Innovating for the Purple Consumer

Since the 2004 election, I've been hearing a worried buzz about the Red-Blue divide in the United States. For marketers and innovators, the X factor is what this divide reflects -- or does not reflect -- about consumers' everyday lives. Do Red-Blue leanings translate outside the ballot box to the TV shows we watch, the technology we buy, where we shop, and how we spend our down time? To stay successful, do innovators need to take a leap into translating Red-Blue to the marketplace? If they don't, will they get left behind? The answers go to the heart of understanding consumers.

When I take a closer look at the idea of a Red-Blue divide, a few problems stick out. First, all of the statistical slicing and dicing by income, geography, IQ, religion, education -- even genetics -- hasn't offered a definitive profile of a Red or Blue consumer. Second, stereotypes don't cut it. Those sultry Wisteria Lane ladies of ABC's Desperate Housewives, who've been lazing around at the top of the Nielsen ratings, play as well with viewers in Salt Lake City and Birmingham as in New York and Los Angeles. Third, that electoral college map we're all so familiar with looks very different when it's broken down by county, not states. The picture that emerges is a multihued geography, pockets of red and blue with plenty mingling into purple. (See the eye-opening election maps and cartograms by the University of Michigan's Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi, and Mark Newman.)

We are Reds, Blues, Undecideds, or Don't Cares. More importantly, we're parents, kids, sports fans, foodies, travelers, students, shoppers, investors, workers, friends, bloggers, and quite possibly all of those in one day. We are, by nature, multifaceted and (surprise!) don't always act consistently from one day to the next or even act in ways consistent with what we say we believe. All that is a serious challenge to stereotypes, simple demographic definitions, and traditional measurement tools that we, as marketers, rely on.

What's going on? Mobility, hyperspeed lives, and an exploding array of lifestyle choices give consumers more ways than ever to go after the life they want and grab their own version of the American dream. But complexity doesn't have to breed chaos. Consumer values underlie every action we take, and perceiving those values indicates what consumers really want. Get underneath the definitions of Republican-Democrat, conservative-liberal, even religious-secular, and what I see is an across-the-board stirring up of intense personal concerns: safety, family, belief in a better future, integrity, trust, empowerment, freedom. All are in play across the spectrum (even for the 50% of Americans who didn't show up at the polls).

The expression of those values can be very different. Take the need for safety: A family heads to Legoland Denmark because the theme park's KidSpotter RFID and Wi-Fi service helps parents keep a tab on kids, even if they're out of sight. A woman worried about safety in a public place buys a ToteGuard Table Hanger that lets her stash her purse with a built-in alarm. Both answer heightened safety concerns, but the solutions are different, and that gives innovators opportunities. So, how do you get there?

Focus on common ground while giving consumers ways to express their particular identities. "Family values" has many faces, but it's a safe bet that they're all about love, sharing, and belonging. Cruise companies have done a great job of packaging getaways that key into the varieties of "family" out there: Disney togethering packages encourage multigenerational vacations. R Family Vacations cruises are tailored to gay and lesbian families. Familymoon packages from a variety of resort and cruise lines turn second-marriage honeymoons into blended-family vacations.

Let consumers tell you what they want. No matter what divisions the media and politicians promote, grassroots citizens are keeping the cultural blender on high speed and driving change. One way they're doing it is demanding a part in creating -- not just consuming. John Fluevog Shoes' "Open Source Footwear" gives wannabe designers a place to submit ideas for funky soles. Website visitors vote for the ones they want produced, and, once on the shelf, designs bear the name of their creator. EBay's sharp ear and fast response to its users' needs has built a monster family of services that support them; eBay Live Community Conference and healthcare insurance for PowerSellers are just two examples. And they're not resting on their laurels. eBay is paying attention to Craigslist.com's grassroots success to learn what they can.

Understanding the dynamics of niche demographics is more important than ever. The explosion of consumer choices has also spawned networks of niche demographics. People are beehiving around values (LOHAS, Crunchy Conservatives), passions (eco-travel, knitting, fantasy sports, NASCAR), life stages (young moms, Empty Nesters, grandparents), aspirations (homeownership), cultures (hip-hop, car tuning), and more. Paradoxically, those niches create new areas of common ground in an otherwise fragmenting culture. While the underlying passions of Red-Blue politics are real, look to the Purple consumer as the guide for actionable innovation that can span the divide.


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