Marketing 101 example: equating pickup trucks to the American way of life

A look at declines in pickup sales for American automakers includes this description of what pickups represent:

“Pickups represent a rugged sense of individualism for many Americans. They are the very definition of America in that they are larger than life like America and can both work and play hard,” said Erich Merkle, U.S. Ford sales analyst.

This is both a concise and bold marketing statement: pickups are the American way of life! The statement ties to multiple big themes that run through American culture: individualism, larger than life, hard work and lots of play. And it is a vehicle that allows the owner to participate in the pervasive driving culture in the United States. And all this just for $35,000 to $50,000 for a new truck!

A truck, like many consumer goods, is not just about functionality but is also a statement about the owners and what they want to be. Buying smartphones, single-family homes, clothing, and more fall into the same process: marketing appeals to our want for what we own to match our personality and/or aspirations. A truck is not just a truck; it is a statement about the driver. It says, “I eat a Prius for lunch” or “I need to do important projects” or “I have the resources to buy a new truck” (among other possible messages).

Then I am reminded that it is just a pickup truck. Vehicles are necessary in many American communities in order to get from Point A to Point B. But, many vehicles may work in order to accomplish regular tasks. If the primary vehicle use is for commuting to work or regular errands such as buying groceries or dropping off and picking up kids, a truck is probably not needed. Some people need trucks for regularly hauling items or for work.

For now, this match between pickups and the American Dream “works.” There are numerous other products that would wish to tie themselves as closely as pickup trucks to the base values of the American Dream. It may not be this way in several decades; perhaps the rugged individualism and freedom will be attached to fleets of electric vehicles that are at everyone’s beck and call. Until something changes, expect to continue to see the marketing pitch that pickups equal the American way of life.

Install a video doorbell to “join the neighborhood” in fear

A recent ad from Ring shows the kind acts neighbors can perform for each other and visitors. The moments range from dropping off misdelivered mail to warning about a fire to capturing footage of someone shoveling a front sidewalk to a resident leaving out snacks for delivery drivers. All of this looks good…And yet: do people install video doorbells because they want to capture good deeds? Or, are they more likely motivated by fear and safety concerns?

I have written about the new possibilities for suburban neighborhoods: homeowners with video doorbells can work as an ever watching surveillance force. And the footage can be shared with police! And no one has to answer the door! But, all of these share motivations: this is about fear, not about neighborliness. Even looking out for others in the neighborhood via the camera is about fighting against crime, disorder, and threats.

On the whole, I would guess video cameras will not increase the number of good needs and neighborliness. American communities need more face-to-face interaction, not monitoring via cameras or online discussions through platforms like NextDoor or messages through yard signs. The commercial is a worthy attempt by Ring to bring a positive message regarding the doorbell camera but hides more of what is really going on.

 

Online courses open opportunities…to study close to home

The spatial dimension of taking online courses provides a surprising finding in a new survey:

While studying online theoretically gives students who are place bound for work or family reasons more geographic flexibility than does in-person study, the Online College Students research shows that ever larger numbers of fully online students are staying close to home.

As seen in the graphic below, 67 percent of respondents said they lived within 50 miles of a campus or service center of the college where they are studying, up from 42 percent just five years ago. Meanwhile, the proportion who said they are studying at least 100 miles from where they live has dropped by more than half, to 15 percent in 2019 from 37 percent in 2014.

The report’s authors offered this analysis: “The growing number of schools offering online programs provides students with more options closer to their home. Local schools have greater visibility among employers and others in the community, which is valuable to students.”

The explanation offered makes some sense: nearby colleges are known in the community. A degree from a local school may mean more than a school from elsewhere.

But, this could lead to some interesting connections:

1. Does this suggest that students have a hard time differentiating from all of the online course options out there? One way to filter all of those options would be to stick to recognizable nearby names.

2. I wonder how the marketing of local institutions matters. Media outlets in the Chicago area are full of advertisements from universities and colleges pushing online programs. Of course, there are national voices advertising in there as well but some of these can be unknown institutions (I’m thinking of Southern New Hampshire University).

