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When Being Normal Slows Business Growth

When Being Normal Slows Business Growth

We think of ourselves as normal, yet everyone else seems to do things differently. At an airport, we may glance across the terminal and notice someone and think, “how odd.” Then, when you look away, they look at you and think the same thing. We chalk it up to “different strokes for different folks” or “it takes all kinds.”

It’s not a problem until we project our sense of normality onto our business, markets, and customers to make big strategic decisions. It happens pretty frequently because it’s human nature. Unfortunately, when you anchor on your sense of normal, you become out of sync with a large portion of your market. You think your market thinks as you do. This misalignment results in higher customer acquisition costs, lower customer value, and lower profitability because your business is not speaking the same language as large portions of your customers. 

What we perceive to be normal is grounded in what we believe to be true - our worldview. At the highest level of categorization, worldview is organized along conservative and liberal lines. Conservatives and liberals see the world differently and choose to move through it differently, which includes how they evaluate your business, products, and communications. The two groups have distinct visions of normal. 

You may think of your market as young moms, wealthy suburban families, or millennials. Or maybe you are focused on different groups of people based on their behavior. Within all groups, there are two very different ways of seeing the world, businesses, products, and communications. For example, 49% of millennial men identify as liberal vs. 42% as conservative. Millennial women are far more liberal at 70% of the population. Each group - conservative and liberal - has a very different alignment with the future, self-expression, self-image, risk, responsibility, value, and much more. Unfortunately, these differences get lost in most market and customer analyses. 

Customer worldview is mostly overlooked because it feels like politics. Yet worldview is far more significant than that. Politics is just one expression of worldview - who you want running the county, state, or country based on what you believe to be true. Other expressions of worldview include where you live, the profession you choose, the brands and products you buy, and more. Worldview reflects a customer’s conception of what they see around them and how they want others to perceive them. Worldview is how a customer thinks.

Normalizing Normal

If conservatives and liberals fundamentally see the world and your business differently, is one group more normal than the other?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, normal is “that which is considered usual, typical, or routine.” As it turns out, the U.S. population is split right down the middle between conservative and liberal customers, including those that lean in either direction. Research shows that “independents” are people who simply want to avoid association with a particular political party. They consistently demonstrate liberal or conservative behavior despite the label that suggests they might switch between liberal and conservative sides.  

So which of the two groups is “considered usual, typical, or routine?” By strict definition, neither conservative nor liberal customers are normal. Both sides will push back on this because whichever side you are on, that worldview is clearly normal.

We anchor in our own sense of normal because we don’t operate nationally. We operate locally, at home, in our communities, work, and in towns and cities. We are often surrounded by like-minded people, whether we are conservative or liberal, making “normal” obvious to us even if there is another normal just over the horizon or on TV. When we shop for cars, food, vacations, insurance, and more, it’s within a context of a local and primarily singular worldview - a local normal. This makes it far easier to define normal because there is a lot of “usual, typical, or routine” at the local level.

Uncommon Sense

Take the use of the phrase “common sense” as an example. Is there such a thing? The word “common” would suggest a universally accepted sense of what is proper or correct. Cognitive scientists will say there isn’t such a thing. George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, comments in his book, Moral Politics, “Whenever a cognitive linguist hears the words “it’s just common sense,” his ears perk up, and he knows there’s something to be studied in detail and depth - something that needs to be understood. Nothing is “just” common sense.”

Common sense may exist within your customer’s family or community, but not much beyond that, and it may be completely different from your sense of it. Common sense is a matter of social convention, which is to say, it’s a matter of market or customer convention. Large portions of your market will disagree with you on what is considered common sense. 

Migration Bifurcates Normal

Exacerbating the prevalence of a local, singular normal is that Americans have migrated toward more like-minded communities over the past twenty years, decreasing chances of interacting with people with different worldviews. More than ever, Americans live next door to people with a similar worldview, conservative or liberal. This proximity to like-minded neighbors only reinforces a particular worldview because there is more agreement on how to see the world and how to act.

Simple geography now determines a high likelihood of local normal. Liberals are far more likely to be found in cities and inner suburbs. Conservatives are far more likely to be found in outer suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas. Researchers at the University of Washington in St. Louis found that proximity to a city shaped political views and attracted like-minded people. Their study determined that the average population density for conservatives was 585 people per square mile and 1197 people per square mile for liberals. 

Taking geography a step further, Jacob Brown and Ryan Enos from the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University measured the geographic alignment of political worldviews of every registered voter in the U.S. at the neighborhood level. They found that many people live with almost no exposure to those with a different worldview, even across various locations and population densities. Even within a single neighborhood, conservatives and liberals are found to separate themselves. As a result, you can develop a strong sense of normal that is possibly five blocks away from another. 

Meta Market Cognition

Your company’s vision for products and communications may not track with how customers see your product fitting into their lives from a worldview perspective. Customers may have completely different ideas - and they are the ones spending the money to buy your product. They are paying the bills. The result is misalignment, decreased efficiency, and stalled growth. 

Understanding how customers think requires stepping outside yourself, referred to as metacognition. Customer data is supposed to help you do this, but it's easily bent to support a worldview. Businesses often see what they already believe to be true in customer data. We look for insights we already believe.

Stepping outside of yourself means understanding the differences and similarities between how conservative and liberal customers see the world and react to it. It’s an exercise in meta-market cognition. It sounds complicated, but it’s pretty simple - you put your perspective on hold and think about how customers think from a worldview perspective. It’s the highest level of customer insight because it’s about how customers perceive the world and what they believe to be true. You might even learn something about that mysterious, crazy other side, whichever side that is. Doing so can help reduce divisiveness as the other side becomes more familiar. 

If you want to explore this in more detail, this article dives into how liberal and conservative customers think differently about the future and technology. This article demonstrates, in a very visible way, how news businesses compete for customers with different worldviews, driving business results.

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