Clustered World: How We Live, What We Buy, and What it All Means About Who We Areby Michael J. Weiss, Maichael J. Weiss
Michael Weiss expands on the geodemographics of The Clustering of America with this fascinating look at the sixty-two new lifestyle "clusters" that define who we are by what we buy. Clustering has become a widely accepted business concept throughout the world, revealing a global village of people who have more in common with foreigners of the same cluster than they do with their fellow countrypeople.
Today, in a nation of 270 million people, 100 million households, 260,000 Census Block neighborhoods, hundreds of cable TV channels and millions of Web sites, mass culture is but a quaint memory. As author Michael J. Weiss observes: "When you say 'oil' in Rural Industria, a blue-collar Heartland cluster, residents think 'Quaker State.' In the family suburbs of Winner's Circle, the second most affluent lifestyle, they think 'extra virgin.'"
Rural Industria? Winner's Circle? That's the way the landscape looks when you gaze through Prizm, or the Potential Rating Index by ZIP Markets,
a lifestyle-based segmentation system created by Arlington, Va.-based marketing research firm Claritas. Weiss, a fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism, continues his exploration of that landscape in The Clustered World, his third book on the topic of Prizm.
The book is part chronicle of American culture and part brochure for modern marketing-research companies, Claritas in particular. Overall, though, it gives a fascinating, and at times unsettling, glimpse of a nation divided as it enters the 21st century.
Formulated in the 1970s by sociologist-cum-marketer Jonathan Robbins, Prizm is based on the old folk wisdom that "birds of a feather flock together." Robbins took that simple idea and founded a new area of marketing research known as "geodemographics," which suggested that birds of a feather not only flock together, but also pursue similar lifestyles, buy similar products and consume similar media. Today, the notion of geographic segmentation has evolved into the "clustering systems" of Weiss' title, which are used to define people according to their every preference, from bowling alleys in Florida to social policies in Sweden.
Prizm classifies neighborhoods through dozens of surveys. U.S. census data is combined with demographics on new-car buyers from R.L. Polk, on TV viewing habits from A.C. Nielsen, on consumer buying patterns from Mediamark Research and Simmons Market Research Bureau, and more. (For fun, type in your ZIP code at ...
In 1988, when Weiss first wrote about segmentation in The Clustering of America, Prizm broke down the nation into 40 clusters. Since then, Prizm has split the populace further into 62 clusters in 15 major social groupings. The current clusters range from the wealthiest - the "Blue-Blood Estates" of communities like New York's Scarsdale, Maryland's Potomac and Illinois' Winnetka - to the nation's poorest - the "Southside Cities" in such towns as Opa-locka, Fla.; Greenville, Miss.; and Petersburg, Va.
Interesting, but not exactly the stuff of the New York Times' bestseller list. Still, Weiss manages to breathe life into the topic with numerous personal encounters. "All told, I logged nearly 80,000 miles and interviewed more than 400 people," he notes. "Local residents, politicians, shopkeepers, librarians, clergymen, even street people - anyone who could give voice to his or her cluster lifestyle."
Though he's clearly a fan of clusters (who else would define homelessness as a lifestyle?), Weiss maintains his distance. "As a journalist," he writes, "I saw the dual potential of the clusters: as a clever way to sell soap and an insightful guide to understanding how people live."
Weiss decides that the truth about clusters lies between the two, and the result is a chronicle of American life reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville, Studs Terkel and Charles Kuralt - with a little Idiot's Guide to Geodemographics thrown in.
In the second half of the book, Weiss provides details about each of the 62 American clusters. For instance, there are the "Country Squires," comprising 1 percent of American households. Country Squires rank fourth in socioeconomic status, range in age from 35 to 54, have an average income of $75,000 and a median home value of $230,300. Populating towns like Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and Woodbury, Minn., they're moderately Republican and concerned about issues like tax reform and eliminating affirmative action. Their preferences include sailing, business trips by air, personal computers, Scotch, gourmet coffee, Saab 9000s, classical radio, Frasier, and Martha Stewart Living and Forbes magazines. They don't like country music, Mexican fast food, Mary Kay cosmetics or pagers.
Weiss' book also looks at the expansion of clustering techniques abroad. There are now Canadian clusters and European clusters. The international counterparts of Claritas' Prizm include Compusearch's Psyte in Canada and Eperian Micromarketing's Mosaic in Europe.
This raises an interesting question: Do New York's Blue-Blood Estates have more in common with their European counterparts - the "Clever Capitalists" - than they do with, say, the American "Rustic Elders" who may live just a mile away?
