the market to see what opportunities there are. See this article for a detailed example of evaluating markets, businesses, and communications.

2. Technology companies struggle with conservative customers unless they evoke status (Samsung, IBM, Microsoft, Apple)

Three technology companies - Samsung, IBM, and Microsoft - rank in the top fifteen for liberal customers but not conservative customers. Technology companies routinely make conservative customers work harder to buy products because they often unwittingly project a more liberal worldview. When technology companies talk about the future, change, and “making the world a better place,” they tap into core elements of a liberal worldview. One result of this is measurable lower trust in technology companies among conservative customers, as reported separately by Pew Research.

When customers have to overcome worldview misalignment, they will cost more to acquire and keep. For some technology brands, there may be no misalignment if the primary market has a more liberal worldview. For example, if a technology brand sells to a predominantly younger and/or more urban audience, aligning with a more liberal worldview will support business objectives. See this article for a deeper exploration of how conservative and liberal customers view technology.

Then there is Apple, which ranks high for both groups. Apple appears on both lists because Apple has the advantage of evoking status for both liberals and conservatives. Yet status means two different things for liberal and conservative customers, leading us to the next takeaway.

3. Brands with status align with both worldviews, but in very different ways (Apple, Patagonia)

Apple and Patagonia are both breakthrough brands from a worldview perspective - they have a powerful appeal to both conservative and liberal customers. What they share in achieving this success relates to customer perception of status and how they expanded from one group to the other. All three started with a foundation of more liberal customers and, with success as status brands, bridged into conservative markets.

When you study American liberalism and conservatism using research in social anthropology, you see how each group thinks differently about status and many other attributes. For conservative markets, status supports hierarchy and is positional. Conservative status evokes strength and power. Status is also a way to signal achievement for conservatives, resulting from the individualist view that the world is meritocratic and the best people always rise to the top. On this front, status brands evoke proof of a customer having “arrived,” with products acting as signals of success.

For markets with a more liberal worldview, status is more social. Brands with social status make customers look interesting, smart, worldly, and cool vs. powerful or strong. Liberal customers, however, also share some attributes of individualism, with products potentially acting as signals for success. American individualism runs through liberal and conservative markets but is sometimes expressed differently. 

An interesting example of how a brand grew into a larger market by tapping into two different perceptions of status is Tesla. Most of the overall demand for electric vehicles (EVs) is from liberal customers. Yet Tesla was the first EV that could evoke status by building premium EVs. For the liberal market, it combined the draw of an EV with signals of social status.

As the brand grew, more and more conservative customers purchased Teslas as it became clear that the cars could also evoke positional status because they were premium luxury cars. Certainly, Elon Musk affects the brand’s perception with his 100 million Twitter followers, but this study came out before he announced a personal shift toward the Republican Party. Conservative customers came after liberal customers and before all of the recent news about Elon Musk. 

4. Brands can achieve success by optimizing to one worldview (USAA, Target)

Business success does not require remaining neutral to conservative and liberal markets to maximize results. Each market is big as the country is split almost evenly down the middle. That translates into about 130 million adults in each group, with about the same average income.

USAA is a case in point. Their market is pretty conservative as they sell financial services to active members of the armed forces, veterans, and their families. By analyzing political contribution data, we can see that the market includes Marines (80% conservative), Air Force (80% conservative), Army (56% conservative), and Navy (54% conservative). Certainly, there is a market for USAA products with more liberal customers, but it’s smaller.

USAA can easily express conservative values - without invoking politics - using themes such as empathy for family, an assured future, winning, and more. However, USAA can also approach the more liberal market in a segmented fashion, targeting them with messaging that invokes more liberal cognitive themes. It’s a critical business strategy decision for any brand – how to best align with each worldview and whether to focus on one or the other.  

On the flip side, Target ranks highest for reputation among those with a liberal worldview. A separate analysis by Morning Consult confirms the liberal leanings of Target customers, so they are achieving success with more liberal alignment. Much of it may come from their internal culture, leadership, and locations. Note this statement about brand and design by Target’s Chief Creative Officer, Todd Waterbury: “ . . . we see the space to go somewhere new and create something better. What began as a radical declaration—Design for All—has become an integral part of Target’s brand.” That statement touches on several liberal worldview attributes even though he may not realize it. 

The answers seem obvious when you operate within a liberal or conservative worldview, even though the other worldview may react against the solution. Unfortunately, it’s easy to project your own worldview onto the market without realizing it. In the case of Target, store locations in more conservative areas may have lower margins, less traffic, or lower customer value. 

5. International brands will often skew liberal (Samsung, Toyota, Honda)

It’s striking how many brands based outside of the U.S. appear on the ranking for liberals but not for conservatives. For automakers Toyota and Honda, this has enormous implications as they compete with GM, which ranks high with conservative customers.

When you look at this ranking of international brands through a social anthropology lens, you discover that these brands reflect the liberal worldview’s predisposition to seeking new experiences, international travel, and experiencing different cultures. Customers with a liberal worldview will explore and experiment more than conservative customers. In addition, international brands can tap tap into attributes related to self-expression and social status.

Markets with a conservative worldview will have more empathy for their country than liberals, giving domestic brands like GM an ability to resonate more. It’s why you see conservative businesses emphasize “Made in America.” When worldview is expressed in politics, it’s why conservatives will show the American flag more often than liberals. It doesn’t mean liberals aren’t patriotic, but their empathies aren’t as high for the country.

6. Large restaurant chains lean conservative, driven by culture and location (Chick-fil-A)

The largest, most successful restaurant chains are often founded by conservatives, creating a conservative culture and potentially projecting a conservative image. They also tend to be in more suburban and exurban areas than urban ones, so the alignment between founders and locations can be pretty strong. This is certainly true for Chick-fil-A. 

Other conservative national restaurant chains include Applebee’s, IHOP, Outback Steakhouse, Wendy’s, White Castle, Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Chili’s, Dairy Queen, Panera Bread, McDonald’s, and Olive Garden. All of these brands have made substantially larger donations to conservative causes than liberal ones, reflecting the predispositions of leadership. The exceptions include Dunkin Brands, which donates equally to both liberal and conservative causes, and Chipotle and Starbucks, which both donate predominantly to liberal causes, have more liberal cultures and are in more urban settings.

Aligning with one worldview may make sense from a business strategy perspective until a chain wants a more significant presence outside of markets where they align with one worldview. The impact on efficient growth outside liberal or conservative markets can be significant.

7. What unites us during a pandemic: Groceries (Trader Joe’s, H-E-B)

As Axios reported, grocery chains across the board surged in brand reputation during the pandemic. Two brands cut across the worldview divide - Trader Joe’s and H-E-B - despite each having roots with a specific worldview, liberal and conservative, respectively. What’s striking is how different these two brands are from a customer worldview perspective. Conservatives and liberals may not agree on much, but groceries are clearly a potential source of common ground.

Conclusion: The list could be far longer, demonstrating how a substantial majority of all brands appeal to conservative or liberal customers.

If the list in the chart showed the top fifteen thousand brands rather than fifteen, the trends would be the same. Most brands will skew to one worldview or the other. For any business, there is an opportunity to maximize growth and efficiency by evaluating the alignment between the brand, its customers, the market, and the brand’s communications.  

Few businesses today evaluate their markets this way because it can feel like politics. You can remove politics from the equation if you focus on customer worldview and the differences in how each group thinks. You will undoubtedly discover new insights into your customers that you can leverage to achieve stronger growth and efficiency. 

Originally published in the newsletter, Red and Blue Customers

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