In 1980, 15% of U.S. households had annual incomes of more than $75,000 (in 2003 adjusted dollars). Today, that figure is up to 26%, reports the Census Bureau. This means that one in every four households in the country now belong to the ranks of the mass affluent.
Smart marketers have been paying close attention to this growing and substantial demographic group, which was spawned in the 1980s -- a period of rising inequality, according to the census. Educated, idiosyncratic, and flush with discretionary income, the mass affluent resist traditional segmentation. They move freely between what were once thought to be mutually exclusive customer segments: They buy their Dom Perignon from Costco and asparagus from a farmers' market. They pair a thousand-dollar Louis Vuitton handbag with yoga pants from Target. Their beverage of choice might be Vanilla Coke with a shot of Rémy XO.
Indeed, Gallup Poll data reveal that the mass affluent defy easy characterization. This series of articles will explore the complex characteristics of the mass affluent and offer insights into how to market to them. This first article examines their values and political leanings.
Lean to the left, lean to the right
Not surprisingly, the mass affluent are more likely to be Republican than non-affluents (see graphic below). But don't assume that conventional political characterizations apply to this upscale segment. When asked to describe their social and economic attitudes in broad strokes, affluents are no more likely than non-affluents to say they are conservative on either dimension: 36% of affluents say they are conservative on social issues, while 37% of non-affluents say the same. On economic issues, 45% of affluents and 43% of non-affluents describe themselves as conservative. Also, the GOP-leaning mass affluents are no more likely than non-affluents to bemoan the worsening state of moral values in the country and are equally likely to be church attendees.
However, the two market segments begin to look different when we compare the views of affluents and non-affluents on specific issues. While affluents are not as monolithically conservative as one might expect, it is interesting to note that they are even more socially liberal than their non-affluent counterparts. For example, mass affluents are considerably more likely than non-affluents to perceive a host of controversial activities as "morally acceptable": doctor-assisted suicide, cloning animals, abortion, and homosexual behavior. Affluents are also more likely to be tolerant of sex between unmarried men and women and stem-cell research using human embryos. (See graphic "What Is Morally Acceptable?")
Although these positions are associated more with the political left than the right, mass affluents adopt more liberal positions despite their majority Republican credentials. In contrast, non-affluent America, while more likely to be Democratic, subscribes to a relatively conservative value system where social issues are concerned.
In this context, then, it stands to reason that Kenneth Cole Productions, the upscale shoe and apparel maker, would blatantly tout its socially liberal values to entice mass affluent consumers into its stores. Bold ad campaign slogans such as "Women have the right to be pregnant, but not barefoot" may seem risky, given that affluents' brand and product habits often seem to be in conflict with their stated social positions. However, for Kenneth Cole, at least some part of this strategy has paid off, thanks to those among the mass affluent who have embraced his message.
Affluent and libertarian
Mass affluents and non-affluents do agree on some social values. Both income groups are tolerant of divorce and express widespread support for the death penalty and medical testing on animals. And large majorities of both groups consider suicide, human cloning, and extramarital affairs to be morally unacceptable. (See graphic "What Is Morally Acceptable?")
Affluent men versus affluent women
Among the mass affluent, men and women differ regarding some social values. Affluent men, for instance, aren't very concerned about animal rights -- the overwhelming majority find it acceptable to buy and wear animal fur (78%) and to conduct medical tests on animals (79%). In contrast, although Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour might say that fur is in this season, many affluent women aren't entirely convinced -- only 61% approve of buying and wearing fur, and 61% approve of conducting medical tests on animals.
Of course, 61% is still an appreciable majority. And clearly, the ranks of affluent women consist of fur-wearers as well as virulently anti-fur PETA supporters. Thus, although affluent women appear to lean to the left on a number of social issues, it should not be assumed that they do so on all of them.
Affluent men and women also differ sharply on the subject of having a child outside of marriage: 62% of affluent women find this morally acceptable, compared with 46% of affluent men. Both groups widely oppose cloning humans, but they have distinctly different reactions to cloning animals: 50% of men believe this is acceptable, compared with only 31% of women.
Differences on abortion
On the controversial issue of abortion, affluent women embrace a distinctly more pro-choice position than non-affluent women, who are least likely to be pro-choice. Only 45% of non-affluent women consider themselves to be pro-choice, compared with 64% of affluent women. Accordingly, while affluent women are nearly twice as likely to describe themselves as "pro-choice" as they are to describe themselves as "pro-life" (64% vs. 33%), non-affluent women are evenly divided at 45%. (See graphic "Are the Mass Affluent Pro-Choice?")
Affluent Americans bridge the generation gap
Social conservatism generally correlates with age: Conservative attitudes are most prevalent among older adults. Not so with affluents. In fact, affluents aged 50 and older are more similar to young affluents in their social outlook than they are to other older adults.
This is seen in generational attitudes toward the prevailing moral climate in the United States. Typically, older Americans are more critical of the nation's moral climate than younger Americans, and this is true among non-affluents. Among affluents, however, older and younger adults share nearly identical perspectives. About a third of affluents aged 50 and older describe the state of moral values in the nation as poor; about a third of the younger adults in both income groups would agree. On the other hand, half of non-affluents aged 50 and older share this bleak view of American morality. Similarly, on the once-taboo issue of unmarried men and women having sexual relations, 57% of older affluents consider this morally acceptable, as do 68% of younger affluents and 63% of younger non-affluents. Only 37% of older non-affluents, however, share this view.
The same pattern is evident with respect to other touchy moral questions we've discussed, including doctor-assisted suicide, having children out of wedlock, homosexual behavior, and abortion. On all of these, older affluents are more similar in their views to younger adults -- and both are more accepting of these behaviors than older non-affluents are.
So whether we are looking at all affluents or older affluents, they can surprise us with their more liberal values. We'll continue our investigation into the attitudes of the mass affluent in future articles.
Businesses strive to design a product experience that results in absolute customer engagement -- a higher kind of loyalty that would make a customer say, "I can't imagine a world without my iPod" or "my Toyota Prius." And this emotional engagement between customers and the brands and products they idolize is based on core values that are common to both customers and companies. The success of the Republican Party provides a classic example of marketing to the traditional values of blue-collar America. Brand managers and marketers who want to replicate that success among the mass affluent need to fine-tune their message to the core values of these mass affluent customers.
The marketing moral: While one might assume that the mass affluent support conservative, free-market economics, they are more liberal in their social views than you might think. So marketers should get to know the mass affluent value system -- and not simply typecast them as right-wing traditionalists just because they lean Republican.