Yes, says former Eperian executive Emily Eelkema. "There are neighborhoods in Manhattan that are more similar to ones in Milan than in Brooklyn. The yuppie on the Upper East Side has more in common with a yuppie in Stockholm than with a downscale person in Brooklyn. Neighborhoods in Fargo, N.D., are very similar to Friesland in the Netherlands as well as Calabria in southern Italy. From a day-do-day perspective, their lifestyles, attitudes, motivations and products are all very similar. They're more provincial and concerned with family and friends."
Other questions come immediately to mind. Are businesses, like consumers, subject to clustering? Think about it. There's a film cluster in Hollywood, a wine cluster in Napa, Calif., a computer cluster in Silicon Valley and so on.
Might the Prizm system be applied to business clusters? More to the point, might it be applied to clusters in cyberspace? Eric Cohen, VP of CACI Marketing Systems, says it already is, pointing out that leading-edge Web sites already capture data from visitors and use it to suggest products via techniques like "collaborative filtering."
CACI has its own neighborhood segmentation system, called Acorn ..., which classifies Americans into one of 42 groups. Another competitor is the Stanford Research Institute and its Values, Attitudes and Lifestyles System. VALS sorts respondents to its questionnaire into eight categories, such as "Achievers," "Believers" and "Strugglers."
Of course, the concept of putting humans into groups is nothing new. Though he didn't have a fancy acronym way back in 370 B.C., Hippocrates had a system for categorizing people according to temperaments and predispositions. The idea resurfaced in the theories of Freud and Jung, and Jung's "psychological types" were dusted off in the 1950s by Isabel Myers, whose ideas grew into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test that upward of a million people take each year.
Even people who never heard of market research can now be clustered posthumously. In their book, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, William Strauss and Neil Howe examine generations from the late 1400s to the present and suggest there is a repeating generational pattern through history.
Yankelovich Partners executives J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman proposed in their 1998 book, Rocking the Ages, that generation membership is the hidden force at work in consumer preferences and that generational ties link widely disparate individuals of varying educations, incomes and ages.
But amid all the pigeonholes there are lingering questions. Is the segmentation of business descriptive or causative? Isn't the very idea of segmentation an illusion in our era of growing homogenization? Prizm's increase from 40 to 62 clusters makes you wonder if America really is fracturing or whether modern marketing is simply getting better at slicing it up into pieces. Some have argued rather persuasively that modern marketers are better at producing new markets than meeting the needs of existing ones.
In 1997's Breaking Up America, Annenberg School professor Joseph Turow traced the mid-1970s shift in advertising toward target marketing. Since then, he says, marketers have promoted differences instead of similarities between consumers. Commercials tell us, "Better to stay with your own kind; it's less confusing and more fun." Said over and over, Turow notes, "the cumulative message might well be of a society so divided that it is impossible to know, or care about."
Of all people, Michael J. Weiss, champion of the market segment, offers hope that this is not the case in the final paragraph of his book.
"No matter how small the dot on the map, every community typically has someone who can explain how the area became what it is today," he writes. "You can call that person the block mayor, an old-timer, even just a busybody, but he or she knows who lived where and, over the last century, which businesses have come and gone, and what it was like in the 1940s on a Saturday night. God should reserve a special place in heaven for these individuals. They hold the world's memory and pass on how their communities' lifestyles evolved to the clustered world."
Will we continue to be defined by more and smaller clusters? With Weiss, has America found its modern de Tocqueville, chronicler of popular culture? Or has Claritas found its ultimate salesman?
The "proof," as another bit of folk wisdom reminds us, "is in the pudding." Interested readers should learn a little more about clustering and make up their minds about its usefulness - and ultimate truthfulness. They might even hang out, as Weiss suggests, with that aging "community historian." Or they might click over to Prizm or Acorn and enter their ZIP code. As Rod Sterling used to say, your next stop, the Twilight Zone.
John Fraim is president of the GreatHouse Company, a book publisher in Santa Rosa, Calif.
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AROUND THE CLUSTERED WORLD: an overview
The fragmenting of America
At first glance, Berwyn, Illinois, resembles many of the close-in suburbs of Chicago, a settled middle-class community of beige brick bungalows known as a gateway for immigrants. Since Berwyn's founding a century ago, waves of Czechs, Italians, Poles, and Irish have come to work in the area's foundries and patronize the ethnic bakeries and restaurants along Cermak Street. Proud of their toehold on the American Dream, homemakers in babushkas would sweep their back alleys clean enough to eat dinners of stuffed cabbage, sausage, and spaghetti off the asphalt.
