Sept. 5, 2007 — -- Mark Penn is Sen. Hillary Clinton's, D-N.Y., chief strategist, and he's been called "the most important man in Washington that no one has ever heard of." Penn's famous for identifying "soccer moms" as the swing vote in 1996, and now he's back, talking about the importance of swing votes and small trends. In his new book "Microtrends," Penn writes about how small movements can be the most effective of all. Read an excerpt below.
In 1960, Volkswagen shook up the car world with a full-page ad that had just two words on it: Think Small. It was a revolutionary idea -- a call for the shrinking of perspective, ambition, and scale in an era when success was all about accumulation and territorial gain, even when you were just driving down the street.
At the same time, as America was becoming the world's superpower, growing the dominant economy and setting the pace for global markets, the Beetle took off as a counter-culture rockstar – representing exploding individuality in reaction to the conformity of the 1950s.
America never quite got used to small when it came to cars. But ask two-thirds of America, and they will tell you they work for small business. Americans overwhelmingly favor small, reasonable ideas over big, grandiose schemes. And they yearn for the lifestyles of small-town America. Many of the biggest movements in America today are small -- often hidden for but a few to see.
Microtrends is based on the idea that the most powerful forces in our society are the emerging, counterintuitive trends that are shaping tomorrow right before us. With so much of a spotlight on teen crime, it is hard to see the young people who are succeeding as never before. With so much focus on poverty as the cause of terrorism, it is hard to see that it is richer, educated terrorists who have been behind many of the attacks. With so much attention to big, organized religion, it is hard to see that it is newer, small sects that are the fastest-growing.
The power of individual choice has never been greater, and the reasons and patterns for those choices never harder to understand and analyze. The skill of microtargeting – identifying small, intense subgroups and communicating with them about their individual needs and wants -- has never been more critical in marketing or in political campaigns. The one-size-fits-all approach to the world is dead.
Thirty years ago sitting in Harvard's Lamont Library, I read a book that started out, "The perverse and unorthodox thesis of this little book is that the voters are not fools." Its author, V. O. Key, Jr., made an argument that since that day has guided how I think not just about voters, but consumers, corporations, governments, and the world at large. If you use the right tools and look at the facts, it turns out that the average Joe is pretty smart, and making very rational choices.
Yet almost every day, I hear experts say that voters and consumers are misguided scatterbrains, making decisions on the basis of the color of a tie. That's why politicians pay consultants to tell them to wear earth-tone suits. That's why many commercials feature pointless stories with no relation to the products. Too often, candidates and marketers don't believe the facts or the issues matter that much. Oftentimes, it is they who are the fools. I bet at least two-thirds of all communications are wasted with messages and images that only their creators understood.
The perspective of this book is that thirty years later, V. O. Key, Jr.'s observation is not only sound, but should be the guiding principle of understanding the trends we see in America and around the world. People have never been more sophisticated, more individualistic, or more knowledgeable about the choices they make in their daily lives. Yet, as Key observed, it takes intensive, scientific study to find the logical patterns that underlie those choices. When faced with people's seemingly contradictory choices, it can be a lot easier to chalk them up to brown suits and Botox.
And indeed, the contradictions today are striking. While people are eating more healthy foods than ever, Big Mac sales have never been higher. While Fox News is number one in the ratings, the antiwar movement dominates most news coverage. While America is growing older, most of what we see in advertising and entertainment has been created with youth in mind. While people are dating as never before, they have never been more interested in deeper, longer-lasting relationships. While more people than ever before are drinking clear, natural water, more people are also drinking "monster" energy drinks loaded with chemicals and caffeine.
In fact, the whole idea that there are a few huge trends which determine how America and the world work is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of megaforces sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in "microtrends" – small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 percent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society. It's not just that small is the new big. It's that in order to truly know what's going on, we need better tools than just the naked eye and an eloquent tongue. We need the equivalent of magnifying glasses and microscopes, which in sociological terms are polls, surveys, and statistics. They take a slice of the matter being studied and lay it open -- bigger and clearer -- for examination. And inside, you will find yourself, your friends, your clients, your customers, and your competition clearer than you ever thought you might.
Working for President Bill Clinton in 1996, I identified the under-the-radar group that became known as the Soccer Moms. (I like to think I did something for the youth soccer movement, although I really didn't mean to. The phrase was just meant to get at busy suburban women devoted to their jobs and their kids, who had real concerns about real presidential policies.) Until that campaign, it was generally thought that politics was dominated by men, who decided how their households would vote. But the truth was, in 1996, most male voters had already made up their minds by the campaign. The people left to influence were the new group of independent Moms, devoted to both work and their kids, who had not yet firmly decided which party would be good for their families. They, not their husbands, were the critical swing voters. To win them over, President Clinton initiated a campaign to give them a helping hand in raising their kids – drug-testing in schools, measures against teen-smoking, limits on violence in the media, and school uniforms. These Moms did not want more government in their lives, but they were quite happy to have a little more government in their kids' lives to keep them on the straight and narrow.
