Conservative and liberal customers align with different brands, buy different products, and consume different media. The different choices are clear. What’s not clear is the “why.” Why is Target the number two brand for liberal customers? Why is Apple ranked highly with both groups? Why do conservative customers watch New Amsterdam while liberal customers watch Bob’s Burgers on TV?
To answer these questions, we need a simple model that explains how these two markets think. We don’t need to explain every individual - we need themes that run through each group to understand their motivations for making product choices without invoking politics.
We start by borrowing a model from a hundred years of research in social anthropology called Group-Grid. Then we’ll adapt that model to the unique qualities of American conservative and liberal customers to better understand why the two markets do what they do. From there, we can align strategies, products, and communications to the strongest business opportunity.
Mary Douglas (1921-2007) is considered one of the most prominent social anthropologists of the last hundred years. She published numerous books and was a professor at Northwestern and Princeton Universities. She was a student of primitive cultures, conducting fieldwork with such groups as the Lele people on the banks of the Kasai River in what was then the Belgian Congo. She focused on how different cultures and social groups organized and operated, reflecting differences in how they understood the world around them.
Natural Symbols is one of her most notable works, published in 1970, where she lays out the Group-Grid culture model. Group-Grid proved so powerful that hundreds of research studies employed it.
Group-Grid states that most social groups or cultures can be categorized into four types: Fatalist, Hierarchical (later referred to as Positional), Individualist, and Enclave (later referred to as Egalitarian). She put the four groups into a 2x2 chart like this one:
“Group” along the horizontal axis refers to a culture's affinity with member interconnection. “Grid” along the vertical axis refers to a culture's affinity with structure. For example, the Positional group is high in both Group and Grid, reflecting a hierarchical structure (Grid) that relies on members connecting to the authority (Group).
Here are short summaries of each group. Then, we’ll use the groups to construct a foundational model for understanding American conservative and liberal customers. Her work shows how each social group has potential strengths and weaknesses.
Fatalist. Just as it implies, this group believes they have no ability to control the future. For them, the world just happens at them. There is no group cohesion, and there is a strong sense of unpredictability. The weakness of this group is that there must be a strong structure in place for this group even to exist.
Positional (Hierarchical). This group promotes rules and enforcement and is governed by people with fixed positions, sometimes defined by birth, gender, or family. Tradition helps maintain the hierarchy, and change threatens the established order. Conflict from the outside is met with a highly ordered response as this group is very organized with its ready, established hierarchy. They view the other groups as naïve and chaotic. The group’s weakness is that the source of authority may be illegitimate. Leadership legitimacy is the foundation of hierarchical power. This group also tends to control information to prevent outside forces from calling into question leadership legitimacy.
Egalitarian (Enclave). This group focuses on the idealism of the collective - shared values and equality are the solutions for solving problems. This group objects to hierarchy and rank because they see them as sources of corruption. Instead, this group believes in a type of group royalty that keeps individual desires in check. They thrive when the group can support solidarity, especially in the form of protest. The weakness of this group is that it can be very exclusive - if you don’t align with the shared values, you are not welcome. With this group, you are in or out; if you are out, you may be attacked to “close ranks” with other members. Closing ranks helps reaffirm group solidarity in the absence of clear leadership.
Individualist. This group is about meritocracy - a competitive environment where anyone can rise through the ranks of social order if they try hard enough. There is no commitment to a larger group or a predefined structure. Instead, the focus is on individual initiative and competition. The weakness of this group is that a level playing field is likely false, resulting in unintended inequality. Also, while resisting structure and organization, the individualist often seeks power, which requires organization, hierarchy, and exclusion.
Now let’s use these culture types to understand American liberal and conservative customers. Again, this won’t explain every individual. Instead, it will provide a simple foundation for understanding liberal and conservative markets, each representing about half the U.S. population.
The first step in creating an American customer model from Group-Grid is to lay an Individualist foundation across both liberal and conservative groups:
Individualism is the foundation because it’s a defining characteristic of the American Dream, where opportunity is limited only by personal initiative. Both groups of customers in the United States are uniquely individualistic because most (not all) have ancestors that took great risks to leave their own country to come to America for a better life.
These risks, whether taken three hundred years ago or last week, can act as an Individualist filter. Obviously not everyone in other countries chooses to leave. Many immigrants to the United States (not all) self-select for Individualism to a certain degree.
With this Individualist mentality, it is no surprise that more than half of Americans want to be their own boss and a strong majority of Americans have positive views of small businesses. Small business is a symbol of Individualism and the American Dream. In addition, a strong majority of conservative and liberal Americans believe the American Dream is achievable, according to a Gallup study.
Now let’s add two “filters” for liberal and conservative customers. These filters act as moderating influences on a pure form of Individualism. We’ll start with liberal customers and apply an Egalitarian filter over the Individualist foundation.
The Egalitarian filter moderates the Individualist foundation where there is perceived inequality, a common weakness of Individualist cultures. Note that the filter is stronger the further left you go, but the filter is always there. There is no pure state of Individualism on the right.