But times changed, the factories closed, and Berwyn's old-world residents aged. More recently, Central and South American immigrants have discovered Berwyn, carving up the neat bungalows into overcrowded apartments and sending their children to schools where 80 percent of the students speak Spanish. Today, Berwyn is a simmering stew of foreign-born residents who work side by side at blue-collar jobs but go their separate ways after hours. Italians congregate at the Italian-American Club for dinners and boccie tournaments. Hispanics meet at new Mexican restaurants and super mercados, and throw noisy parties on Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's independence day. Regular proposals to unify the ethnic groups and merge a Hispanic festival with the Czechs' Houby Days parade (celebrating an old-world mushroom) inevitably fail. Relative newcomer Rana Khan, a Pakistani doctor who came to Berwyn in 1994 with her husband and three children, found an insular community. "I went to aPTA meeting, and for two hours not one person said a word to me," she recalled. "With Americans, it's always 'hi and bye.'"
Few places present a greater refutation of the American "melting pot" image than contemporary Berwyn. But cultural dissonance has developed, to some degree, in communities all around the country. On the eve of the twenty-first century, America has become a splintered society, with multi-ethnic towns like Berwyn reflecting a nation more diverse than ever. In the 1990 census, Americans identified themselves as belonging to 300 races, 600 Native American tribes, 70 Hispanic groups, and 75 ethnic combinations. Since 1970, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has nearly tripled, increasing to 26.3 million and creating school districts in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago where students speak more than 100 languages and take bilingual classes in everything from Armenian to Tagalog. The explosion of niche cable TV programming, on-line chat rooms, and targeted businesses like Urban Outfitters and Zany Brainy all point to a population with a classic case of multiple personality disorder. The mind plugged into the next set of Walkman headphones may be attuned to Christian rap, New Age drumming, or Deepak Chopra-style self-improvement.
For a nation that's always valued community, this breakup of the mass market into balkanized population segments is as momentous as the collapse of Communism. Forget the melting pot. America today would be better characterized as a salad bar. From the high-rises of Manhattan's Upper East Side to the trailer parks of South Texas, from the techno-elite professionals with their frequent-flier cards to the blue-collar laborers who frequent corner bars, America has fractured into distinctive lifestyles, each with its own borders. The horrors of urban living have sparked a migration of city dwellers to the countryside, creating a nation polarized between cosmopolitan cities and homogeneous exurban communities not to mention pockets of latte-and-Lexus culture appearing amid cows and country music. At the same time, the rise of gated communities in America bespeaks a population trying to get away from children, gangs, the poor, immigrants, anyone unlike themselves.
Today, the country's new motto should be "E pluribus pluriba": "Out of many, many." Evidence of the nation's accelerated fragmentation is more than anecdotal. According to the geodemographers at Claritas, American society today is composed of sixty-two distinct lifestyle types a 55 percent increase over the forty segments that defined the U.S. populace during the 1970s and '80s. These clusters are based on composites of age, ethnicity, wealth, urbanization, housing style, and family structure. But their boundaries have undergone dramatic shifts in recent years as economic, political, and social trends stratify Americans in new ways. Immigration, women in the workforce, delayed marriage, aging baby boomers, economic swings: All these trends have combined to increase the number of distinct lifestyles. And advances in database technology that link the clusters to marketing surveys and opinion polls are permitting more accurate portraits of how these disparate population groups behave whether they prefer tofu or tamales, Mercedes or Mazda, legalizing pot or supporting animal rights.
In today's clustered world, America has become a nation of Executive Suites (upscale suburban couples), Big Fish, Small Pond (midscale exurban families), and Rustic Elders (downscale rural retirees). If you live in a new cluster called Young Literati, present in North Brooklyn, New York, and Hermosa Beach, California, your neighbors are likely coffee bar-addicted Generation Xers into hardback books and music videos. If you've fled the city for the country lifestyle of Graft, Vermont, or Sutter Creek, California, you more than likely inhabit New Eco-topia, where your baby-boom neighbors enjoy country music, camping, and protesting to their congresspeople over the encroachment of big business. In Mid-City Mix, a cluster of working-class African American neighborhoods, residents believe O. J. Simpson was properly acquitted of murdering his former wife and her friend. In Greenbelt Families, an upscale white enclave typically located near Mid-City Mix communities, residents almost universally believe he was guilty. When you say "oil" in Rural Industria, a blue-collar heartland cluster, residents think "Quaker State." In the family suburbs of Winner's Circle, the second most affluent lifestyle, they think "extra virgin olive."
