Photo of man talking to people while sitting at a table.

Marketing To The Middle

As Associated Wholesale Grocers, this community of more than 3,800 grocery stores in the “middle” of America, I would wager that over the years, many of us have had a good pulse on who our customers were. Many of us still know very well who our customers are, but not everyone truly gets the essence of what motivates their customers and what they’re looking for in a shopping experience. Given the current political climate and the election results, it has many questioning if we really know what we’re dealing with in our country.

AdWeek has recently published a cover story ( about marketers rethinking their strategy for middle America and it’s a fascinating look at how companies, their agencies, and marketers are trying to figure out who middle America truly is and how they can deliver their message to consumers. It’s a tricky subject and there’s not one easy answer. But let’s take a quick look at some of the themes of the article.

  1. Brands don’t understand the middle American shopper. The article tells of tours of the midwest by those within high powered advertising agencies, huge brands and others to see first hand what is making middle America tick. Now, this is probably laughable for most in AWG land, because we’re not some exotic location – we’re the heart of America and we’re not that complicated. But in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, brands and their agencies are wondering if they truly know the people they are trying to market to. Do they only know the coasts and tailor their message to them or do they speak to all potential consumers. Remember, lining the aisles of AWG stores are thousands of brands who all have a marketing message of their own and are busy trying to connect their message to consumers. Sometimes they miss the mark – that’s advertising. But I think we can all play a role in shaping how we’re talked to from a national perspective. Part of that is talking to vendors to explain what’s important and what people want. The rest comes from shopping behavior. Brands move to where the money is, simple as that.
  2. Middle America isn’t just a stereotype. One of the key destination for those touring the middle was a stop in Nashville, one of AWG’s key markets. While Nashville is known for country music, it can also be a microcosm of many metro area and cities throughout middle America. You have everything from overall wearing folks, to suburban families to millennials who buy $14 appetizers at a fancy bar in downtown Nashville. As the article states, some of the places look an awful like a hipster bar in Brooklyn, not a few hundred feet from where Johnny Cash cut his teeth. And while many folks in middle America may have voted for Trump, or may own a gun, it doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that defines them. They may care more about the environment than crunchiest California hippie and may be more philanthropic than some big wig from Boston.
  3. Reality vs. Advertising. A noteworthy quote from the article:“People are really angry—meanwhile, [brands are] advertising an upscale lifestyle,” he observes. “Those two things are going to be in conflict.” We all see the advertising that the brands we carry do. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t always jive with the type of community AWG stores are in or who the shoppers are. Many AWG retailers are dealing with some of the most important purchases a family or person may make every week. What food can I afford? What food should we have in our home? Are the brands we’re carrying delivering images that don’t reflect who we are? Our shoppers are hard-working, they’re practical, they want good things for themselves and their family, but they’ve got an eye on the final total on their receipt. How can we reconcile those things as we speak to our customers? Are we solving problems for our customers or are we leaving them with aspirational messages that aren’t based in reality?
  4. Go To Bass Pro Shops. One of the things the tour of Middle America was sure to do was to always take folks from the coast to Bass Pro Shops. There may be no more American store than Bass Pro – it’s certainly a unique place, but there’s a reason they can build these giant stores throughout the country – people love them. While Middle America certain can be dynamic and have many layers, it can also be incredibly down to earth and simple. Give some folks a camo hat, a nice truck and a good meal with people they love and they’re happy. Here’s the secret though – it’s not that much different from those that live in big cities or on the coast. Often times those folks, including myself, try to get too fancy. At the end of the day, most of us have simple desires and enjoy simple pleasures. Make sure you don’t forget that in how you speak to customers and with the message you present.

It would be silly of me to say that America hasn’t changed and isn’t going through a unique time in its history. And as grocers we are essential hubs to what middle America needs on a daily and weekly basis. This land we serve as AWG is as varied as the store that sits on the main drag through Geneva, Alabama to the snow-covered streets of a small South Dakota town. Pay attention to sentiments of your shoppers. Pay attention to how the brands you carry are marketing to consumers. They’re not always going to match up. But at the end of the day, the message you’re giving as a store or company will overrule the marketing message of a single brand you carry. That means it’s up to us to continually stay in touch with who are shoppers are and to meet their needs and to speak their language. Middle America is fantastic place with some of the most unique people in the world. If we simply listen and act accordingly, we can remain relevant through any presidential administration, trend or news cycle.


Kurt Kloeblen is Advertising Supervisor for AWG Corporate Advertising. One of his key roles is branding for AWG retailers in every division. He can be reached at [email protected] or 913-288-1279.