You’re standing in the middle of Madison Square Garden with thousands of people around you. Everyone is your customer. They are waiting to hear you speak about your products.
The lights go down. You take the stage. You start talking about how your products solve the problems of the people in front of you. You explain why so many people buy your products.
You pause to take a breath. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a young girl with her hand raised. It’s awkward to ignore her. You nod to let her speak. She stands up and says in a somewhat pointed manner, “excuse me, but that’s not why we buy your product.”
The comment makes your head spin. You can feel tightness in your chest. A young girl of about nine has called out your grand plan, fueled by months of research. She knows exactly why her family buys your product. You can’t tell her she’s wrong.
Others in the crowd start to stand. They tell each other why they buy your product. The pitch of the conversation begins to grow. Some are getting agitated. They don’t understand why others don’t agree with them. They start talking past each other. Very little of the discussion relates to how you think about your products.
In your mind, you question everything at once. Seeing the young girl takes you back to your childhood, where you grew up, your family, friends, teachers, and neighbors. At that moment, you see yourself from the outside and how you became the person you are. You realize your customers are very different from you and each other. In that instant, you stop recognizing your customers and only see yourself. You look back at your audience and realize you don’t know them very well at all.
Who is your customer?
It’s a simple question that every business needs to answer. Without a solid vision of your customer and how they think, you don't know what they want, how to talk to them, or how to inspire them to buy from you.
Customers, as it turns out, are a complicated bunch. They often come in distinct groups or "segments," each with specific wants, needs, desires, and dreams. You may define these groups using age, gender, life stage, lifestyle, where they live, income, and a host of different attitudes. You may use different behaviors, such as what they buy, browse, or listen to online. Or you may just focus on what they do in your store or on your website.
If you work at a larger company, you may develop answers through customer database analysis and research. You may hire consultants to map your customer groups or segments. You may produce prototypical portraits of customers, turning them into posters scattered throughout the office, so everyone knows who they are.
If you own a hardware store or cafe, you talk to your customers every day. You hear their questions, laugh at their jokes, and watch them consider their options. You see firsthand who is willing to give you money for something you have behind your counter. You witness different people coming and going, using cues and personality habits to group customers. Some are like you, and some are not. Some will strike you as odd.
Most businesses can describe their customers, but they don’t know how customers think - how customers see the world, perceive a product, and imagine it becoming part of their world. Out of all the products or services available, why yours and not another? You may have a handle on why you think your products or services are different - but is that how your customer thinks about it?
Executives, managers, and business owners may see what they already believe as humanity walks into stores, visits websites, and downloads apps. As Steven Covey said, “We think we see the world as it is, when in fact we see the world as we are.” We tell ourselves stories about our customers based on how we perceive the world, not necessarily how they do, whether you are a founder, CEO, head of communications, or ice cream store owner.
So how does being “red” or “blue” help with understanding your customers? Why put customer politics on the table when thinking about your market? Won’t you just make someone mad?
The simple answer is that your customers see the world now far more through a conservative or liberal lens that is affecting how they perceive your company, products, packaging, stores, and communications. Liberal and conservative worldviews shape what customers see at home, in their communities, at work, at play, and when they travel, all having nothing to do with politics.
Conservative and liberal worldviews are nothing new, but over the past twenty years, your customers have organized themselves far more sharply along conservative and liberal lines. Moreover, conservative and liberal worldviews live far more on the surface now than they did before 2000 due to dramatic growth in digital technology and its influence on reinforcing divisions. The dawn of the 21st century, as it turns out, is the dawn of red and blue customers.
With change comes opportunity. There are 258 million adults over eighteen in the United States, almost equally divided between having liberal and conservative worldviews (or lean in either direction). Understanding your marketplace from a liberal or conservative worldview perspective helps you unlock new growth by understanding better how your market now thinks about your products. Understanding this market transformation empowers you to better align your business strategies, product development, and communications in a manner that optimizes growth - all at very low or no additional cost.
To be clear, this book is not about reinforcing divisions or promoting one side over another. It is about understanding the drivers behind the growing distinctions in your marketplace, how to think about two different market worldviews, and translating these worldviews into ideas you can use to grow your business. It’s about ensuring your business tracks with an evolving market regarding how your customers think about the world around them and what they buy.
Looking through this worldview lens does not replace any current view of your customers or market. It’s a layer that enhances what you know now. Your organization, for example, may think about its customers as mainly being modern suburban families. This book is about understanding the differences in worldview and attitudes that drive purchase decisions within that group.
Large national organizations may want to make sure a business line, product, or communication strategy is worldview neutral to maximize market size and share. Or they may want to use limited resources to focus on one or the other market. But how do you know if your business aligns in a worldview neutral way unless you analyze the actual alignment and understand the differences? It doesn’t happen naturally. What’s more, if your customers perfectly reflect natural population divisions along liberal-conservative worldview lines, your business would be the exception, not the rule.
