Do we really know the Canadian consumer?

In late 2014, in the midst of helping an agency develop profiles of American consumers, I spoke with Alan Giguere. His Montreal-based research company Crop had been diving deep into the American consumer psyche—exploring how personal values were shaping desires and buying decisions.

The polarization of U.S. society was well known at that point, but Crop’s research underscored just how pronounced it had become. The U.S. melting pot was actually a cauldron of fear and resentment, with outdated beliefs and old prejudices bubbling to the surface.

“America is extremely divided, with opposing and different points of view, of values and motivations,” Giguere told me. While many Americans embraced the fast-paced changes of society, his data showed many more were gravitating toward conformity and tradition in what I considered shocking ways.

In 1992, for example, 30% of Americans agreed with the statement “men have a natural superiority over women, and nothing can change this.” By 2014, that number had risen to 44%.

Even more striking was that many younger consumers held traditional attitudes toward things like definitions of family and equality of the sexes. “This is fundamentally new,” said Giguere. “In some areas there’s a new level of conservatism that we see emerging among the youth that was not there 10 years ago.”

That conversation and his analysis stayed with me as the U.S. election campaign unfolded. It felt like Giguere had identified some of the underlying value shifts Donald Trump tapped into throughout the campaign, and which I refused to believe were truly ascendant right up to election night.

Trump’s victory shocked political experts, but the ad world was similarly taken aback. Agencies literally sent cultural explorers from New York on reconnaissance missions to the flyover states, attempting to make sense of how Trump supporters thought, acted and behaved in ways alien to the Madison Avenue braintrust.

Through the fall, as we began working on The Message, I was thinking a lot about the Canadian consumer and decided to call Giguere to ask what his data told him. Crop continually studies the values, hot button issues and mental attitudes that drive consumer choices.

Canadian society is splitting into two distinct cohorts, he said. The divide has been growing year after year for a decade. “The last recession changed the world,” said Giguere. “The world is no longer like it was before.”

We are a divided nation. There are those who are invigorated by the pace of innovation and technological, cultural and social change. They have the ability to adapt and understand the disruption it brings. “It creates fantastic opportunities for many,” said Giguere. “If you’re smart, you have good ideas and you can use technology, then gee, the world is yours. People who thrive in today’s context, they adore immigration: they learn from the different customs they observe.

“On the other side, there are many people who look at this turmoil and say ‘What the hell am I going to do?’” he said. “Where can I find some meaning, where can I find some goals in life?”

In which group would you say most of the advertising world fits? While much of Canadian advertising fetishizes technology, innovation and progress, a growing percentage of the population feels the opposite.

The Crop data shows that a large number of Canadians feel overwhelmed by the changes in society, and are nostalgic for old world values and ideals. “One of my favourite questions is ‘Do you agree that the father of the family must be the master of his own house,’” said Giguere. “Today, 33% of the Canadian population agree with that. This is unbelievable. It was 19% 10 years ago.” In 2009, 21% of Canadians believed that “men have a natural superiority over women.” By 2018 that number had risen to 28%.

That kind of data matters in the age of brand purpose. Giguere believes that consumers are increasingly making buying decisions shaped by their personal values. In other words, what brands stand for matters.

And some of Crop’s data contradict much of the accepted wisdom about 21st Century values and, yes, the coveted millennial.

Consider Nike’s recent Kaepernick spot. Based on his research, Giguere thinks it would actually resonate more with older consumers. “We claim very often that young people are highly sensitive to social issues and ecological issues,” he says. “I hear that all the time and, well, I have all the data to tell you that it is not true.”

For example, respondents were asked if they would buy from a company if they knew it did business in countries that violate human rights. While 72% of millennials (18-34) said they would not, the number was less than both Gen Xers (74%) and people 55+ (78%). And while millennials were more likely to believe that the way we consume is leading to the “complete destruction of the planet,” they were less likely to actually do “concrete things to reduce my impact on the environment.”

Despite the growing societal divide, Giguere found a common value shared by both groups, one that sounds like good news for marketers: both groups have a voracious appetite for consumption.

The Crop data says nearly 60% of the population believes that buying things is one of the greatest pleasures in life. Buying things makes them happy, he says. “Forget sex.”

For the affluent it’s about showing off, he said. “Consumption is a source of identity: you are what you buy and you are what you can show you buy.” For the less wealthy, it’s about escapism. As much as they feel concerned about the pace of change, they want to experience the innovation it brings, he said. They seek meaning in consumption. “There is this huge need, this expectation to buy new stuff, to have experiences in the market, and innovation is at the centre of that,” he said.

United by a love of consumption might not be ideal, but in these divided times, it’s something.

–David Brown




David Brown