Monday, January 19, 2009

Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community

Note: This was originally written in 2006.

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Eric Hoffer

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

This book is at the same time engaging and appalling. Either which way you might interpret it; it is a book that you have to read. It provides clues into some of what has been happening in America. By tying together the success of the Republican Party in the last several elections, companies like Starbucks and Applebee’s, and the mega churches, the authors have pulled the curtain back on the tools, principles and mechanisms of manipulating people into doing what an organization wants them to do.

Life targeting, or micro-targeting, as it has been recently tagged, is a methodology of predicting the behavior of micro segments of a society based on lifestyle and demographics. Then identifying specifically who these people are by name and contacting them with a message targeted to their micro sector. It is not necessary that the organization really hold the values held by the members of the micro segment, only that the organization can make the people believe that the organization does.

In the 1980’s I came to realize that organizational values were the key to success in the marketplace. While at IBM, I developed an organizational change methodology to determine the values of the customers, and change the values of an organization to reflect those values. This was described in a book I coauthored entitled Innovate! (McGraw Hill, 1994). We pointed out that here must be a values match between the customers and the values those customers perceived from the organization. And, that it was set of values that differentiated one organization from another. Moreover, that same set of values controlled the type of innovation most likely to be produced by the organization. Efficiency and effectiveness of the organization depends respectively on the target of the values focus and the spread of the values focus.

We, the authors of Innovate!, assumed naively that organizations were really interested in changing their values…

Do I hear protests from the readers? Some of you may be saying, “But lifestyle targeting has been used by consumer companies for a number of years.” That’s true, but not in the same way. Examples in Applebee’s America are described such as Applebee’s convincing individuals that they really cared about what happened to them. (Remember the ad showing the coach retiring?) When’s the last time you believed that a large corporation really cared about what happens to you. It is a business and until business stops being totally driven by shareholder value, concern for the individual will remain a lost value. Yet many of us need to believe that the message is true, and the corporation continues to grow.

Sosnik, Dowd and Fournier repeatedly give example from politics, business and mega churches that can be interpreted as I have. Politics goes one step further however. With American divided nearly equally between the two major parties, and low voter turnout, a small group of voters actually determine who wins. Using concepts like business, politicians can calculate the cost per vote in these micro segments and allocate money accordingly. The message they delver to these micro segments, if effective, swings the election, even if the candidate holds the values projected or not. It’s not about the issues. The American public glazes over when issues are discussed. It’s about the values connection between the candidate and the voters. This technique will win elections but it will forever divide us for there is no benefit of collaboration among differences. It exploits the differences.

Hypocrisy is defined as “a pretense of having some desirable or publicly approved attitude.” This is the line we have crossed over in the current use of micro-targeting.

Eventually hypocrisy is revealed. It is just too difficult to sustain a pretense, and actions do indeed prove louder than words. But what America’s powerful have learned is that it takes a long time for people to perceive the pretense.

In First Democracy, Paul Woodruff points out that in Athens the primary role of public education was to prepare Athenians to be able to participate in their democracy. Unfortunately, we haven’t done that.

To the author’s credit, while they do not take the low view I have of micro-targeting as it is now practiced, they do point out that the values connections has to be real to be sustained:

“Navigating the Stormy Present - How to Be a Great Connector:

I. Make and Maintain a Gut Values Connection. Voters felt President Bush was a strong and decisive leader. They felt President Clinton cared about them and would work hard on their behalf. Both presidents fell out of favor when they were not true to their Gut Values, proving that authenticity matters in this era of spine, not spin.

2. Adapt. President Clinton realized he needed to change his message and methods to appeal to Swing Is and Swing IIs. Eight years later, President Bush determined that there were no longer enough swing voters to make a difference and that he had to find new Republican voters.

3. LifeTarget. President Clinton barely scratched the surface of the potential to find and motivate voters based on their lifestyles. President Bush took it to a new level in 2004.

4. Talk Smart. Both presidents broke new ground in niche and local advertising, constantly looking for ways to communicate to their voters through the channels those voters used to get information.

5. Find Navigators. President Bush's campaign identified more than 2 million people who could influence how their friends, family members, and associates make political decisions.”

In each of the three markets they analyzed, they provide the above roadmap.

Applebee’s America describes a methodology that is borrowed from Myer’s Briggs Personality Type, the concepts of lifestyle, the concepts of generations, demographics and the concepts of the tipping point. It’s pieces of these sets of concepts lashed together in a way that is incredibly effective, according the authors.

Oh, by the way, how did the Republican’s get the specific names, addresses, telephone numbers and in some cases e-mail addresses for the members of the micro-target sectors? Well, they got them the same way that business do from credit card transactions, and from the membership of some of the mega churches. Is this ethical?

So far I’ve been writing about the first part of the book – Great Connectors. I personally found the second part of the book – Great Change – much more professionally interesting. The chapters on anxious Americans, the 3 C’s (connectors, community and civic engagement), navigators and generation 9/11 give a good, insightful view of present day America with some views of the future. However, as a professional I would have preferred to get accessible references to the data they quoted to make a point (none are given). Example:

“…’protecting the family’ rose to become the No. 1 value of American’s (cited by 53 percent of respondents in a 2000 Roper analysis.”

Anyone who works with data taken from surveys knows that it is important to know the context and how the data was collected and what else the data indicates in order to interpret it.

The author’s provide:

“Ten steps for political, business, and religious leaders who want to take advantage of the public’s yearning for community:

1. Clearly define your purpose. It’s what galvanizes your community.
2. Give your staff the clear sense that they’re vital to achieving a common purpose.
3. Build your organization from the bottom up, not the top down. Technology makes grassroots organizing easier than ever.
4. Give your customers/voters/worshipers a say in how the product/campaign/church is marketed. Recognize that the consumer has more control than ever.
5. Tap into existing networks when possible. Create networks where none exist.
6. Be true to your purpose. Authenticity, accountability, and trust are the keys to building a bond or a brand.
7. Join the online community of bloggers to catch the first whiff of a crisis and to make sure your message is heard in the cyberspace community.
8. Wherever possible, make your enterprise a Third Place, a community outside home and work for people in search of connection.
9. Donate time and money to community causes. Customers are inclined to support civic-minded companies such as Home Depot, according to Bridgeland, the former head of UDSA Freedom Corps.
10. Identify the community’s leaders (Navigators) and get them on your side. Better still, use the Internet and other tools to create products that draw people together in online communities.”

In spite of my negative reaction to what they were saying in the first part of the book, I liked the book. It’s a book that should be read by many and the focus for a lot of discussion.

It was very curious to me that the book (inadvertently?) undercut the approach of the first part of the book with the second part. In politics, the battle between micro-targeting and grass roots civic engagement is being fought out in present and future elections. If I have a vote, I vote for the latter.

Applebee’s America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community
Douglas Sosnik, Matthew Dowd and Ron Fournier
Simon & Schuster (2006)

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