Book Excerpt: 'Applebee's America'
In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. -- American social philosopher ERIC HOFFER
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most responsive to change. -- CHARLES DARWIN
William Jefferson Clinton breezed to reelection in 1996 just two years after his presidency hit the rocks with his health care reforms a bust, his relevancy in doubt, and voters so leery of his leadership that they gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in forty years.
George Walker Bush won reelection in 2004 even though a majority of Americans questioned his rationale for invading Iraq, fretted about the economy, felt the nation was headed in the wrong direction and favored Democrat John Kerry on education, health care, jobs, Social Security, and most other policies.
Lloyd Hill helped build Applebee's International into the world's largest casual dining chain despite his lack of experience in the restaurant business, middling reviews of the chain's food, and the challenges of running a "neighborhood grill and bar" in 1,700 neighborhoods.
Rick Warren preached to 21,000 worshipers each week, inspired countless megachurch copycats, and wrote the best-selling hardcover in U.S. history just two decades after starting his southern California ministry with no money, no church, no members, and no home.
Each case makes you wonder: How did that happen? The answers are in this book, which goes behind the scenes of political campaigns, corporate boardrooms, and church services to reveal how these and other leaders succeed in an era of intense transition. Whether your product is a candidate, a hamburger, or the word of God, the challenge is the same: How do you connect with a fast-changing public and get them to buy what you're selling?
But this book is not just about America's successful leaders. It's also about the people they lead. Anxious witnesses to terrorism, technological revolutions, and globalization, Americans are making seismic changes in the ways they live, work, and play -- and those choices ultimately determine how they vote, what they buy, and how they spend their Sunday mornings. People are adjusting their lifestyles for many reasons, chief among them their insatiable hunger for community, connection, and a higher purpose in life. Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Hill and Warren, figured that out, one of the many things they have in common.
We'll draw lessons from the successes of these and other Great Connectors that you can apply to your next election campaign, your business or your church. It starts with their ability to touch people at a gut level by projecting basic American values that seem lacking in today's leaders and missing from the day-to-day experiences of life -- among them: empathy and optimism; strength and decisiveness; authenticity, faith, and a sense of community, belonging, and purpose. Some people would call these traits, but that term is too small for such an important concept. Hair color is a trait. Authenticity and community are values.
Values are what Americans want to see in a candidate, corporation, or church before they're even willing to consider their policies and products. The choices people make about politics, consumer goods, and religion are driven by emotions rather than by intellect. That's why we call President Bush's tenacity, President Clinton's empathy, and the sense of community and purpose of Hill and Warren Gut Values. Hill wasn't just selling burgers. The presidents weren't just peddling policies. Warren wasn't just pitching the word of God. They were making Gut Values Connections.
With rare exceptions, Gut Values Connections don't just happen. They are built. Chapters 1 to 3 (starting with politics, then turning to businesses and megachurches) explore the common routes taken by Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Hill and Warren, to establish Gut Values Connections and the new tools and technologies they have used to communicate them. First, they adapted to a changing public in ways that existing political, corporate, and religious institutions had not. Second, they found and targeted their audiences through strategies that predict voting/buying/church habits based on people's lifestyle choices. Who are their friends? Where do they get their information? Who do they turn to for advice? What are their hobbies? What magazines do they read? Where do they live? What car do they drive? Where and how do they shop? What do they do for vacation? What angers them? What makes them happy? What do they do for a living? These and thousands of other lifestyle questions form a vast constellation of data points that Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Hill and Warren, used to make and maintain Gut Values Connections. Each man had his own name for what Bush's team called "microtargeting." We give this critical tool a new name -- LifeTargeting -- because the strategy tracks people based on their lifestyles. We also reveal new details about how Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Hill and Warren used the targeting strategy. Third, they said the right things to the right people in the right ways. Great Connectors use every available communications channel and new technology to push out their messages. We'll share their marketing strategies, including one that is as old as mankind and more powerful than ever.
