Cultivating “Cultural Conservatives”

A new year means new opportunities for the specialty food industry. As we move into what is really the new millennium, I keep thinking about the presidential election. When all the controversy over hanging chads is forgotten, it strikes me that the great enduring memory of that election will be the map on election night on the television screen. The map showed the great swaths of Republican red for George Bush in the South, Mountain, and Plains states, and it showed the East Coast, upper Midwest and the Pacific Coast in Democrat blue voting for Al Gore.

Even more interesting perhaps is the detailed version of that map where they divide up the vote by county. George Bush lost the popular vote and squeaked by in the Electoral College, but it was a geographical landslide for the GOP as county after county voted for Bush.

Of course, the reason he lost the popular vote is because we count people, not acres, and a county such as New York county can have thousands of times the population of a county in the rural west.

To someone in the food industry, one of the shocking things in looking at that map of counties carried by Bush and by Gore, respectively, is that the map closely resembles a county-by-county map of supermarket locations by the density of stores. It is not a perfect overlay, of course, and is really thrown out of whack by a few geographically large counties such as San Bernardino or Kern in California.

Generally speaking, the counties with over 50 supermarkets voted for Gore, those with less than 10 voted for Bush, and the battleground is those counties with between 11 and 50 supermarkets. Here is a prediction for 2004: The candidate that carries the counties with between 11 and 50 supermarkets will win the election.

The great contiguous swaths of color on the TV screen suggested that America is really two countries: a more rural, conservative nation taking up the bulk of the land and a nation of people now living in the cosmopolitan cities of the Northeast, West Coast and heavily industrialized upper Midwest. There are occasional aberrations, such as a university town voting Democratic in the midst of a rural GOP-tilting state.

The contiguous nature of the states carried by each candidate, in the absence of any great regional issues, would not be expected and indicates a difference of perception between the citizens in different parts of the country.

Our Electoral College system, whatever one may think of it, has the great advantage of turning the presidential election into 51 smaller elections and thus encourages reaching out and addressing concerns all across the land. In other words, a candidate can’t further his presidential ambitions by getting New York or Massachusetts to vote 90% for him rather than 60%, since under the winner-take-all Electoral College system, that 60% wins the votes as surely as 90% would.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a similar system for the specialty food industry, and so marketers usually find it easier to increase market share – and thus sales – than to broaden their marketing. Inevitably, this leads to a focus on marketing to the urban masses. Thus we have the emphasis in advertising and fashion on urban hip-hop and ever more sexually explicit marketing.

Yet the exit polls in the election give reason to think that this approach is offensive to many and foreign to the values of vast numbers of consumers. After all, polls indicate that one’s attitude toward President Clinton’s comportment in the Monica Lewinsky affair was a valuable predictor of one’s vote between candidates Gore and Bush.

Regional marketing was, practically speaking, the only kind of marketing there was until the development of national magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the women’s service books. But since the rise of national magazines and the development of radio and television, economies of scale dictated national marketing.

The practical effect of this has been ascendancy in urban mores as cosmopolitan ideas were foisted upon the “provinces.”

But the most recent trends in media have been creating possibilities different from the last century-and-a-half’s trend toward nationalization. For the last quarter century, we have seen technological advances from short-run printing presses allowing more specialized magazines, to 100-station-plus cable packages allowing highly segmented programming to the internet with its limitless numbers of e-mail lists and websites allowing for even the smallest of groups to have their own space.

Now that it is possible for marketers to pinpoint a message, it is likely to come to be expected. Aside from some regional specialties such as bar-b-que sauce, marketing in the specialty food industry has trended to a promotion of European sophistication or of contemporary Asian cool. The challenge will increasingly be how to use the new technologies of particularistic marketing to make one’s appeal to those acres after acre of Republican red, or more exactly, to the individuals who are culturally conservative.