Regional or smaller businesses may discover or confirm strong correlations between their market and conservatives or liberals. In this case, there may be clear strategies for creating stronger alignment with one group or the other, growing beyond the current group, or addressing a mix of groups within the region. Understanding each group’s worldview and translating that into actionable business decisions is essential for this purpose. That’s what this book is about.
Product and market strategies often have an inherent bias for one group over another. For example, a product category can skew liberal or conservative because it fits a particular worldview model better. A piece of fitness equipment easily skews toward one group or the other based on the type of fitness it delivers.
Potential biases can exist related to your location, the executive team, business partners, local management, communications, and many other elements – often unwittingly. This isn’t to say that people or locations need to change - you just need to better understand potential misalignment. It’s all hiding in plain sight - it’s time to evaluate it as a source of growth.
We start with red and blue market formation - the drivers that created the two markets over the last hundred years, with particular attention paid to the last twenty years. You’ll see how dramatic forces have reshaped your markets along conservative and liberal lines. The second section builds a foundation for understanding liberal and conservative worldviews using decades of research from social anthropology. This foundation informs attributes that translate worldview differences and similarities into a business context, backed by new primary and recent secondary research.
You’ll see how these two worldviews affect customer visions of the future, who influences purchase decisions, what success means, where different empathies lie, as well as a host of values, attitudes, and perceptions. You’ll gain a clearer view of how both groups view your company, products, and communications. We’ll cite examples in the marketplace where company culture, vision, product, and communications are aligned - or not - for their respective customers and what that means for efficiency and growth.
Finally, we’ll lay out a roadmap that will guide you in better understanding the differences among your customers and how to form an intentional strategy that ensures maximum growth for your organization. You can take very clear steps to evaluate this topic for your business that will cost you very little or nothing. The roadmap is designed to help you improve efficiency by getting customer worldview on the table and thinking about improving business alignment, all with the resources you have today. Uncovering new opportunities may just need a couple of meetings and a little research.
As you consider the ideas in this book, it’s important to put aside any notions of different worldviews as being right or wrong. You want to remain as dispassionate as possible because it’s your customers and your market that you are focused on, not your views. It’s best to try to step outside of your market to consider alternate strategies regardless of who your customers are.
You will most likely come across findings that may contradict what you believe about liberals or conservatives. You may think of people who don’t fit some of the models presented in this book. It’s a complex topic, and the evidence presented in this book won’t explain every single person. Instead, it will deliver insights into larger groups – your markets – that will have common attributes and themes. Those attributes and themes defined by worldview are like connective tissue that helps you understand and improve the market fit with your business.
Along the way, you may even gain a better understanding of how the “other side” thinks, whether you are conservative, liberal, or lean in either direction. Of course, you may disagree with the other side’s worldview as described here, but you may become less confused by it and better understand the roots of attitudes and behaviors. That irrational group on the other side – be they liberal or conservative – may start to look a little more coherent even if “wrong” to you. If this book makes a small dent in helping both sides understand each other’s perception of the world while informing business growth and market strategies, we’ll take that as a collateral win.
Your business fits your customer’s life at a moment in time. To varying degrees, your product is a piece of a puzzle that addresses how your customer sees the world and how they want to fit into it. Whether you sell nuts and bolts for twenty-five cents or luxury cars, your customers evaluate your company, people, product, and communications in terms of how they want to assemble their lives around themselves to reflect how they think and want to be perceived.
So where to start for getting in your customers' heads - to drive more purchase and repeat purchase behavior? You want to see more people coming into your store, going to your website, interacting with your business on their mobile phones, and buying more later.
Most businesses start by focusing on those customers who are actively looking for something you might have - using store signage, product packaging, Google search, and more. But focusing just on converting a customer who is already on the verge of buying a product will only get you so far. Simply being present when someone walks by your café or when they search online is a great step, but why are they there in the first place, and what are their predispositions as they enter that final step? What is the light bulb going off in their heads that sparks purchase, that says your brand and product fit into their world?
Medium and larger businesses will invest significant sums to understand customer attitudes that drive purchase behavior with research studies or expensive customer analysis tools. These studie start to get to the heart of why customers buy from you but they are missing an understanding of why customers have these attitudes to begin with. What drives your customers to think the way they do, have their opinions, and see themselves with your product or service? Why do they think your product fits into their world vs. others?