The combination of the Individualist foundation and the Egalitarian filter profoundly affects how liberal customers perceive brands, products, merchandising, communications, and more. At the heart of this group is a desire to succeed combined with dissatisfaction with the present due to perceived problems. As a result, this group will align more with brands, products, and communications that promote a re-engineering of the present to create a better future or, to some extent, products that revolutionize a category.
Liberal customers naturally align with technology companies, who almost invariably project a liberal vision due to how they staff. If you analyze political campaign contributions using Federal Election Commission (FEC) data, software engineers, for example, are overwhelmingly liberal. They, after all, spend their lives re-engineering the present to create a better future. The same holds for computer scientists and technology executives.
When a group is unsatisfied with the present and wants to re-engineer the present, they will be more open to new experiences. As a result, new products, especially those representing a more radical change in a category, will most likely appeal to a more urban, liberal customer group. This is important because early stage businesses or those with a very new product want early adopters - who will most likely be liberal. By focusing on more liberal customers a business can potentially have more success with something new early on.
Breakthrough technology products, such as the PC and Apple iPhone, have strong early success in more urban environments, where liberal customers live. However, over time, these products make their way into more conservative customer markets as long as the business moves beyond focusing on the more liberal early adopter. Tesla is a current case in point with liberals accounting for slightly more interest than conservatives in considering the brand.
But not every business wants both liberal and conservative customers. Sometimes one market or the other is the right strategic choice, possibly based on geography or other factors. Apartments.com is a perfect example. They have a company with a liberal projection onto the market combined with customers who live in more dense, urban areas, which skew liberal.
Openness to experimentation and exploration is interesting to consider in the context of any business because every product has the potential to change someone’s life for the better - why else would it exist? How you frame that change or improvement can go very far in aligning with liberal customers - or not.
This isn’t just a matter of communication. It gets to the heart of why a business was founded, what problems it solves, and how products are developed to solve the problems. How brands resonate overall with liberals or conservatives has a dramatic impact on growth potential (total addressable market), efficiency (customer acquisition costs), and profitability (product-market fit and customer value).
Now let’s build the conservative customer model by adding a Positional filter:
The Positional filter moderates a pure Individualist culture with a dose of tradition and hierarchy. Mary Douglas points out an interesting through-line between the two groups - both respect authority. For the Individualist group, authority comes from those who achieve in a meritocratic system. For the Positional group, authority is built-in.
When you add the Positional filter, core attributes emerge in contrast to the Egalitarian filter for liberal customers. Where liberal customers promote a re-engineering of the present to create a better future, conservative customers promote a sense that the present is just fine - don’t mess with it too much. This sense comes from anchoring in tradition and rules, which can be threatened by change.
The future is more known for conservative customers because change is slower. For liberal customers, the future is a source of anxiety because there is continuous work on re-engineering the present, and the outcome may be uncertain.
This doesn’t mean the conservative customers don’t want any change - they just don’t want their lives turned upside down with a lot of risk. If a group is fundamentally content with the present, why fix it?
Where American liberal customers potentially make up early adopter groups, conservative customers are more likely to see what positive comes out of change first. Conservative customers prefer the familiar versus something dramatically different.
It’s not that conservative customers won’t adopt innovation. They just do it in their own time. Both groups work together to form markets that eventually become very large. One proves it out for the other if a product is successful. If the product is not successful with the early-adopter liberal market, you can argue that conservative customers have simply not wasted their time.
A common mistake businesses make, especially those headquartered and staffed in large, urban, liberal centers, is that they project a liberal vision that works in the beginning with early liberal customers but then fails to scale with the other half of the country. It’s a natural outcome of a business with a single worldview culture. When surrounded by like-minded people in your business, it’s easy to lose sight of half the potential market.
With both liberal and conservative customers, there is tension between the two cultures that live together in one worldview. For conservative customers, it’s a tension between free-wheeling Individualism and Positional structure. For liberal customers, it’s tension between individual success and shared values within the social group.
Consider this comment from a new Pew Research study on what it’s like to be an Asian in America:
You can just feel the tension in this statement resulting from the combination of cultures, Individualist and one that may be more conservative. This type of tension will vary within each group, depending on the strength of the filter (further left or right).
If we put the whole model together, it looks like this:
The model is just a starting point - a foundational way of thinking about the two markets. There are dozens of attributes that spring from this model to help businesses grow and create efficiencies. Some examples are linked above. I will explore others in future articles. The goal of this work - the newsletter and the book - is to outline substantive themes that unite both groups and where they are different. All of this will enable businesses of all sizes to support a variety of strategies with liberal and conservative customer markets.
The complete model may not describe perfectly every individual, news headline, or yourself - but it will provide a thematic way of understanding the two markets. Note that a common foundation - Individualism - can be tapped for businesses wanting to appeal to a broader national market. For other businesses, markets may lean in one direction or another because of geography, product type, or other reasons. For those businesses, this model helps push strategies, product development, communications, and more to align the business with its customers better to fuel growth and efficiency.
This article originally appeared in the Substack newsletter Red and Blue Customers.