3. Could this be linked to decreased geographic mobility among Americans? If Americans like to be rooted in a place, choosing a place to take college classes – whether online or not – may matter.

4. I’m reminded of findings that suggest social media users often make online connections with people they already know offline. In other words, social media users are not always seeking out random connections or unknown people to interact with. Could the same principle apply to colleges?

In the long run, what if the online world ends up leaning local in terms of the connections people make and maintain?

Coldwell Banker’s map of Chicago area locations missing parts of Chicago

A Coldwell Banker insert in the Chicago Tribune included a map and listing of all their Chicago area locations (zoomed in portion below):

ColdwellBankerChicagoMap060219.jpg

It is easy to see all of the suburban locations, particularly in the north and west suburbs. In contrast, check out the city map. From my count, there are seven Chicago Coldwell Banker agencies. Five of these are on the north side. Two are not: one in the West Loop and one in Hyde Park.

But, the Chicago map does not just show disparate locations. It is not an accurate map. The city is oddly shaped. Let me count the ways:

  1. It has an oddly drawn western edge that happens to make the south side much smaller.
  2. The west and south sides do not exist in their full form compared to the north side which looks like it has the biggest area.
  3. The West Loop location should be roughly in the center of the city – it is not. The size of the south side is diminished.
  4. The locations in Chicago have a weird relation to each other. Why are the West Loop and Hyde Park locations so close to each other? According to Google Maps, they are an over 8 mile drive away from each other. Yet, Google Maps suggests the West Loop and Lincoln Park locations are roughly 3 miles apart.

Perhaps this is a function of making a map with labels (the text all has to fit). Or, this may be about marketing: Coldwell Banker has particular clients and they want to highlight their proximity to those potential customers.

Yet, the map severely distorts Chicago. As noted above, the west and south sides do not fully exist. Recent Chicago maps aimed at particular audiences have done this before. This map also hints at the relationship between real estate practices and decades-long discrepancies in where people in the region live. Real estate professionals are not passive bystanders in residential segregation; they were active participants working alongside lenders and governments. Homeownership today is still not completely a free market and is more available to some Americans than others. Coldwell Banker does not have locations in certain places and this likely has ties to race, ethnicity, and class as well as practices and patterns developed over decades.

I am not asking that Coldwell Banker open locations in certain places. I am asking for an accurate map that clearly shows where Coldwell Banker is and where it is not.

(And for those who think I am reading too much into this, my starting position is this: I assume race is a causal factor in American social life until shown otherwise, not vice versa.)

Chicago suburb to sponsor college bowl game

The competition between suburbs can be intense and Elk Grove Village has a new way to stand out: sponsor a college bowl game to be played in the Bahamas.

The village and ESPN announced Tuesday that Elk Grove will be the title sponsor of the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl, to be played Dec. 21 in Nassau, Bahamas, using the village’s business marketing tag line. The village is spending $300,000 to sponsor the game, which will air on ESPN. The game had previously been sponsored by Popeyes.

It marks the first time a non-tourist municipality has sponsored a bowl game, the village and ESPN say…

Johnson wanted a way to expand the reach of the village’s “Makers Wanted” campaign, which launched in 2015 to promote the village industrial park — at 6 square miles, the largest contiguous one in the country. The campaign has included a website, billboards, TV and radio commercials, and print ads…

The fee to sponsor the bowl game is part of a $400,000 increase the board approved in its contract with Lombard-based Red Caffeine, the marketing company that developed the Makers Wanted campaign. The other funds will pay for new Elk Grove TV commercials set to air regionally on cable news channels this fall.

It is not uncommon for states to mount such campaigns. For example, see efforts by Texas, Indiana, Florida, and isconsin to draw residents and businesses from Illinois. It is more rare for a single suburb to mount such a campaign on a national scale.