These lifestyles represent America's modern tribes, sixty-two distinct population groups each with its own set of values, culture, and means of coping with today's problems. A generation ago, Americans thought of themselves as city dwellers, suburbanites, or country folk. But we are no longer that simple, and our neighborhoods reflect our growing complexity. Clusters, which were created to identify demographically similar zip codes around the U.S., are now used to demarcate a variety of small geographic areas, including census tracts (500-1,000 households) and zip plus 4 postal codes (about ten households). Once used interchangeably with neighborhood type, however, the term cluster now refers to population segments where, thanks to technological advancements, no physical contact is required for cluster membership. The residents of Pools & Patios, a cluster of upper-middle-class suburban couples, congregate in La Crescenta, California, and Rockville, Maryland, but they also can be found on one block in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and in a few households in Portland, Maine. These residents can meet their neighbors across a fence to borrow a cup of sugar or argue issues, or they can schmooze on-line in the nonphysical world, debating the merits of a vacation in Austria or Hungary. In the clustered world, geographic communities united by PTAs, political clubs, and Sunday schools have given way to consumption communities defined by demographics, intellect, taste, and outlook. Today's town square is the on-line chat room.
The cluster system serves as a barometer in this changing world, monitoring how the country is evolving in distinct geographical areas. No longer can sociologists lump "American" behavior into a single trend line. Despite what network newscasters might have you believe, Americans are not becoming smarter or fatter or more indebted but particular clusters most assuredly are. When Georgia's Division of Public Health cluster-coded the state's entire population, it found higher rates of breast cancer among women who lived in the factory towns classified Mines & Mills; afterward, it targeted mammography programs to those cluster communities. Nationwide, the poorly educated, small-town residents of Back Country Folks are typically more overweight than the college graduates of Urban Gold Coast, who heed the fat and cholesterol information printed on packaged foods. Surveys find that one in three Americans smoke, but many city-based Money & Brains sophisticates would be hard-pressed to name a smoker in their circle of friends and family (not counting, of course, those men and women caught up in the recent yuppie-stoked cigar-sucking craze). Smokers thrive in other lifestyle types, like Grain Belt and Scrub Pine Flats, a long geographic and demographic distance from upscale, college-educated, health-conscious surroundings. As the "American Way" becomes more elusive, the insights offered by the cluster system help us to appreciate who we are and where we're headed.
Sometimes, the clusters simply underscore realities already apparent, such as the widening gap between the richest and poorest Americans. The nation's most affluent neighborhood type, Blue Blood Estates (where the heirs to "old money" fortunes reside), has been joined by other wealthy havens, such as Winner's Circle (new-money suburbs dotted with split-levels) and Country Squires (ritzy small towns like Middleburg, Virginia, characterized by horse farms and sport-utility vehicles). At the other end of the spectrum, America's poorest citizens are no longer confined to the urban ghettos of Inner Cities or the isolated settlements of Hard Scrabble, where hunting and fishing help put food on the table. For the first time, the poorest neighborhoods in America are found outside the nation's largest metros, in Southside City, a cluster of midsized city districts where blue-collar African Americans have a median income of $15,800, barely above the poverty line of $15,570 for a family of four. Between the 1980 and 1990 census, the median income of the wealthiest cluster jumped 55 percent, to $113,000 annually, while that of the poorest cluster increased only 39 percent, to $15,000. Sociologists say global competition and the cyber-revolution have widened the gap that divides the haves from the have-nots. But long-term contracts for workers in blue-collar industries are also disappearing. No longer are Americans rising and falling together, as if in one large national boat," former labor secretary Robert Reich observed. "We are, increasingly, in different, smaller boats." And not all of us are assured of life rafts.
At the same time, the American family is evolving into many different kinds of households with wildly different needs. Marketers once pitched products nationally on network TV to just a few dominant prototypes, the favorite being the white middle-class housewife wearing a sweater and fake pearls who worried herself sick over ring around the collar. Today, there's no overwhelming type of household in the United States. The most common model, married couples without children, represents 30 percent of the nation's households. Married couples with children make up about 25 percent, and about the same percentage of Americans live alone, up from less than 8 percent in 1940. One result of the continuing singles boom is the emergence of a cluster called Upstarts & Seniors, which contains both young and older singles living in modest homes and apartments often located in inner-ring suburbs. Despite their differences in age, they share a fondness for movies, health clubs, and coffee bars. In Upstarts & Seniors communities like Lakeside, Virginia, outside of Richmond, a visitor can find a shopping center with a tanning salon next to a shop specializing in denture care.
