I defy your algorithms, Silicon Valley. I eat at Cracker Barrel and I wear Jimmy Choo shoes. OK, not simultaneously, but after a week of cocktail parties in D.C., killing my feet in 4-inch heels, nothing beats changing into tennis shoes and jeans to enjoy some Southern comfort: fried okra, cornbread, and the ambiance of normality where no one takes photos of their food.
My husband and I spent more than 15 years working Silicon Valley. When we would visit our families in Kentucky or southwest Virginia, though, we’d stock up on “I Love Lucy” and “Gilligan’s Island” DVDs in Cracker Barrel’s Old Country Store. Listening to our daughter and her friends’ gut-busting giggling erupting from the playroom when they first saw Lucy and Ethel working in the chocolate factory or Gilligan’s ruined rescue schemes would remind Jim and me of our childhoods, filled with laughter and sleepovers after a day of playing in the woods and riding our bikes for miles and afternoons on our metal swing sets, reaching our toes to the sky.
A December 15 feature in the Wall Street Journal made me realize that the ability to appreciate both middle America and California cool may be more rare than I assumed. Moreover, there’s value in that rarity. Caity Cronkhite, a young woman from rural Indiana, graduated high school a year early and left her small town for big-city life near San Francisco Bay. There she found a culture of inclusion. Of a sort. She discovered “that the inclusiveness didn’t extend to white, small-town America. Friends at work one day called her over to ask about Cracker Barrel. ‘It’s just like a chain restaurant [where] we go to treat ourselves,’ Ms. Cronkhite said. A co-worker jumped in: ‘It’s this really white-trash restaurant that overweight Midwesterners go to.’”
Just two weeks before, on December 1, the Journal ran an op-ed titled “For Colleges, A Rural Reckoning”: “A lot of schools woke up the day after the election a little stunned that all these surrounding counties voted for Trump.” The Journal highlighted a study that found that college applications that cited leadership in organizations such as 4-H and Future Farmers of America were “associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission.” That statistic reinforced a recognition that Silicon Valley and the elite universities from which they recruit the next generation of tech talent has shifted drastically in attitude and culture since our days in the ’80s and ’90s – when the semiconductor industry was led by down-to-earth people like Gordon Moore.
When did everyday Americans in Iowa or Ohio cease to be customers who were appreciated for their own values and lifestyle? Are they now only data points for tech marketers’ algorithms?
As a communications professional, I hear post-election commentary from friends in California and other major metropolitan areas with both amusement and alarm. When I participated in a digital media roundtable discussion and heard less-than-flattering comments about “certain types” of voters and the lives they lead, I began to wonder when the industry began to have so little understanding or appreciation for the diversity of its consumer base. At what point did the divergence occur? Are a customer’s preferences now solely useful as functional attributes to be factored into the next upgrade or plug-in?
Google changed its “Don’t be evil” mantra to “Do the right thing.” But does that ethos apply to a pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Abingdon, Va., who is trying to minister to a congregation that’s faced massive job losses when coal mines closed? Or does the company see its target user as a young mom who’s in the market for a new Prius and supports renewable energy?
I admire Mark Zuckerberg’s Great American Road Trip and suggest that other leaders do similar things, to see firsthand the way people live every day, to understand the hardships they face, to appreciate the goodness of simple acts of humanity, like church ladies who prepare casseroles for families who have lost loved ones. For those who are part of expanding the collective genius of the shared economy, have deeper conversations with Lyft and Uber drivers—the student, the single mom, the person earning extra money to buy something special for their kids—when visiting midsize markets like St. Louis and Jacksonville. Understand them. Understand their needs.
As we head into 2018, take a lesson from consumer product goods (CPG) companies that require regular visits to grocery stores as well as rides on delivery trucks. See how customers live. Spend time with managers of Midwest grocers like Hy-Vee and IGA to understand the relationship between retailers and their communities.
Get to know the “Kellogg’s mom” in Ludington, Mich., who changed from the hometown favorite—Frosted Flakes made in Battle Creek—to the store label. It’s higher in sugar and fat, but it’s less in price. Learn about a Hershey factory worker whose parents and grandparents work alongside sons and daughters. Employing generations is a point of pride for Hershey executives because they view the company as a family. Try to understand why chain restaurant executives bucked the trend of the Let’s Move campaign. They support the idea of portion control for weight management but they also realize that their customers want bigger portions and doggie bags to extend the value of their nights out.
Although many CPG company executives may not have supported Trump, they weren’t shocked when their customers did because they were talking to them regularly. Weekly. Sometimes daily.
After the landslide 1972 Presidential election, socialite Pauline Kael famously said, “I only know one person who voted for Nixon.” When I hear friends in Northern California make similar comments today, I want to urge them to arrange a field trip to do hands-on market research in the Midwest and the South. Meet the lady in the diner who lost business when the nearby plant closed. Talk to the owner of the local corner store.
Until you engage with customers face-to-face—not behind the one-way glass while observing a focus group—you will fail to fully grasp how a large segment of society uses your products and you will underestimate the value of the democratic process you support.
Lisa Gable served as Vice Chair of the Defense Advisory Committee of the Services, serving as an advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chief of Staff during the Navy Tailhook sexual harassment scandal. She recently a Senior Vice President at PepsiCo, responsible for global public policy development. Ms. Gable has also served as the President at Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, as a Principal with The Brand Group, and at the Ambassador, Advisor and General Commissioner-levels in the United States Department of State and Department of Defense. Lisa has her Master’s Degree from Georgetown University, and she has worked with numerous non-profits and Boards, including her role as a National Trustee for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Follow her on Twitter.