What union protesters and Tea Partiers have in common

Anne Sorock | Contributor

On the road to Madison two weeks ago, I was prepared for what seemed to be a straightforward assignment. Our research team, determined to provide the same insights about the political scene that any brand manager would seek for its products, would uncover the motivations of the Wisconsin protesters through a series of in-depth interviews.

We thought we would get to the core of what divides our country. Instead, we found what unites us — idealism.

By this time, my second trip up from Chicago to the Wisconsin state capitol in ten days, the remaining protesters were, for the most part, the true “brand champions.” Committed enough to return day after day to the protests, though the story had already fatigued many of the national news outlets, they had outlasted the students and other passers-by who had long since satisfied their activist-tourism and gone home.

This wasn’t the first time the insightsLab, the marketing research arm of the non-profit Sam Adams Alliance, was investigating the individuals who engage in their democracy through protest. Almost exactly one year prior, I took the same tools — lifted from a stint in consumer-packaged goods and the inspiration of a particularly compelling MBA class in consumer behavior — to the Tea Party rallies.

A rally of this magnitude is a seminal moment to experience, when protesters’ public philosophies — indeed those of all our country — are at their most tangible and emotional.

Media coverage had concluded that these protesters were either to be embraced or despised, but above all they were to be taken en masse. There would be no accommodation for the dichotomy they represented; it was a tale of class warfare, Right vs. Left, union activist vs. capitalist boss. The bottom line from the media coverage was that these people were either to be despised or embraced, take it either way, but take them en masse. There was no accommodation for the consideration that this was anything but a tale of class warfare, Right vs. Left, union member vs. capitalist.

Through the mass of Badger red, the scene within the protest was less emulsified, more varied. The Teamsters standing by their massive trucks laughed together by the edge of the circle; the families milled around the periphery or on the outside; and the teachers, deep within the Capitol square, agitated at the center of the crowd.

I remember learning in business school that one of a marketer’s most valuable tools is segmentation analysis: unlocking the ability to discover new ways of understanding your consumers by reframing the variables through which you view them.

Walking through the protests, it became clear that the research would also be an exercise in segmentation. We have all been working with the same, staid segmentation of our political “consumers” — our citizens — and we have been missing out on fulfilling their needs by confining them to the understanding of an old, tired paradigm.

We found two types of union supporters at the Madison protests. The first group, the “operatives,” use the unions as a means to enforce control. They value security, accomplishment, and self-esteem, and connect the threats to collective bargaining privileges as an attack on their image and their wallets.

The second group is far more intriguing, both for the fact of its existence within the heart of the Madison protests and for its connection to another group we’ve studied before. These idealists value belonging, family, and self-fulfillment; it is not so much their own financial security they fear but positive values connected to the legacy of those who fought for union rights before them, the desire for their children to live the American dream, and their conviction that through protest they are taking part in one of the most vibrant forms of American exceptionalism.

Sound familiar? We found almost identical values among the Tea Party early adopters. They too were most concerned about the welfare of future generations and treasured the country that allowed them to express their discontents. These patriots, united across a gulf of political differences, share a bond much deeper than the union of convenience in Madison.

The research we conducted found these deep, abstract values to be an axis of understanding around which a new segmentation can be built. The opportunity to revisit the understanding of America’s political unrest through segmentation analysis should not only interest those observing our country’s disquiet, but also aid those seeking to understand their own political unrest. And a more nuanced, modern segmentation of our population should resolve some of the vitriol reserved for fellow idealists, offering a new way of understanding the most relevant divisions in America’s political landscape.

The market for such a reunion of idealists appears to be growing as fears about financial instability and our country’s economic future force tough questions about the institutions that offer solutions, from government to unions. Savvy marketers of political solutions will look beyond traditional “teams” and have the opportunity to recruit from a larger audience base.

And so within the division there is opportunity for a more perfect union — the union of idealists across the political spectrum for whom political empowerment, dedication to family and community, and a belief in American exceptionalism supersedes party differences.

“Madison Unwrapped: Reading the Union Label” can be viewed online at www.samadamsalliance.org.

Anne Sorock is the research director of “Madison Unwrapped: Reading the Union Label,” and director of marketing for the Sam Adams Alliance. Anne holds her MBA from Cornell University and a BA from the Johns Hopkins University.

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