If there is any successor to the traditional homemaker who dominated popular culture a generation ago, it's today's Soccer Mom, that working mother of school-aged children whom commentators celebrated as the key to the 1996 presidential election. Found in a dozen lifestyle types, Soccer Moms typically describe themselves as political moderates concerned about family values, reducing military spending, and increasing environmental programs. Although some political commentators doubted their impact on the election, the pervasiveness of their lifestyle cannot be overlooked. In Upward Bound, a midsized city cluster of new subdivisions filled with dual-income couples, Soccer Moms swarm the streets every afternoon and weekend in their GMC Suburbans and Mercury Villagers, carting kids to chess clubs, tae kwon do lessons, and, yes, soccer leagues. In the cluster community of Federal Way, Washington, south of Seattle, many women log three hundred miles a week in after-school schlepping. A local marketing survey found that more people eat meals in their cars than any other place including the home.
Under the cluster system, the "average American" that is, the typical citizen trumpeted by network commentators proves to be a figment of statisticians' imaginations, since the "average" lifestyle cluster represents less than 2 percent of the population. The "middle class" now comes in variations ranging from suburban white-collar couples (New Empty Nests) to rural blue-collar families (Shotguns & Pickups). Even the most populous cluster lifestyles are too small to have much meaning. Ten years ago, the largest cluster in America was Blue-Chip Blues, a collection of blue-collar family suburbs like Ronkonkoma, New York, and Mesquite, Texas, where the lifestyle resembled an old episode of Roseanne. Residents liked to relax by drinking beer or going to the Elks Club, and meals included heavily processed food like Hamburger Helper, potato chips, and creamed corn. But as manufacturing jobs disappeared and the children of Blue-Chip Blues grew up and moved out, the cluster population dropped from 6 percent of U.S. households to 2 percent. And its working-class lifestyle faded. In recent years, membership in fraternal organizations has dropped, beer sales have nosedived, and Roseanne has disappeared, to be replaced by sitcoms like Friends, whose characters pursue typical Bohemian Mix lifestyles. Roseanne just couldn't compete, despite an abrupt story-line shift that found the blue-collar family suddenly rich beyond their imagination after hitting the lottery one working-class version of the American Dream.
Although hip urban lifestyles may be in vogue on TV, the most populous cluster in the nation today is Kids & Cul-de-Sacs, a collection of white-collar family suburbs like Wheaton, Illinois, known for its noisy medley of bikes, boom boxes, carpooled kids, and dogs. Home to about 9 million people, this cluster is the nation's largest eleven times larger than the smallest cluster, Urban Gold Coast. But by no means does it represent the "average American" type. Even with its sprawling families this cluster ranks first for having families with four or more people only 3.5 percent of all Americans live in Kids & Cul-de-Sacs. The median household income, $61,600, is 40 percent higher than the national average. And the cluster contains half as many blacks and twice as many Asians as the U.S. norm. Together, these demographics have a singular effect on consumer patterns. Kids & Cul-de-Sacs households are much more likely than the general population to eat Brie cheese, drive Infinitis, buy CD-ROM disks, and shop at Price Club. When it comes to television, This Old House outranks NYPD Blue. On the sidewalks of Wheaton, it's not unusual to see traffic jams involving strollers; the lives and crimes of the NYPD Blue squad just don't resonate here.
On the other hand, there's plenty of evidence that a thriving homogenized culture exists in America, with identically dressed counter people flipping identically dressed hamburgers in strip malls from coast to coast. In this slice of Anywhere, U.S.A., giants like Wal-Mart and Home Depot offer almost anything to anybody, smothering the local shops that in the past gave cities and small towns their character and charm. On local TV stations, the bland voices of anchorpeople have supplanted regional accents. Social scientists have dubbed this process "the McDonaldization of society." They could just have well have termed it the salsa-dipping, Cajun-seasoning, Carolina-barbecuing of America, as fast-food chains have watered down and dispersed these once-regional food trends throughout the nation.
Who buys what?
A journey through the clustered world reveals that such mass-appeal businesses do not reach out and touch millions. Not all Americans have equal access to McDonald's and mall outlets; indeed, there are many clusters where consumers have never sampled the tart taste of an Arch Deluxe. And the creeping sameness of malls is one reason that over the last three years, some analysts estimate, as many as 600 of the nation's 2,000 malls have experienced financial trouble. In contemporary America, different products and brands mean different things to different people. The hip city dwellers of Young Literati and Urban Gold Coast may look down on McDonald's as a dclass purveyor of fat-laden meat and fries, counter to their lifestyle, which celebrates lean, low-cholesterol health food. In Norma Rae-ville, a cluster of mill towns concentrated in the Southeastern states, having a McDonald's in town is a sign that your community is no longer a backwater. In Monroe, Georgia, a cluster community where the closest white-tablecloth restaurants are a twenty-minute-drive away in Athens, residents were tickled when a McDonald's outlet recently arrived. On a Saturday afternoon, it's often the center of community activity, the cars lined up fifteen deep at the drive-in window. Many wish more chains would move in. As one resident observes, "I'd really feel like we made it if a Red Lobster came to town."