However, conspicuously missing from this article is any evidence that such campaigns work. Can the village conclusively show that the campaign started in 2015 has (1) increased the number of businesses in the community and (2) revenues have increased because of the moves?

This could also be about the status of the suburb. The Chicago area has scores of suburbs and communities often want to stand out. This is why they might seek to change a motto, a logo, or run campaigns to distinguish themselves from others. Such a marketing campaign can make a suburb feel better about itself and local leaders can show they are being proactive regarding growing their community (and growth is good).

It will be very interesting to see whether the football audience helps advance the goals of the suburb and if they are willing to renew their sponsorship for another year past the first. The mayor is claiming the news about the campaign has already helped the suburb (suggesting 95% of the value has already been realized) but the long-term prognosis will take some time to sort out.

Using comic strips to sell the suburbs to millennials

A suburb south of Chicago has a new marketing campaign intended to attract millennial residents:

“Think Homewood” ads, which debuted this month and will run through May, feature three comic strips that focus on affordability, schools, parks, community and creativity. The village, which is about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, is spending $20,000 on the campaign focused on appealing to millennials…

In those comic panels, two moms stress over registering their kids for schools and park district activities. “I have an alarm set on my phone,” one mom cries when discussing her anxiety about plans to register for a gymnastics class. “If I’m late 30 seconds and miss the window to get a space, I’m so screwed.”

In the other Chicago strip, a dad driving from the grocery store with his wife and toddler shouts, “Frak!” after forgetting avocados for dinner. The couple decide they lack the fortitude to fight traffic and find a parking spot for a return trip to the store. “Goodbye, Taco Night,” an exasperated dad laments.

Those are contrasted with the relatively idyllic “Somewhere in Homewood” strips, where a return to the store for avocados is easy, and the park district has room for another kid in gymnastics even though classes start the next day.

Here is the first strip from ThinkHomewood.com:

https://i2.wp.com/thinkhomewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/CarCard_Homewood_Strip_1_FINAL-1.jpg

The comic strip seems to hit the right notes regarding one big reason many Americans head for the suburbs: they want a good place to raise a family. Emphasizing safety, lots of green space, good schools, and interesting activities fits into this category.

The strips also highlight a new dimension of suburbs: their growing popularity as cultural and entertainment centers in their own right. While a smaller suburb cannot compete with the restaurant or theater or sports scene in a major city, it can have more cultural amenities. These suburban pockets of fun help move communities past decades-old images of bedroom suburbs where everyone is inside by dinner and nightlife is non-existent. (Of course, most areas in suburbs are relatively quiet places and not every suburb can easily develop a thriving downtown like in Naperville.)

On the downside: many communities have such marketing campaigns. Do they really work? The article goes on to discuss several other Chicago suburbs that have mounted campaigns and the evidence seems thin about whether marketing really attracts people. It is difficult for a smaller suburb to stand out within a region like the Chicago area where there are hundreds of places to live. Would a comic strip be enough to convince people to look in Homewood rather than in dozens of other places?

Finally: do millennials read comic strips like this?

The same LA bridges in many car commercials

One interesting set of locations is fairly common in car commercials: bridges in Los Angeles. This is not what you might expect: how many people know that bridges are even necessary in Los Angeles? (The Los Angeles River does exist.) This has a long history: a 2004 New York Times story suggests the presence of production companies in southern California plus good weather leads to many shoots in Los Angeles.

One of the past bridge locations was the Sixth Street Viaduct which closed in 2016:

According to Film L.A., the organization that helps the film industry book municipal locations, over 80 movies, television shows, music videos, and commercials are shot on or underneath the Sixth Street Viaduct each year. That’s partially because of the bridge’s swooping metal arches, perched on an art-deco concrete platform; and partially because of the river underneath and that access tunnel: if you want to film something set in Los Angeles that makes reference to the city’s automotive culture, or if you’re just looking for a place to shoot a car chase that’s cheaper and more available than a clogged freeway, the channelized, concretized bed of the Los Angeles River is your best choice.

