The camera pans to a close shot of country star Brantley Gilbert’s face as he stands alone in a field and a voiceover says, "I love the feeling out here. The freedom. The simplicity. The open road."
He bikes along country roads in Tennessee with his motorcycle buddies, with a medley of songs — from Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" — playing in the background.
"This is my home. No matter where I go, my heart stays here. My friends, my family, this country ... my country, my people," he says as they ride past a railroad crossing and an American flag waving atop a coffee shop.
The gritty black-and-white spot, which evokes an unapologetically Americana feel, made its debut during a NASCAR race on NBC last month. It's hardly an ad you'd expect from Apple, which tends to tout its products from sleek, sexy, and edgy angles. Even Apple Music has tended to focus on genres like pop, rap, and hip-hop, until now.
Maybe Apple’s tone in this ad shouldn't come as a surprise. Country radio comes a close second to pop music among Americans ages 25 to 54, and it is especially big among young people living outside major urban areas, an important consideration given the larger effort by brands and ad agencies to understand, incorporate, and cater to "middle America" in recent months after Donald Trump's win.
"It started with the election, but it wasn’t just the political landscape that was shell-shocked," said Jordan Cohen, chief marketing officer at Fluent, an ad-tech company that conducted a recent survey on consumers living in middle America. "The election made advertisers rethink whether they were actually in touch with this segment of the country."
Kate Rush Sheehy, group strategy director at ad agency R/GA Austin, agreed.
"People were shocked by the outcome. There was confusion, anguish, and maybe even a few tears," she said, referring to the morale at the agency the day after the results. "It didn’t matter how anyone voted. What mattered is that it proved we didn’t truly understand those who our communications are designed to reach."
The election, in other words, was a rude awakening for marketers. At best, they realized that they had been largely indifferent to the wide swath of Americans living in "flyover country," and, at worst, completely blind to them.
But in Trump's America, marketers have been rethinking how they cater to this audience. They've started taking guided tours of cities designed to help them better understand people in this consumer group. And they're doing research on core middle-America values for their marketing.
In January, fast-food chain Arby’s along with its Minneapolis-based ad agency of record, Fallon, went on a cultural immersion trip to Nashville, a daylong tour of the city’s local culture. For Arby’s, the aim was to find more common values with people in the region, partly to make sure its "We Have the Meats" tagline continues to resonate.
"The idea is to make sure that Arby’s remains relevant with our target audience, which we have identified as folks that are heavy meat eaters, family- and community-oriented, and those who work hard but do not take themselves too seriously," Jeff Baker, Arby’s vice president of brand experience, told Business Insider. "We’re proud of how we’ve been approaching our target."
Last year the restaurant chain introduced a venison sandwich at a handful of hunting-focused restaurants in the region. It sold out within minutes, not just because people in the area are avid meat eaters but because they have an affinity for hunting.
This year's tour — which spanned visits to a local restaurant, the city's Google-sponsored Entrepreneur Center, Nashville Fashion Alliance, and publishing giant Warner/Chappell Music — reaffirmed that the brand was on the right track, Baker said. He said it gave Arby's new ideas to keep its dialogue with middle America moving forward.
The tour was organized by the New Heartland Group, an agency founded in 2001 by music-industry veteran Paul Jankowski who sees opportunity, more so today than ever before, in helping brands and coastal agencies better understand this massive consumer group. It’s not hard to see why.
Middle America has long been lumped by marketers into one stereotype-laden bucket. But recent studies have revealed more nuanced insights about the region. According to research by the New Heartland Group, for example, people living in the heartland are bound together by three core values: family, community, faith.
And it pays to appeal to these values. A recent national survey by ad-tech company Fluent of 26 "heartland" states, for example, found that Americans living in the heartland are more likely (53% versus 48%) to shop with brands that share, or exemplify, their core values than coastal Americans. Those in the heartland are also more likely to purchase from brands that produce goods in the US, share their core values, and make contributions to the community.
