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Customer Attribute: Success

Customer Attribute: Success

Everyone wants to be successful, but what does success mean? A strict definition of success is the achievement of a desirable goal. But what’s the desirable goal?

As it turns out, American conservative and liberal customers think the same and differently about what success looks like. The answers touch on wealth, position, empathy, social differentiation themes, and more. The answers also determine if your customers think your products make them successful or not.

Success is one of thirty-one attributes that this newsletter and the forthcoming book explore to help delineate conservative and liberal markets. Together these attributes form a system for creating a stronger product-market fit to drive growth and efficiency at a very low cost. The objective is to help your business think more like your market. These attributes won’t explain every individual or even yourself, but they will describe themes and undercurrents that run through groups of people - your customers and markets.

Success is one of the most interesting attributes because it’s tied to what a customer wants and how they want to be perceived by others at home, in their community, and at work. Brand choice and product selection are ways a customer can create a persona that reflects a particular vision of success.

When diving into specific attributes like success, I’ll draw upon three sources of evidence: our foundational model for conservative and liberal customers based on social anthropology, the historical roots for how the two groups formed, and available contemporary research.

The foundational model was developed in a previous article, so I won’t discuss the details again here. But here’s the summary diagram for reference.



Remember that there is variation in thematic strength both horizontally and vertically. In other words, customers can exhibit stronger or more moderate tendencies with liberal-egalitarian or conservative-positional themes. Individualist themes underlying both groups also vary in strength.

The Individualist Foundation for American Success

For many liberal and conservative American customers - but certainly, not all - success means financial success. This reflects the Individualist foundation for both groups. The more money you make or have, the more “successful” you are.

For example, The Wall Street Journal reports on this measurement of success through daily reporting of competing businesses and people. There are winners and losers, and the winners are bigger, more profitable, raise more money, or achieve another financial goal. This focus on economic measures for success carries over to their reporting of college rankings, which weighs the financial outcomes of graduates at different schools far more than other factors, such as resources or environment.

Silicon Valley represents a moderately liberal-egalitarian culture yet is also very individualist. Success in Silicon Valley means mostly financial success, even with mild moderation from more liberal-egalitarian attributes. Meritocracy - a foundational element of an individualist culture - is very strong in technology companies. Signals of success in Silicon Valley combine individualist and liberal-egalitarian elements, which are reflected in clothing, automobiles, travel destinations, and more.

Financial measures of success work for more individualist customers but not for those who lean more liberal-egalitarian or conservative-positional. Financial success bears little relevance as a primary measure for those who wish to work in education, the arts, non-profits, armed forces, protective services, or government service.

You can undoubtedly find individualist competition and meritocracy in any profession, industry, or employment sector. Yet it may be moderated by the attributes of egalitarian and positional group cultures.

Egalitarian and Positional Influences on Success Perception

When customers are more liberal-egalitarian or conservative-positional relative to the individualist foundation, success themes emerge that differentiate the two groups.

Liberal-egalitarian culture promotes success that can operate in a more “flat” environment versus a more hierarchical one that may work better for conservative-positional customers. Success for more liberal customers can be expressed in many ways, but the expression always operates within a culture model that seeks to maintain equality and egalitarian ideals.

Expressions of liberal customer success include achieving distinction without being tied to hierarchy. Success can also come from innovation, reflecting the group’s tendency to search for new answers instead of relying on tradition. Success for more liberal customers can also be derived from the group’s natural tendency to "equalize” everyone within a more flat culture. Here success means helping others, whether in education, non-profits, or specific areas of government service. In all cases, success tends to exist “off to the side” rather than representing a striving to be “above.”

For more conservative customers, success can be tied to position and hierarchy. “Rank” can be an indicator of success in this case. Conservative customers tend to consume products and services that help them move through a hierarchy or signal achievement. Rank implies a source of power and control. The success measures are more apparent because the established hierarchy delineates distinct levels.

Businesses can have cultures that are either more “flat” and “consensus-driven” versus “command and control.” These cultural differences reflect, to a degree, more liberal versus conservative attributes that signal to staff how to succeed. Both can be effective, depending on the type of business, objectives, and strategies. Certainly, different areas of a larger company may need to employ different modes of measuring success to achieve its goals.

The Historical Roots of Red and Blue Success

The roots of liberal and conservative success attributes can be traced to events from the early 1900s when the two similar-sized markets emerged.

The liberal customer desire to define success through distinction, uniqueness, innovation, and equality can be traced to the start of urban modernism following the Second Industrial Revolution and World War I. Urban modernism centered on rejecting past hierarchy and tradition in favor of exploring new ideas and searching for universal truths. That searching leads to continuous experimentation and making things new, all while avoiding hierarchical structure.

The conservative customer desire to define success through tradition and hierarchy can be traced to the rejection of urbanization and modernism in favor of a more traditional way of life, sometimes defined within the context of rural values and ideals. Urban modernism and rural conservatism created parallel paths in developing philosophy, literature, architecture, arts, and ultimately, culture, customers and markets.

Research: Horizontal, Vertical, Differentiation, and Position

Nailya Ordabayeva, now an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Daniel Fernandes, while at the Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, studied liberal and conservative customers and what made them different. They published their results in the Journal of Consumer Research.

They comment, “We propose that conservatism leads consumers to pursue vertical differentiation in the hierarchy through products that signal they are better than others, and liberalism leads consumers to pursue horizontal differentiation in the hierarchy through products that signal that they are unique from others.” Their research employed test brands and statements to support their findings.

For example, the brand Ralph Lauren demonstrated support for more vertical differentiation and was associated more strongly with conservative customers. Conversely, Urban Outfitters demonstrated more horizontal differentiation and was strongly associated with liberal customers.

The researchers ran a similar comparison test with different statements about the color red. When research participants were presented with the idea that red was associated with luxury, it supported more vertical differentiation and alignment with conservative customers. When red was associated with non-conformity and difference, it supported more horizontal differentiation and alignment with liberal customers.

Research Nuances

There is an interesting alignment between the customer model, historical roots, and contemporary research when considering different definitions of success. Where alignment can sometimes go a little sideways is with contemporary research that doesn’t account for the underlying foundation for both groups - individualism.

For example, when considering statements about the color red in the research study above, “luxury” is construed as vertical and conservative. There are undoubtedly liberal customers with stronger individualist tendencies who covet luxury brands as a signal of financial achievement (as well as other reasons, like status, which will be explored in future issues).

Balancing liberal-egalitarian and individualist tendencies provide a more nuanced understanding of American liberal customers. For conservative customers, it’s the balancing of conservative-positional and individualist tendencies. The study might have achieved stronger correlations if the researchers had framed the questions with this in mind.

Making it Work for You

Your business can leverage these insights to understand better how it makes your customers more successful. These ideas can influence business, product, retail, distribution, and communications decisions.

The first step is to look at customer worldview as liberal or conservative and compare it to your market. Your brand, products, retail stores, website, and mobile apps are opportunities to better align with how your market thinks. How each of these assets makes a customer feel and look successful is an opportunity for creating a stronger fit. See this article for a more detailed discussion on assessing and optimizing your business to customer and market worldview.

This article originally appeared 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