Regional Differences Matter in Market Research

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Reporting, Tools & Techniques


Bob Relihan

“Make sure that we get a good regional representation.” That has often been the charge from the marketing manager to the insights director. There has been a belief that different cuisines, climates, and experiences would have an impact on attitudes and tastes that could affect how consumers react to new products. So, we would be certain to conduct focus groups in markets in three different regions or that quotas were set to assure the sample represented the East, South, Midwest, and West equally. This was simply good research practice.

Then there was the evening I sat in a focus group room in Atlanta and discovered, as I went around the table that every one of the participants was originally from New Jersey. I had just conducted focus groups in New Jersey the night before. Why had I made that flight?

Perspectives change. To be sure, a brand’s sales figures can vary from market to market, but I cannot remember the last time I concluded the differences in brand perceptions from one market to another were ground in fundamental differences in the behavior or attitudes of consumers in those markets. “Place” as defined by traditional markets seems less relevant now. Virtual communities define differences now, or intra-regional differences such as those between an urban core and the suburbs. We are much more interested in ethnic or generational differences when we strive to be representative.

And, from an operational perspective, with more and more qualitative research being conducted virtually, it has become possible to assure that an online community has participants from all over the country. There is no need for travel to those four different markets to be “representative.”

But, a recent article by Richard Florida in The Atlantic Cities points to a large-scale study by a team social psychologists, “Divided We Stand: Three Psychological Regions of the United States and Their Political, Economic, Social and Health Correlates.” The team analyzed data from a number of surveys that stretched over a twelve year period, representing 1.5 million people from the 48 continental United States. They mapped and clustered the occurrence of five personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

This is Florida’s summary of their conclusions.

The study identifies three main regional types: friendly and conventional, relaxed and creative, and temperamental and uninhibited.

There are predominate three profiles:

  • The Friendly and Conventional Region is the blue area that runs from Michigan through the Midwest and much of the Sunbelt and traditional South. This region is defined by low levels of openness (the trait most closely associated with innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship), low levels of narcissism (the counterpoint to which is a high level of emotional stability) and moderate to high levels of extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. This composite of traits shapes a regional personality that is sociable, considerate, dutiful, and traditional.

As the authors note, “the psychological profile and all the social indicators betray a region that is marked by conservative social values.” This ethos maps onto a region whose residents are primarily white and politically conservative, less likely to move, and more likely to remain close to family and friends. They also have relatively lower levels of education, wealth, innovation, and social tolerance. This region has high levels of social capital and engagement in religious and traditional civic organizations. As the authors conclude, “taken together, the characteristics of this psychological region suggest a place where traditional values, family, and the status quo are important.”

  • The Relaxed and Creative Region is the green area along the West Coast and Rocky Mountains through Idaho, Arizona, and New Mexico. There is also a weaker concentration, identified by the much lighter green shading in parts of the Sunbelt (especially North Carolina) and some of New England (including Massachusetts). This regional profile is high in openness and oriented toward creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. It is also low in extroversion (less-outgoing, more introverted) and agreeableness and especially low in neuroticism (in other words, it has higher levels of emotional stability).

Demographically, the population includes relatively high levels of college grads, more affluent people and higher levels of ethnic diversity. “Social capital is comparatively low here, but tolerance for cultural diversity and alternative lifestyles is high,” the article notes. Befitting its historical origins as the destination for pioneers, it is an “area where significant numbers of people are choosing to settle, as indicated by the positive association with residential mobility…. It is also a place where residents are politically liberal, as well as psychologically and physically healthy.”

  • The Temperamental and Uninhibited Region is the deep orange area that covers the Northeast, New England and Middle Atlantic states. There are also lighter concentrations in the contiguous areas of Ohio and Indiana, as well as Texas. This region’s psychological profile is defined by very high levels neuroticism (hence the temperamental moniker), moderately high levels of openness, low levels of extroversion (or high levels of introversion) and very low levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness. This constellation of personality traits depict a type of person that is “reserved, aloof, impulsive, irritable, and inquisitive,” while also being “passionate, competitive, and liberal.” This region is highly educated and affluent, with high levels of ethnic and cultural diversity and a liberal political orientation.

If nothing else, this analysis serves to confirm certain stereotypes we all hold of those from different parts of the country. But, the authors of the study make other connections, seeing their data as providing a psychological underpinning to the politically conservative character of the South and Midwest and the entrepreneurial and creative character of the West. In their view, both of these conclusions have policy implications.

But, from the perspective marketing research, particularly that conducted in support of new product and communications development, this research gives support to a renewed concern for very specific geographic balance. One cannot doubt that individuals with the three character traits described above are very likely to have different reactions to new products and communications. Thus, assuring that the three regions are properly represented in any piece of research seems prudent. Perhaps, the basic three-market focus group project should feature three markets that appear to be ground zero for the three clusters — New York, Omaha, and Phoenix?

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