To Understand Coastal Elites, Start By Looking At Middle America

Ever notice that farm-to-table restaurants are all the rage in big metropolitan cities? Or that guys in your office love dressing in work boots, denim, and flannel? 

They may seem unrelated, but they add up to a larger question — where do trends originate these days? And how can we capture and stay ahead of them to better connect with our audiences?

Most marketers tend to focus on the coasts when trying to forecast what’s next for customers. But the answers may lie more in the Heartland than in the urban centers of cool.

Earlier this year, we teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications to undertake a major research project studying the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the small cities between the coasts. After the derisively called “flyover states” jolted the political climate in the 2016 election, we wanted to better understand the culture behind the shockwave. We conducted ethnographic research in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, focusing on cities with between 100,000 and 750,000 people. 



The insights were illuminating, and came with a big, unexpected twist.

First, social media isn’t replacing face-to-face interactions in the heartland. “Social media feels like a gateway drug, but it doesn’t replace real connection,” one Nebraskan put it. Genuine, human conversations remain the most effective way to build relationships.

Secondly, heritage really does matter. Origins are valued and a deep respect for both ancestry and current geography are prized. This point has been frequently interpreted as prejudice or racism. We found the opposite to be true. The great majority of people we talked to reacted with consternation to the Trump administration’s proposed “travel ban,” citing both their local church’s activity with refugees, as well as their connection to their own immigrant forebears. Instead of being an excuse for exclusion, heritage can act as an invitation toward more inclusion. 

Finally, gone are the days when trends appeared in Omaha and Kansas City only after they’d run their course in New York and L.A. Today, places like Fargo and Sioux Falls are moving at the speed of the Internet, aware of what’s happening not only in Brooklyn and Silver Lake, but also Tokyo and Buenos Aires. And they’re eager to put their own spin on it. Midwesterners feel less like they live in a flyover city and more like they reside in a new kind of epicenter. 

But an even more profound insight occurred when we used these observations to better understand our big-city bubbles. 

Up and down both coasts, from San Diego to Seattle and Miami to Boston, we noticed downtown revitalizations, and a real population movement from the suburbs to urban centers. Was it possible that people in the big cities are seeking more face-to-face interaction, as we learned from our friends in the Heartland?

We also saw the huge movement toward local products and artisan goods all around us. Locally made crafts (Pickling! Butchery!) bore the distinctive influence of Midwest authenticity, challenging the assumption that coastal coolness gave birth to these trends.

And we saw around us a real desire to get closer to the land. Whether it’s in our culinary trends (farm-to-table restaurants), our new hobbies (backyard vegetable gardening), or our spins on traditions (farm destination weddings), big cities are looking for Heartland realness.

Is it possible that the Coasts are looking toward the Middle for inspiration? Is the Heartland now America’s trendsetter? 

It’s time to consider whether our small cities are more influential on our overall attitudes and behaviors than we might think. Perhaps influence is emanating from the inside out, and marketers should take a much closer look at the Heartland.

1 comment about "To Understand Coastal Elites, Start By Looking At Middle America".
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  1. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, August 26, 2017 at 5:03 a.m.

    David, this was an interesting read but I'm curious about the actual AOI differences...some of which have been documented elsewhere...find out anything "nifty?"  As a former "fly-over" state person who entered the coastal migration pattern years ago, I'd like some elaboration.

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