Except that the bridge officially no longer functions that way, as of last week. It’s going away completely. And the river? It’s on its way to becoming a river again.

Here is a short montage of the bridge being taken down alongside iconic images from films.

The Fourth Street Bridge is also home to a number of shoots and features Art Deco columns as well as views of the downtown skyline. Here is a Google Street View image:

FourthStreetLosAngeles

Are viewers of car commercials more likely to purchase a vehicle if it is shown in Los Angeles compared to other settings? Los Angeles has its own aesthetic which may or may not match with many other places. (In urban sociology, Los Angeles is often held up as the prime example of decentralization. Yet, it also does have a downtown as well as numerous other scenic sites such as the hills behind the city.) In the Chicago television market, we see some car commercials shot in Chicago. Might this help viewers envision themselves driving a new car when they see it in a familiar location? It would be more difficult to do this for all of the metropolitan markets in the United States.

Here are some other common car commercial locations with several more in the Los Angeles area.

A working life hints at the connections between sociology and marketing

An obituary for a pioneering female in the advertising industry provides a reminder of how sociology and marketing can be related:

A sociologist with a knack for market research, Ms. Ziff, who died on Nov. 11 at 92 in Jupiter, Fla., spent nearly four decades working her way up the ranks at big ad agencies.

Her work contributed to one of the most famous campaigns of the 20th century, the “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” toilet paper commercials of the 1960s featuring the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple.

Ms. Ziff, then a vice president at Benton & Bowles, conducted research suggesting that consumers were more likely to buy toilet paper if they could touch it. Using her insights, her colleague John Chervokas developed the Mr. Whipple campaign…

Ms. Ziff earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the City University of New York, while continuing to work at Benton & Bowles.

Is the primary difference between these two fields that one aims to sell more products while the other hopes to better understand and explain social life? The two fields can use similar research methods and both want to know how people and groups operate.

I’m guessing it would be frowned upon in many sociology departments to make this suggestion but a number of students might be interested to know that training in sociology could be a great background for going into marketing.

Infrastructure Week in Illinois intended to sell needed repairs and funds

This week is one intended to help promote needed funding for infrastructure in Illinois:

With a new Illinois capital program delayed as the state goes 11 months without a budget, transit leaders have been sounding the alarm in both Washington, D.C., and Springfield about the dangers of waiting too long to invest in infrastructure. Business, labor and transit leaders will ramp up discussion nationwide Monday for the start of the thrillingly named Infrastructure Week.

It’s a tough sell — roads, buses and trains seem to work just fine until they don’t, and politicians don’t like to raise gas taxes or other user fees. Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Leanne Redden admits that funding for bridges, signals and tunnels is not a sexy topic, but it’s crucial to keep the system going the way it should…

The Metropolitan Planning Council, which consulted with RTA officials and other experts around Illinois, determined that meeting the state’s transportation deficit requires an additional $43 billion over 10 years — on top of what is already expected in terms of capital funding…

He noted that no system is going to be in perfect shape all the time — it’s like your house, you want to keep it in a state of at least 90 percent repair, with a few projects on a to-do list. But Illinois’ state of repair is currently below 80 percent and could drop below 60 percent in the next five years, Skosey said.

It is unclear from this article whether this week is aimed at the public – who often doesn’t pay much attention to infrastructure and generally doesn’t like paying increased taxes for public services – or state officials and legislators – who aren’t doing much of anything in Illinois these days. I assume the general goal is to raise awareness but what would they like the public to do? Call a political leader? Vote different in the 2016 election?

Thinking about the role of governments, the public tends to assume or hope that governments will do the prudent thing for the future. In terms of infrastructure, this usually means keeping up with maintenance and taking care of needed changes before the situation gets dire. But, given the short-term outlook of many politicians these days plus many competing interests, infrastructure needs are often kicked down the road. Yet, compared to other major issues that can continue to be kicked down the road, at some point roads, railroad systems, airports, electric grids, and other necessary pieces of infrastructure can and will literally crumble and will require immediate attention.