We use the second part of the book to delve deeper into the intense societal changes that are forcing political, business, and religious leaders to adapt or perish. Change is a key word here -- rapid, bone-jarring change. Consider what we've seen in just one generation:
• Women flooding the workforce, reshaping the American family
• Vast immigration, migration, and exurban sprawl
• The rise of a global economy
• The dawning of the infotechnology era
• The worldwide war against terrorism
In chapter 4, we'll explain how this crush of events has changed Americans. Tired of chasing careers and cash, many Americans entered the twenty-first century determined to rebalance their priorities and find a higher meaning in their existences. The September 11, 2001, attacks intensified these feelings. People spent more time with family and friends, took longer vacations, and sought jobs with flexible hours. They spent more time praying and volunteering.
The meaning of life changed in America, or at least the meanings of money and success changed. The first years of the twenty-first century saw a rise in the number of people who said cash could do more than bring them pleasure; it could help them contribute to society, leave something to their heirs, or otherwise help their children. A growing number of Americans told pollsters that being a good parent or spouse defined success for them. GfK, a leading market research and consulting firm that has tracked public attitudes for decades in its Roper Reports consumer trends research, called this era of transformation a "recentering" of the American public. "Whatever" became "whatever matters." And "getting by" wasn't good enough when "getting a life" was possible. The "Me Generation" has given way to the era of "us."
Yet life continues to grow more complicated. Global competition is forcing jobs overseas and cutting salaries, pensions, and other benefits that had defined the twentieth-century middle class, producing the first generation of Americans who fear their children will fair worse than they did. The dot-com bust wiped out the savings of middle-class Americans who had finally thought they were getting ahead. No longer are Americans' perception of the health of the economy and their consumer confidence driven by macro factors like the unemployment rate, the inflation rate, and Gross Domestic Product growth. They have become untethered to those factors as they change jobs multiple times and worry about pensions and health care. The coarsening of popular culture has fueled the belief of many people, particularly parents, that their values are out of sync with the elite. New technologies both improve and complicate the way Americans live.
"Life is changing too damn fast," Cindy Moran told us one day at an Applebee's restaurant in Howell, Michigan. A single mother of two, Moran was one of the dozens of people we interviewed for this book to gauge the mood of the country. "It's not easy being the kind of mother I want to be," she said, carving a high-calorie path through a bowl of spinach dip while her daughter begged for more, "not with life stuck on fast-forward."
Buffeted by change, people like Moran crave the comfort of community. They want to know their neighbors and meet people like themselves no matter where they live. They want to help improve their neighborhoods and their country. They want to belong. Chapter 5 explores how Americans are redefining the meaning of community and finding new ways to connect in an Internet-fueled expansion of civic engagement that political, business, and religious leaders are just learning to exploit. Building communities on the Internet is a potent new trend.
People continue to lose faith in politicians, corporate executives, religious leaders, and the media, all of whom used to be society's public opinion leaders. In this age of skepticism and media diversification, Americans are turning to people they know for advice and direction. We call these new opinion leaders Navigators: they're otherwise average Americans who help their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers navigate the swift currents of change.
Twentieth-century technologies gave rise to the television era, and for five decades mass media had an outsized influence on the American public. New technologies are breeding niche media -- cable TV, podcasting, wireless messaging, etc. -- and returning us to a pre-TV environment in which word-of-mouth communication is the most credible and efficient way to transmit a message. With their large social networks, Navigators rule the word-of-mouth world. In chapter 6 we tell you who the Navigators are and why they're so important to political, business, and church marketers.
Americans are not just changing how they live. Many are changing where they live, and the implications are enormous for would-be Great Connectors. Chapter 7 explores the impact of an increasingly self-polarizing society. The mobility, technology, and relative affluence we enjoy allow us to pick up stakes and move to communities of like-minded people. And so we see middle-class minorities and immigrants moving from cities to inner-ring suburbs; suburban white families to new exurbs; and young singles and empty nesters circling back to cities, where they're gentrifying decayed neighborhoods. Ironically, as the nation is becoming increasingly multiracial, the American people seem to be seeking more homogeneity in their lifestyle choices. It's as if life were a pickup basketball game and Americans are choosing teams. Actually, they're bigger than teams; they're tribes.