Of course, regional loyalties that once thrived in geographic isolation still affect values and consumer patterns. In the kitchens of the Northwest, coffee bean grinders are mandatory. Salsa has outsold ketchup for years in the Southwest. "If it ain't fried, it ain't Southern" is how one resident of the Red, White & Blues town of Hiram, Georgia, describes her regional cuisine, which includes fried peach pie. Sales of grits still mimic the old boundaries of the Confederate States of America. Fashion designers have long known that logos confer different degrees of status depending on where shoppers live. When Rough Hewn clothiers slapped logos on shirts and sweaters, they became hot items in the Southeast; in the Northeast, sales plummeted.
And yet, as major corporations continually foist their uniform products and national brands on consumers across the land, regional differences are having less and less influence. Sharper distinctions of taste occur up and down the cluster ladder. Along the mean streets of Inner Cities neighborhoods in the South Bronx, some young adults will literally kill for a Starter jacket or pair of Timberland shoes, their logos prominently displayed. An hour away in the upscale Second City Elite town of Northport, some shoppers cut out the designer labels of new clothes so they won't be judged by anything so superficial. These consumers look to other products and brands albeit with more subtle logos to connect them to their cluster community.
More and more, Americans define their world view through a cluster lens. In Big Fish, Small Pond, an upper-middle-class lifestyle typified by Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a bedroom suburb of Nashville, an important measure of success is which college your child attends. Befitting their interest in education, residents are more likely than the general population to buy the latest books and computers. But in Lynchburg, Tennessee, a downscale rural town classified as Shotguns & Pickups, what matters is how your son or daughter performs on a basketball court or athletic field. Residents speak of the importance of athletics over academics in a community where the major employer is Jack Daniel's distillery. "The most popular kids in high school are the ones who play on the basketball team, not who get the good grades," says librarian Sara Hope, adding that patrons resist reading newsweeklies and out-of-town papers. "People here aren't looking for the latest product seen on a TV commercial," explains Clayton Knight, assistant manager at the Lynchburg Hardware and General Store. "They all know the good old products." Indeed, at the local pharmacy, shoppers can still buy liniment, lye soap, and Watkin's vanilla flavoring, as their grandparents did before them.
In an age of overwhelming consumer choices, cluster residents look to brand names and product myths as distinguishing lifestyle markers. Saturn car owners can now gather for company-sponsored "reunions" though they've never previously met. The upscale, politically correct urban residents of Money & Brains support the Body Shop and the myth of its founder, Anita Roddick, who supposedly jets around the globe in search of ancient potions that can save the rainforests by making their plants and peoples at last economically viable. David Brooks, an editor at the Weekly Standard in Washington, D.C., noticed that many of his neighbors in the Money & Brains neighborhood of Cleveland Park liked things "rough." "Smoothness connotes slickness, glitz, the Reagan '80s," he wrote in the Washington Post. "Roughness connotes authenticity, naturalness, virtue. Whether it's bread, clothing, or furniture, you can never have too much texture. That's why unrefined sugar is now considered the height of refinement." While his neighbors may all agree that coffee bars like Starbucks are essential to their community, they can still realize individual self-actualization by ordering complex concoctions like a half-decaf, no-foam, double-shot skim latte with almond syrup and a dash of cinnamon.
Moving to other clusters causes people to adopt new buying patterns, but most Americans inhabit only a handful throughout the course of their lives. Mobility rates have been steadily declining even while fracturing trends have increased due to economic shifts and increasing divorce rates, among other trends. Twenty years ago, 20.1 percent of all Americans moved every year. Today that figure is 16.7 percent. "Most people move to where they've been before, either where they went to school or vacation," reports Kristin Hansen, a mobility expert at the Census Bureau. Now even laid-off workers are reluctant to move for a new job, though the cluster system may reflect a downshift in lifestyle at the same address. According to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an international outplacement firm, only 18 percent of laid-off managers and executives were willing to relocate for a new position in 1995 the lowest figure in a decade. "We are becoming a nation of isolates in which we are apprehensive about venturing outside of the lives in which we have become so comfortable, even after we lose a job," observed John Challenger, executive vice president of the firm. Rather than risk moving to an unfamiliar setting, workers stay put, taking comfort in what real or imagined social and emotional support their communities provide.
