Is it time to think small?

Marketers are making a huge mistake. Focused on reaching the masses with big data, they have forgotten to connect with an entire population of powerful consumers — small-town America.  

While marketers think that small towns and rural populations are inconsequential, roughly 25 percent of the U.S. population lives outside of cities and suburbs. Their collective voices are influential — and can be stunning — as seen during the 2016 election. 

The “populist movement,” as it is now being called, is fueled by people in small towns and rural areas who feel like their government didn’t truly represent them or, worse, ignored them. But it’s not just government doing the ignoring.

If brands want to be relevant, and embody the traits consumers want most, then surveying people in Indianapolis or Wichita — some of the largest “middle America” cities — isn’t enough.

In 2017, Golin embarked on an in-depth ethnographic study of Seymour, Indiana — famous for John Mellencamp’s autobiographical song “Small Town” — to better understand the decision makers who impacted the 2016 U.S. election. We did the same thing in Preston, U.K. — located more than 200 miles northwest of London — to understand who impacted Brexit.

Once you start talking with people in small towns, you quickly discover what they’re missing from brands — and more importantly, what brands are missing from small towns.

1. Brand loyalty is established through emotional and personal connections

Small-town brand loyalty is strong and can continue for generations. In Seymour, everyone – literally, everyone – buys the same brand of vehicle. They want relationships they can trust, even if it means having their local bankers on speed dial. Most brands aren’t doing enough to tap into that level of customer connection.

2. Distinguishing between political and purposeful is critical to a brand’s success

Through our study, we learned that people like brands that are purpose-driven, but not politically motivated. While the people of small towns may have become more politically active, they don’t want their brands to be political. They just want brands that understand and respect them as consumers.  

3. One small town is a valuable sample

Marketers think going small has to be expensive, but it doesn’t. The perceptions people expressed about brands in Seymour rang true all the way across the pond in Preston. It’s the same approach as conducting a focus group in one large city to sample an urban population. If marketers can understand what drives people in one rural community, they can better target the rest of rural America.

In today’s marketing world, where including diverse groups is more critical to a brand’s success than ever, residents of small towns can’t be left out. Which is why it’s essential to partner small-town intelligence with the big data that brands have always relied upon. Along with striking differences, we found many commonalities between small town residents and big city dwellers. If we want the 25 percent of unheard Americans to invest in us, it’s time we invest in them.


To download a full copy of the Relevance Report, click here.

Caroline Dettman is Chief Creative and Community Officer for Golin, an integrated agency with PR, digital and content at its core. Caroline has 20 years of experience delivering creative campaigns for clients including Clif Bar, Humana, Unilever and Mattel, among many others. Golin is a sponsor of the Relevance Report.

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