Published on: May 27, 2009by Michael Sansolo
Just prior to the 2000 presidential election, famed author Arthur Miller posed a strange question: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”
I had a strange reminder of that comment this past Thursday morning when I was warming up for my spinning class (stationary biking for lunatics, that is.) A woman just in front of me asked out loud, “How is it possible Kris Allen won American Idol?” Without prompting at all, another four or five women quickly echoed her point, questioning how Kris managed to beat Adam Lambert if no one they knew supported him.
Welcome to the Big Sort: an issue that industry had better start taking very, very seriously.
America is one big beautiful country that I have had the good fortune to see state by state. The people are also wonderful and I delight in visiting supermarkets to see how they live and shop through my own strange little lens. But increasingly, there are divides that lie just below the surface, which could increasingly explain vastly divergent behaviors from one community to the next. It’s why Manhattanite Miller couldn’t find a Bush supporter or why the women in my class all voiced the same feelings about American Idol.
“The Big Sort,” by Bill Bishop (not the Bill Bishop many of us in the retail industry know), should be must reading for understanding today’s environment. Published in 2008, it’s finally made it to the top of my reading list and thankfully just in time for the Kris vs. Adam vote.
Bishop’s point is that Americans have starting clustering into like-minded groups, neighborhoods and communities, making average behavior across a state or a metropolitan area more meaningless than ever. This sort has been going on for a couple of decades and manifests itself in ways far more important that the American Idol vote.
One main basis for this theory is the voting patterns in recent presidential elections go far beyond the Red/Blue state divide. In competitive elections (those decided by a few percentage points) a stunning change has occurred. In the 1948 Truman-Dewey election, only 35.8% of Americans lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly - a 20-percentage point victory margin - for one candidate. In 1976, the Ford-Carter election, only 27.6% of counties recorded those landslide choices.
By 1996 (Clinton-Dole) 42% of counties gave those landslide margins and then the situation got worse. In 2000 and 2004, nearly 50% of counties produced landslides for Bush or either of his opponents. In short, somehow Americans in increasing numbers sorted themselves into groups that think and voted a lot more alike.
For retailers and manufacturers of all types of products, the challenge isn’t limited to voting. As Bishop writes, the sort creates enormous divides in all manner of activity, from church attendance to patent applications to even centers of creativity. Overlooking these underlying community trends means the store or product that does so well in one location might fare very differently a few miles away without any major change in more obvious demographics.
It’s possible we may increasingly find ways to sort out this mess. Products may get marketed to Fox News vs. MSNBC counties. Store offerings might change based on the number (and attendance) of churches in an area. But the complexities will become too numerous to count.
Marketers might find increased importance on political issues such as carbon footprints in one community, while rejection of the same information one community away. The industry might need whole new indices for products that sell well in Red communities, but flop in Blue ones and vice versa. Support for specific organizations might be applauded in some towns and denounced in others and controversial decisions, like Walmart’s ban of Green Day’s newest CD, might be completely without controversy in many markets.
In short, “The Big Sort” promises to make a complex environment ever more so.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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