This process has left too many Americans alienated from each other, divided by a cultural chasm. Just how wide and deep the differences are hit home when journalist Peter A. Brown examined whether the popular press is as out of touch with mainstream America as some critics claim. Brown cluster-coded the home addresses of 3,400 editors, reporters, and columnists for publications like USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Milwaukee Journal. He found that the vast majority of full-time journalists live in the ten wealthiest urban and suburban neighborhood types clusters like Urban Gold Coast, Pools & Patios, and Blue Blood Estates. By contrast, they were markedly underrepresented in forty-eight of the clusters, including suburban middle-class lifestyle types that more closely aligned with their papers' readership clusters such as Greenbelt Families and Middleburg Managers. As Brown observed, "Most journalists are different from real Americans. And their perspective on the world is different from how most Americans live." The American experience, most often seen from the viewpoint of educated and affluent white European descendants, must now be told in different ways.
In clusters like Hispanic Mix, home to downscale, predominantly Hispanic families, you can live most of your life without needing to speak or read English. In Atwater Village, a typical cluster neighborhood in Los Angeles, residents shop at carniceria meat markets, watch soap opera novellas on TV, and sing along in Spanish karaoke bars. It can be a dangerous place, with gang violence erupting over territory and drugs. But the local Chevy Chase Recreation Center serves as a sanctuary for children arriving after school to do homework, take arts classes, or play basketball. When local gang members hang out at the center's parking lot or handball court, director Sophia Pina-Cartez tries to cool hot tempers and maintain peace in the neighborhood. "I tell them, 'Don't tell me what you're up to, just don't make the children your victims,'" she says. "I just want to make this a safe haven."
Across the country in Glen Rock, New Jersey, an affluent suburb west of Manhattan classified as Money & Brains, residents faced a different sort of problem. Several years ago, the unmistakable odor of a nearby landfill wafted down their stately streets lined with solid Tudors and shady trees. People of eminently good taste and environmental sensitivity, these residents devised a solution apropos of their appreciation for the finer things in life. The local government scented the garbage dump with lemon, as if it were a huge cup of espresso. When that plan failed to clear the air, they did the next best thing. They hired a trucking outfit to haul all their garbage to another town. End of problem.
Today, the notion of a star-spangled melting pot seems quaint, of another age. Increasingly, America is a fractured landscape, its people partitioned into dozens of cultural enclaves, its ideals reflected through differing prisms of experience. And this fracturing is likely to continue as the self-concept of America shifts from a majority white-minority black nation to a pluralistic society of many ethnic and racial groups. At the close of what's been called the American Century, during which the nation emerged as the dominant world power in commerce and politics, old myths are dying hard and new ones are just being forged. In this clustered world, the national identity is changing, and most of us don't even know it.
From melting pot to salad bar
The ongoing fragmentation of America is a far cry from the experiment in democracy our forefathers envisioned, a blending of European immigrants into a unique amalgam. Many historians cite the 1782 observations of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur as the early model for pluralism: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men," he wrote in Letters from an American Farmer. In 1835, French politician and author Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated that pluralistic ideal in his Democracy in America, writing, "Imagine, my dear friend, if you can, a society formed of all the nations in the world . . . a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character." Such writings created a myth of the American character even as immigrants continued to arrive. But the new nation was unable to produce an egalitarian society. Racial, economic, cultural, and religious differences were entrenched in America from its beginnings, resulting in diverse classes that remain separate and unequal to this day. Jim Crow laws exacerbated a racially divided nation. Religious discrimination created restricted neighborhoods, clubs, and schools.
But Americans have always clung to the notion of egalitarianism, and not only during times of hardship and war, when the draft united the middle class and the poor. Sociologists refer nostalgically to the 1950s as a time of cohesion, a mass market, and a common lifestyle. Following the Depression and World War II, the country entered a period of unparalleled prosperity. The GI Bill provided veterans access to higher education, opening the economic door to starter houses and cars. As men returned from the war and joined the workforce, women left the labor market to tend to home and family, creating a common realm of experience that businesses didn't ignore. Before long, a majority of Americans were reading Life, watching The Ed Sullivan Show, and driving cars made in Detroit. A 1954 nationwide poll found that Americans even agreed by a large margin on their favorite meal: fruit cup, vegetable soup, steak, French fries, peas, and apple pie ? la mode.