In retrospect, a profound political change was spawned by this bit of trend-spotting. Previously, almost all Democrats had targeted downscale, noncollege workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector. But union membership and manufacturing jobs were shrinking, more people were going to college, and almost the entire electorate in the U.S. was calling itself middle-class. If Democrats missed the key trends, they would miss the boat.
Now candidates enthusiastically target Soccer Moms – although someone may want to let them know that trends move fast, and Soccer Moms, too, have moved on. Now, a decade later, their kids are getting ready for college, many of them have been through a divorce, and their own financial security has become as big an issue for them as raising their children was ten years ago.
And with all of the attention being paid to those Moms, Dads – suburban-based, family-focused, office-park-working Dads – are all but neglected in politics, advertising and the media. In the twenty-first century, Dads spend more time with their children than ever in history. Has Madison Avenue adjusted? Are Dads ever the target of back-to-school campaigns?
There could be as big a shift ahead in marketing as 1996 saw in Democratic politics.
The art of trend-spotting, through polls, is to find groups that are pursuing common activities and desires, and that have either started to come together or can be brought together by the right appeal that crystallizes their needs. Soccer Moms had been there for a decade or more – but they became a political class only when they were recognized as a remarkably powerful voting bloc in America.
Today, changing lifestyles, the Internet, the balkanization of communications, and the global economy are all coming together to create a new sense of individualism that is powerfully transforming our society. The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 6 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. No matter how offbeat their choices, they can now find 100,000 people or more who share their taste for deep-fried yak on a stick.
In fact, by the time a trend hits 1 percent, it is ready to spawn a hit movie, best-selling book, or new political movement. The power of individual choice is increasingly influencing politics, religion, entertainment, and even war. In today's mass societies, it takes only 1 percent of people making a dedicated choice -- contrary to the mainstream's choice -- to create a movement that can change the world.
Just look at what has happened in the U.S. to illegal immigrants. A few years ago, they were the forgotten Americans, hiding from daylight and the authorities. Today they are holding political rallies, and given where they and their legal, voting relatives live, they may turn out to be the new Soccer Moms. Militant immigrants fed up with a broken immigration system just may be the most important voters in the next presidential election, distributed in the key Southwest states that are becoming the new battleground areas.
It's the same in business, too, since the Internet has made it so easy to link people together. In the past, it was almost impossible to market to small groups who were spread around the country. Now it's a virtual piece of cake to find 1 million people who want to try your grapefruit diet, or who can't get their kids to sleep at night.
The math can be not just strategic, but catastrophic. If Islamic terrorists were to convince even just one-tenth of 1 percent of America's population that they were right, they would have 300,000 soldiers of terror, more than enough to destabilize our society. If they could convert just 1 percent of the world's 1 billion Muslims to take up violence, that would be 10 million terrorists, a group that could dwarf even the largest armies and police forces on earth. This is the power of small groups that come together today.
The power of choice is especially evident as more and more Americans make decisions about their own lives. For example, the population growth in America has slowed to .9 percent, but the number of households has exploded. Between people getting divorced, staying single longer, living longer, and never marrying at all, we are experiencing an explosion in the number of people who are heads of households – almost 115 million in 2006 compared to about 80 million in 1980. The percentage of households consisting of one person living alone increased from 17 percent in 1970 to 26 percent in 2005. The proportion of married-with-kids households has fallen to less than 25 percent.
All these people out there living a more single, independent life are slivering America into hundreds of small niches. Single people, and people without kids at home, have more time to follow their interests, pick up hobbies, get on the Internet, have a political debate, or go out to movies. By all rights, no one should even go to the movies anymore – you can get movies practically as fast by downloading them or using pay-per-view – but for people with a free Saturday night, movies are such a solid preference that theaters are raising their prices, not lowering them. More people have more disposable resources (including money, time, and energy) than ever before. They are deploying them in pursuit of personal satisfaction like never before. And as a result, we're getting a clearer picture of who people are and what they want. And in business, politics, and social-problem-solving, having that information can make all the difference.
This book is all about the niching of America. How there is no One America anymore, or Two, or Three, or Eight. In fact, there are hundreds of Americas, hundreds of new niches made up of people drawn together by common interests.
©2007, Mark Penn