Advertisers are grappling with a stark realization: After spending years courting U.S. consumers with aspirational images of upscale urban living, they may have misjudged the yearnings of much of their audience.
In the wake of Donald Trump's election as U.S. president with a wave of support from middle American voters, advertisers are reflecting on whether they are out of touch with the same people—rural, economically frustrated, elite-distrusting, anti-globalization voters—who propelled the businessman into the White House. Mr. Trump's rise has them rethinking the way they collect data about consumers, recruit staff and pitch products.
A few days after the Nov. 8 election, the chief executive of the ad agency giant McCann Worldgroup summoned top executives to discuss what the company could learn from the surprising outcome. One takeaway for him and his staff was that too much advertising falsely assumes that all U.S. consumers desire to be like coastal elites.
"Every so often you have to reset what is the aspirational goal the public has with regard to the products we sell," said Harris Diamond, McCann's CEO. "So many marketing programs are oriented toward metro elite imagery." Marketing needs to reflect less of New York and Los Angeles culture, he said, and more of "Des Moines and Scranton."
Some marketers, concerned that data isn't telling them everything they need to know, are considering increasing their use of personal interviews in research. Meanwhile, some ad agencies are looking to hire more people from rural areas as they rethink the popular use of aspirational messaging showcasing a ritzy life on the two metropolitan coasts. One company is also weighing whether to open more local offices around the world, where the people who create ads are closer to the people who see them.
"This election is a seminal moment for marketers to step back and understand what is in people's heads and what actually drives consumer choice," said Joe Tripodi, chief marketing officer of the Subway sandwich chain.
Even as many ad agencies try to improve their gender and racial diversity, industry executives say they also need to ensure their U.S. employees come from varied socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds.
A diversity hire "can be a farm girl from Indiana as much as a Cuban immigrant who lives in Pensacola," said John Boiler, chief executive of the agency 72andSunny, whose clients include General Mills Inc. and Coors Light. The agency plans to expand its university recruitment programs to include rural areas.