In the final chapter, we sum up and look to the future. How will the country change in the next few years? How will the next generation of Great Connectors be created? Chapter 8 profiles "Generation 9/11," led by the young men and women who were in high school or college when terrorists struck New York and Washington. They are generally more civic-minded, politically active, and optimistic about the nation's future than Americans in general. Indeed, they put their baby-boomer parents to shame and remind us in more ways than one of the so-called Greatest Generation, men and women who came of age during World War II. A college student today has more in common with his or her grandparents than parents. These future leaders are off to a promising start. Their attitudes about diversity, social mobility, women in leadership, technology, institutions, and spirituality portend big change for the next wave of Great Connectors.
Any leader hoping to draw lessons from this book should start first by jettisoning any preconceived notions about how to connect with voters, consumers, and churchgoers, ignoring conventional wisdom and the false assumptions of pundits. This book debunks their many myths. Our findings include:
Myth 1: A company's product, a candidate's policies, or a pastor's sermons are the main appeal for most people.
Reality: People are looking first for a Gut Values Connection.
Myth 2: September 11, 2001, changed Americans.
Reality: The attacks did hasten change, but Americans had been transforming their values and lifestyles since the mid-1990s.
Myth 3: Technology has created a more disconnected nation.
Reality: Americans are using new technologies to build new forms of community and civic engagement.
Myth 4: The glut of information has made people more independent and less reliant on one another.
Reality: The Information Age and fragmented media have caused people to turn more often to peers for advice, giving rise to Navigators.
Myth 5: A vast majority of megachurch worshipers are antigay, antiabortion conservative Republicans.
Reality: Few megachurches are politically active because they don't want to turn off a single potential customer. A surprisingly large portion of megachurch worshipers are Democrats and independents.
Myth 6: The electorate is divided into Republican "red states" and Democratic "blue states."
Reality: Americans are highly mobile and self-polarizing, so it makes more sense to categorize them by their lifestyle choices rather than arbitrary geographic boundaries. We call them Red Tribes, Blue Tribes, and Tipping Tribes.
Myth 7: Republicans have a lock on exurban America, as shown by the fact that because Bush won 96 out of 100 of the fast-growing counties in 2004.
Reality: Democrats can win exurbia because voters in these new, fast-growing areas are driven by their lifestyle choices and values, not partisanship.
Myth 8: Americans slavishly vote their self-interest.
Reality: Their idea of self-interest is more selfless than most politicians realize. Voters will turn to a candidate who reflects their Gut Values over one who sides with them on policies.
Myth 9: The best indicator of how a person will vote is his voting history or views on abortion, taxes, and other issues.
Reality: The key to predicting how a person will vote (or shop and worship, for that matter) is his or her lifestyle choices. To borrow and bastardize a phrase from President Clinton's 1992 campaign -- It's the Lifestyles, Stupid.
Is all this change good or bad for America? The truth is, we don't know. But we do know it's inevitable. It is no time to ignore the lessons of success from Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Hill and Warren -- four imperfect men who nonetheless understood the value of community, connections, and purpose in this new social order. Great eras of change seem to occur about every seven or eight decades (a long life span) and follow a war or crises. In this post-9/11 world, the nation's leaders should pay heed to the words of Abraham Lincoln, who called on his generation to have the courage and foresight to change. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present," Lincoln said. "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew."
This book will help twenty-first-century American leaders think anew about the people they serve. We hope the people they serve will find comfort in knowing that there are new ways to connect, create community, and navigate change.
From Applebee's American Copyright © 2006 by Douglas B. Sosnik, Matthew J. Dowd and Ron Fournier.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.