The home of the red, white and blue has changed significantly since America was established in 1776. America has changed meaningfully through events like the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, the Vietnam War and 9/11. And yet, while today's America is indeed very different than the America of 1800, 1865, 1920, 1975 or 2001, it remains wonderfully unchanged in some respects. However, it's often difficult to define what America stands for today.
It's hard to describe a nation as diverse as America in a series of words or phrases, but in this nation that's never been known to back down from a challenge, there's a group of people whose job is to develop and communicate messages that resonate with Americans. Marketers get to the core of America today. While some may struggle with the idea that marketers can define America, there is no better way to understand this country. If we can understand what works for brands to connect with a wonderfully diverse group of Americans, we can understand the core of America today.
So, what exactly do marketers tell us about America today?
1. We buy a lot of crap, not all of it good.
Global marketers care about America for good reason: It's a nation of consumers with a GDP of 21.4 trillion, the largest in the world. America also sets trends for the rest of the world, so if a brand does well in America, it is more likely to do well around the world.
And as for consumption, Americans still consume food and beverages that we know to be bad for us at alarming rates. Unhealthy food and beverage consumption is linked to declines in average lifespan, rising incidence of heart disease and increased health care costs. Yet "darlings" such as Cheetos, Coke, Doritos, Little Caesars, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Pop-Tarts, Pringles, Reese's Take 5, Snickers and SodaStream are successful enough to spend seven figures on a Super Bowl spot in 2020. America is still the home of consumption, even if it kills us.
2. Trust matters.
Americans are an inherently optimistic lot, and if a brand can prove it is trustworthy, the sky's the limit. Facebook is spending all kinds of money trying to retain the trust of Americans after the Cambridge Analytica issue. Google and Amazon are working hard to have Americans trust Google Voice and Amazon Alexa by running ads that make them approachable and fun. 23andMe ran influencer campaigns to help people trust the brand to appropriately handle their genetic material. Marketers work hard to establish trust for brands, proving that trust is still paramount in Americana.
3. We love free almost as much as freedom.
While Americans may buy a lot of things, we appreciate simplicity and value. Companies today continue to differentiate themselves by offering "free." Southwest Airlines has carved out a niche by playing on America's love of bags flying free. Discover has differentiated its brand from key incumbent cards like Visa and MasterCard by clearly communicating that there's never an annual fee. If you can communicate "free" to Americans, they will listen.
4. We know we need to get better.
Brands today tell us that America has a desire to do better with gender equality. Women represent a fraction of board seats compared to men, occupy far too few high-paying STEM jobs and are still significantly underrepresented in Congress. On the heels of the #MeToo movement, brands are looking to empower women, as we see with Microsoft hailing the NFL's female coach in a recent Super Bowl ad, Dove celebrating all women's body types and Gillette catching all sorts of hell for its ad celebrating men.
America also has a long way to go when it comes to ethnic inclusivity, as shown by the iconic Colin Kaepernick Nike campaign that emphasized standing up for what you believe in. Pepsi Zero's "Paint it Black" Super Bowl ad featuring Missy Elliott and singer H.E.R. took a clear shot at both Coke and the outdated perception of white America in featuring the new black matte can.
Americans' appetite to get better is nearly insatiable, and for brands that are willing to be at the forefront of this change, there is considerable opportunity in today's America. High risk and high reward — sounds very American, huh?
5. Our unity is stronger than our divisions.
In today's world, it's hard not to see the different divisions that exist in America — red and blue states, high earners and the working poor, black and white, straight and gay, urban and suburban.
What's beautiful about today's America isn't the divisions but the common feelings of purpose and unity that bring us together. Smart brands utilize the themes of unity and togetherness to connect with consumers in today's seemingly divisive times.
For many brands, like Snickers, it's as simple as including a diverse group of Americans in its advertising, to cut across these divisions and deliver a feeling of togetherness. For other brands that are looking to land that knockout punch, we see overt ads connecting their brand with the unifying ideals of America. Budweiser's "Typical American" Super Bowl ad captured this sentiment by juxtaposing negative American stereotypes with the incredible good Americans do every day.
Strength, competitiveness, solving the world's problems and celebrating victories are all things that bring America together, and Budweiser nailed it by celebrating the ideals that Americans have in common. Other brands, including USAA and Verizon, do similar things to bring Americans together by showing the unifying and healing images of our military and first responders.
While America will continue to evolve and change, it's comforting to know that we can look to marketers to understand what defines "American" today. And because we are an optimistic nation that believes in doing the right thing and working hard to ensure tomorrow is better than today, we should feel confident that themes of unity will continue to ring true for years to come.
Previously published on Forbes