Now you are talking about market x-factors – customer worldview, ideology, and culture. It can sound a bit ethereal and disconnected from your day-to-day work. It can even sound like you’re treading on dangerous ground because worldview and ideology can seem so personal, even political. Yet these customer attributes sit at the highest level of market insight. These attributes are why your customers have their attitudes, which ultimately drive the purchase behaviors you need to grow your business.
Let’s start by settling on some basic definitions. We need something simple and accessible and not full of academic jargon or loaded with political rhetoric. Liberalism and conservatism are dealt with in detail in the second section of this book, where we form a foundation for understanding how customers think based on research in social anthropology. To understand conservative and liberal customers, we need to think about conservatism and liberalism as two different worldviews.
Worldview, in the most obvious sense, is how your customers see the world. A customer’s worldview is what they believe to be true as seen through their eyes and interpreted by their minds. It’s your customer’s processing of what they see and understand around them. Worldview also encompasses your customer’s sense of self within the world they see - what they believe to be true about themselves as a piece of a grand puzzle.
While the idea of worldview can seem pretty simple and straightforward, it is also a profound way to think about your customers. It represents their very conception of reality, which will vary from customer to customer. To a customer, a worldview is factual, even though different customers will have distinctly different worldviews and think about different sets of facts. What is true to a customer is more often a matter of perception and social convention.
Ideology, in the most obvious sense, is a system of ideas for acting. Whereas worldview is what customs believe to be true, ideology is what a customer believes to be right. Ideologies inspire how a customer should move forward in the world based on what they understand to be right. Customer ideology is the motivating force for how a customer proactively organizes their life within the world they see and believe to be true.
Today worldview and associated ideologies are also far more aligned with political ideology - the idea of being red or blue representing conservative or liberal. For many readers, this may seem obvious, but this has only been true in recent history. In the first half of the twentieth century, both the Democratic and Republican parties had liberal and conservative wings. Today, someone’s worldview is far more likely to be joined at the hip with their political ideology. In other words, your customer’s worldview – what they perceive to be true – is highly aligned with an ideology from a particular political party.
In The Disappearing Center, Alan Abromowitz, Professor of Political Science at Emory University, points out that the correlation between worldview and political party affiliation was just .32 in 1972, increasing to .77 in 2004. A correlation measure of under .5 is considered somewhat weak, while one over .6 is considered quite strong. During this same timeframe, the American public has become far more knowledgeable about politics, which is the subject of the next chapter. In two separate academic studies, researchers demonstrate that people with higher levels of political knowledge have more coherent worldviews. In other words, as your customers increase their political knowledge, their worldviews come into sharper focus, along with their associated ideologies, which increases the influence on what they buy.
This increasing clarity of worldview and ideology has two profound effects on your market. First, it drives more precise market definition, separation, and similarities. Second, looking at alignment between your business and your market becomes more critical in terms of leadership, staff, customer service, business partners, brand, product development, communications, and more. If your business reflects one worldview and your customers reflect another, you create inefficiencies between your business and your market. You aren’t in sync. Customers are buying from you in spite of what you project onto the market, creating friction in the market that hampers business results. This doesn’t mean that your company needs people who share a worldview similar to your market. Instead, it means that your business needs to understand each worldview and where there is a misalignment to ensure efficient growth. Otherwise, your organization may be talking to itself when talking to customers about products.
For this book, we are more interested in liberal and conservative worldviews than the idea of being Democrat or Republican. Even with today’s high correlation between worldview and political ideology, according to Gallup, in 2021, 12% of self-identified Democrats consider themselves conservative, and 4% of self-identified Republicans consider themselves liberal. Political parties will continue to evolve in terms of membership. At the same time, liberalism and conservatism in the United States will hold relatively steady - enough to serve as the foundation for understanding customers and markets.
Beyond the study of worldview and ideology is understanding customer culture. Culture, defined broadly, is the sum of a group’s ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge – the manifestation of one group’s worldview. Your customers operate within different cultures that manifest their worldview in the form of buying or not buying your product or services. Therefore, how your company and its products and communications align with customer culture becomes a source of opportunity.
Evaluating how your customers think - with regard to worldview, ideology, and culture - requires stepping outside of it, to look at customers as having different visions. Metacognition is a term used to describe thinking about thinking - the act of pondering how you think about things. This book is about meta-market cognition - the act of pondering how your market thinks.
Meta-market cognition triggers the study of customer worldview (what customers believe to be true), customer ideology (what customers believe to be right), and customer culture (the manifestation of a customer’s worldview). Put more simply, it’s about getting in the heads of your customers and your market so you can drive more efficient growth by aligning business strategy with your market’s way of thinking.
As it turns out, the year 2000 marks a clear turning point in amplifying distinctions in your market. Let’s take a quick look at how we got here to appreciate the changes to the markets we have in front of us - from a customer worldview, ideology, and culture perspective.