After the election of Donald Trump last November, the bubble surrounding New York ad agencies popped. Suddenly, the world that agencies had portrayed in their ads seemed wrong. If this is what the country wanted politically, how could they—as metropolitan, coastal elites—connect with the people they want to persuade?
Though there are plenty of local ad agencies that avoid this geographical bias, the bulk of the industry—particularly the agencies that work on national campaigns for large companies—is based in a handful of major cities.
This very urban, coastal business crafts messages meant to influence all sorts of Americans. Often, they fail.
An out-of-touch industry
Following Trump’s victory, many agency leaders came to the conclusion that they, as an industry, were out of touch with the American populace. Harris Diamond, CEO of McCann Worldgroup, stated in the Wall Street Journal that “many marketing programs are oriented toward metro elite imagery.” In other words, moralistic and aesthetic themes that appeal to consumers in New York don’t play so well to those in Wichita, Kansas.
Take the “Commit to Something” campaign by Equinox, an upscale gym chain that brands itself as “not just a fitness club, [but] a temple of well-being.” While Equinox is most popular in New York and California, the brand also has locations in six other states, including more conservative areas like Florida and Texas.
Yet as is the case in many campaigns for fashion brands and high-end companies, the imagery is anything but conservative.
“[The ads] infer: Don’t just be religious, join in a cult,” Christian Hughes, president and principal of San Francisco-based ad agency Cutwater, writes in Forbes. “Don’t just have sex, have an orgy. Don’t just join any gym, join Equinox.” While many people praised the work, Hughes also pointed out “there were equal numbers who were totally offended and expressed their outrage” at the gratuitous content. The ad pictured may be some sort of goal state for Los Angeles or New York elite, but it’s less likely to relate to potential members in Houston or Chicago, regardless of social class.
As a counterpoint, look at Planet Fitness, the nationwide gym franchise that introduced a “No Gymtimidation” campaign four years ago focused on a judgment-free workout experience. Rather than trying to entice members of competitors to switch, the ads targeted the 85 percent of the population who didn’t belong to a gym. The strategy paid off, as Planet Fitness grew its membership by 25 percent during the economic downturn of 2012, according to The New York Times.
“I’m never going to get to be that washboard-stomach, super-cut guy that I see in the Equinox ads,” Steve Red, chief creative officer of Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners (which produced the Planet Fitness campaign), told the Times. “I would argue that approach is not aspirational—it’s inaccessible.”
Though Planet Fitness has since moved to a new creative agency, its judgment-free advertising mantra is still in place. The latest iteration was released a few weeks ago.
A simple solution
If we’re to learn anything from the election, it’s that communicating nationwide requires a firm grasp of what America actually thinks.
The key to solving this issue is simple: talking to customers. The best, most proven way to do that is through ethnographic research, or the study of people via observation and conversation.
As a former strategist at Ogilvy & Mather, I had access to our Discovery unit, an internal team of ethnographers available for ad-hoc campaign work. I worked with the team firsthand on a project aimed at incentivizing consumers to join IKEA Family, the furniture chain’s loyalty program.
Even though IKEA was thriving in the U.S., IKEA Family struggled to achieve the same growth. Together with Discovery, we pitched a three-city research project—covering the regional hubs of Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles—composed of interviews with loyalty members and non-members. Our footage, made up of in-home recordings and trips to the store, would be pieced together into a documentary about the ways personal decor habits and shopping processes could aid loyalty enrollment. The IKEA team accepted our proposal, and off we went.
Throughout the journey, we filmed many consumers, ate many meatballs, and learned many new Swedish phrases. But those were all expected. The real surprises came from interacting with consumers as they went about their daily lives.
Some weren’t sure how IKEA furniture would fit in their homes; maybe an in-house design consultant could be a nice offering. Some shopped the store backwards and missed the section of products dedicated to IKEA Family members; maybe more signage would boost awareness. Some were confused why IKEA Family was deemed a loyalty program when it didn’t reward repeated activity; that has to do with IKEA’s quasi-socialist philosophy and is another topic for another day.
Point being, this was all information we were only able to capture by leaving New York. While some of our original hypotheses were confirmed, many findings were unexpected. As a result, we came away with a more nuanced picture of IKEA Family customers.
Ogilvy is far from the only agency that relies on such an approach to understand consumers of varying backgrounds. Specialist shops like Flamingo and The Sound thrive with a business model based on boots-on-the-ground qualitative research techniques that uncover cultural trends.
There is nothing wrong with sitting behind the desk of your Madison Avenue office, cranking out the most thorough research you can conduct. But that approach has one crucial limitation: It will never give you the same context as actually talking to customers.