Marketing to the Heartland

How to understand “Middle America”

“Middle America” is a term that carries both geographical and cultural connotations. Middle Americans also account for nearly half of the U.S. population.

Geographical: Typically, rural or suburban areas of the central or mainland United States of America – also referred to as the country’s interior, non-urban “heartland.”

Cultural: Compared with urban, coastal areas, Middle America is associated with middle- or lower-class incomes and socioeconomic status, more conservative values, and more connection to “tradition” and “family values.”  

Why should you care? It’s going to be challenging, if not impossible, to influence an audience if you don’t know them first. There’s no shortage of ineffective campaigns in this world, many of which are born out of short-sighted insights from marketers who don’t truly understand their audience. It’s easy for us as marketers to create echo chambers – where we’re only talking to each other about each other, and we become really good at advertising to people just like us. Here are a few tips on how to get out of that hamster wheel and touch the hearts of the heartland.

1. Look for the Similarities and the Differences

People are the same all over (kind of) – and it’s important to not jump to conclusions about people who are different from you.

The internet is a great equalizer and has evened the playing field to some degree. It’s easy for people everywhere to have a greater awareness of the world outside their backyard, and the same exposure to trends, news, culture, etc. – regardless of whether they live where distance is measured in time or measured in Uber fare. There used to be a divide in access and exposure, but the gap – and the world – continues to get smaller.

Middle Americans generally use social media at similar rates to urban Americans, but differences emerge in access to high-speed internet connections. In other words, gaps still exist – nearly two-thirds of rural Americans say they have a high-speed internet connection at home, up from about one-third in 2007. But, they’re 10 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have high-speed internet. No internet at home means you might be a smartphone-only internet user, using a phone for tasks traditionally reserved for larger screens.
Plus, while the majority of Middle Americans do have internet access, they’re less likely to have multiple devices, and they go online less frequently – 58% of rural-dwelling adults use the internet on at least a daily basis, compared to 80% of urbanites.

Middle Americans have a strong social identity. They believe that in their communities, people look out for each other. But they also believe that the same compassion doesn’t exist in big cities.

  • 7 in 10 rural residents say their values differ from those of people who live in big cities

  • 4 in 10 say their values are “very different”

But urbanites don’t feel as divided or different:

  • 5 in 10 urban residents say their values differ from rural people

  • Less than 2 in 10 say rural values are “very different” 2

2. Stop the “Me-search”

It’s easy to do, and we’re all guilty of thinking along the lines of “If I saw that…” or “When I’m on my phone, I always…” But not only is a “focus group of one” not representative of a group of people, it’s a dangerous practice that can contribute to tone-deaf campaigns. If we only think like and about people like us, we’re completely missing the mark on what really matters – the way the intended audience feels about our message.

To avoid making unfounded assumptions, perform an exercise to hit “delete” on your preconceptions. Reflect on what knee-jerk judgments come to mind when you think of a group of people. What worn-down groove does your mind fall into? Spell out the caricature, explicitly and to the extreme. Acknowledging the elephant in the room and recognizing your own prejudice is an important first step.

3. Talk to your audience!

Here at LC, we’ve used apps like Over the Shoulder, and have conducted focus groups to get insights directly from the people we’re trying to reach. There’s no substitute for qualitative research and the wisdom gained from authentic, unfiltered reactions. But if and when you do recruit study participants, be careful to check yourself. Recruiting friends and family might save money, but it often excludes people who are unlike you. 

Another way to get in your target audience’s heads – scroll a mile in their shoes. Kevin Allocca, head of culture and trends at YouTube, recommends that marketers, “Find 20 YouTube channels that are popular among your audience and subscribe to them. As you watch the content, get in the mindset of your audience, keep your eyes peeled for emerging trends, and familiarize yourself with pop culture.”

4. Reflect Reality Authentically

What’s most important is reflecting Middle America’s reality. When people don’t see people like them in marketing materials, they think it’s “for someone else,” and 95% of young Americans in the heartland say brands don’t understand them. True creativity in this industry might end with a catchy turn of phrase, a cleverly executed spot, or an innovative digital experience, but it has to start with understanding and viewing the world through a lens other than your own.



For more tips and insights on how to take your marketing from now to next, subscribe to our newsletter or contact Nicole Stone – Senior Vice President, Business Development at or 414.270.7235.

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