So it’s unsurprising that marketers are doubling down on their efforts. According to Jankowski, the agency has been getting "significantly more calls" in the past six months from brands, and has been a part of several new business pitches for agencies who want to show that they get these audiences.
"Sixty percent of US consumers live in the area extending from North Dakota to Florida, in the South, and their core values play a major role in determining their buying behavior," Jankowski told Business Insider. "Brands have realized that they have no choice but to understand these values to build advocacy with their consumers."
Another such brand is Farmers Insurance, known for its quirky ads highlighting bizarre situations that people file insurance claims based on. But its most recent spot has an undeniably rustic appeal, by no means an accident. It features a moose that decides to attack a park swing, ramming it so hard it mangles a family's mobile home.
According to David Measer, senior vice president and group strategic planning director at Farmers’ ad agency RPA, the Los Angeles-based brand has changed its qualitative-research approach in the months after the election. Farmers has made an effort to allow middle America to play a greater role, both in informing its strategy and creative development. The ad is the product of this endeavor.
Measer is also helping other clients, including Honda, chart out their plans. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California who last year spent months researching America’s "alt-middle" — the 100 million people in between the two coasts.
"Clients have started looking outside of the usual cities they would go to. They no longer assume that Chicago will be representative of everything between the coasts," he said. "The election left such a bad taste in so many people’s mouths that a lot of marketers have started to look at the rest of the country. Rather than retreating, they want to engage."
It’s now apparent to brands that middle America is no longer just an income level or a mailing address but a set of values that bind people together. And that means that if advertisers wish to integrate themselves into the lives of this group, old textbook-marketing ways of audience segmentation and targeting must go out the window.
According to Joe Maceda, managing director at media agency Mindshare North America’s Invention Studio, while clients have used demographic and psychographic parameters to target their audiences for years, they have been a lot more hesitant to target ads based on any overarching assumptions of late.
Research conducted on behalf of an alcohol brand that the agency works with suggested that its message and product were much more likely to resonate with left-leaning areas in the country. But the brand decided to adopt a much more neutral strategy, out of fear of alienating massive swaths of Middle America.
"In the end, given the current climate, they decided that they shouldn’t be political, and certainly not left-leaning," he said, without naming the brand. "And they’re not the only ones."
Advertisers are also being cautious about where their content shows up, more so in the highly politicized climate of today than before. A brand in the oil industry sector, based in the Midwest, recently asked its agency, Mediassociates, that its advertising run only on customized digital "white lists" of websites that excluded any publishers with perceived liberal biases, including The New York Times.
"The fear was that potential industry customers might have an adverse reaction to the brand, if they thought the brand was supporting a perceived 'wrong’ political point of view," said Ben Kunz, executive vice president of marketing and content at the agency. "'Where' advertising appears against 'what' type of content is becoming a strategic part of every media plan."
While some are exercising restraint, others are revamping their approaches. Digital agency R/GA Austin, for example, has a new strategy imperative. According to Rush Sheehy, since the election, the agency has been going out of its way to understand how "real" people feel. It's doing more focus groups, proprietary surveys, and primary research.
For its client RaceTrac, a chain of gas stations in the South, the agency spent a day doing research for the brand’s summer campaign at one of its stores. It talked to people about why they go to RaceTrac, why it’s an important part of their day, and what summer means to them.
Turns out the blue-collar folks who shop at RaceTrac do summer differently. While summer may be a time to plan a vacation for most consumers, the agency found that core RaceTrac customers don’t have the means to get away from work for weeks at a time. Instead, they try to find 20 to 30 minutes a day to take a break and enjoy themselves. So for the brand’s summer campaign, its strategy shifted from an aspirational strategy to honoring customers who choose to enjoy the summer every day.
This insight informed the brand’s media plan. Instead of running TV and digital ads, it invested significantly in theater ads playing before popular summer movies. RaceTrac’s guests tend to celebrate their summer vacation with little things.
"One of the biggest catalysts to get smarter as marketers is to be more diligent and thoughtful," she said. "All major brands must serve people across areas and mindsets."