But the '50s era of mass culture was an aberration, and it didn't last. The '60s shattered the traditional fam ily structure. Women entered the workforce in large numbers. Divorce rates rose. The Vietnam War divided families and created a class split. And more immigrants arrived not white Europeans, but Asians, Hispanics, and others with "alien" cultures. Soon powerful social forces added fault lines to the common ground where Americans once stood. In the 1970s, institutions like the military draft that once bridged our cultural enclaves disappeared. Others, such as public schools and labor unions, fell into disarray. By the 1980s, the two-party political system had been shredded by divisive issues abortion, affirmative action, and welfare. Social upheavals of the current generation suburbanization, globalization, technologies that collapse time and space continue to dilute the notion of community based on proximity and shared concerns. Meanwhile, the diversity movement, intent on abolishing the ethnic categories on census forms, advises Americans to celebrate their differences.
As a result of these demographic and societal shifts, the mass market of the post-World War II era didn't just fade away, it shattered into niche markets. In 1974, when social-scientist-turned-marketer Jonathan Robbin founded Claritas, he identified forty "lifestyle segments" in the nation, combining zip codes with marketing research to create the PRIZM cluster system. Following the 1980 census, Claritas expanded the clusters down to the block level and adjusted the forty groups to reflect changes in demographics and product usage, dropping clusters like Ethnic Row Houses (downscale industrial areas) and Marlboro Country (midscale family farms), and picking up Gray Power (upscale retirement communities) and Black Enterprise (upper-middle-class minority neighborhoods). But experts still needed only forty clusters to accurately reflect the U.S. population profile.
That changed in 1990, following the most ambitious, far-reaching, and data-rich census ever conducted. When the Census Bureau finally released its findings, the ramifications rippled through America's political and social institutions. Congressional seats were added in eight states, including Florida, California, and Texas, and dropped in thirteen others, including New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At Claritas, the demographic shifts revealed in the census enabled a finer segmentation of lifestyles and resulted in wholesale changes to the PRIZM system, which dropped thirteen clusters, redefined another seven, and added thirty-five new lifestyle types. When David Miller, Claritas's lead technician who oversaw the clustering process, completed the 1990s model, only twenty clusters from 1980 remained largely unchanged.
Creating a lifestyle cluster system is no mean feat. Geodemographic segmentation systems, mixing demographic information with small units of geography, begin with millions of raw statistics from census surveys. Next, the nation's households are classified into groups based on similarities much as living things are divided by biologists into orders, families, and so on. When Claritas analysts first examined the 1990 U.S. census, they looked at the six hundred variables influencing settlement at the neighborhood level. They then came up withthirty-nine key factors in five categories to organize the neighborhoods into natural lifestyle clusters. Every census tract, block group, and zip plus 4 unit of microgeography averaging a dozen households in 22 million postal areas was assigned to one of the clusters.
But the basic clustering principle, that people of the same ilk flock together like birds of a feather, had a new wrinkle. The self-absorption of Americans, cocooned in their homes and immersed in their electronic gadgets, had exacerbated the lack of cohesion within each neighborhood. Nowadays, the characteristics and tastes of a community, from age and marital status to preferred political cause and brand of soda, may change block by block and house by house. Thus, while cluster systems can now distinguish the preferences of a yuppie couple from those of a comparatively nonmaterialistic family living next door, their power remains in classifying the lifestyle these people share at the neighborhood level. As in the beginning, cluster systems show how the residents of one neighborhood have a common identity. Their core truth can be simply expressed: You are like your neighbors.
With sixty-two lifestyle types, the expanded cluster system allows a more detailed portrait of the nation's diversity. The stereotype of the suburbs as a vast, homogeneous wasteland has become outdated. Fourteen different tribes now occupy the suburban landscape, some congregating outside second-tier cities like Schaumburg, Illinois, and Annapolis, Maryland, others living in new subdivisions. New data has also picked up on the continued outmigration of city dwellers to the rural landscape. The expanding suburban sprawl has created what journalist Joel Garreau calls "edge cities," with their megamalls and high-rise monoliths, and exurban boomtowns, with their enclaves of retirees and telecommuters. To capture these hybrid lifestyles, the new cluster system added a "second city" designation, a unique grouping of twelve lifestyle types that are city living but not urban living. For instance, Dallas has a central downtown area and a number of urban clusters, while Fort Worth, with very little urban core, falls into the second-city category. Similarly, an inner-city dweller from Chicago has a very different lifestyle than a resident of smaller Nashville. Second-city dwellers are more apt to buy American cars, for example, while urbanites with similar demographics tend to purchase imports. In a cluster called Second City Elite, affluent, college-educated couples tend to read Shape, listen to adult contemporary radio, and watch Melrose Place. In urban Money & Brains, demographically similar people read Town & Country, listen to jazz, and watch Wall Street Week.
Cluster evolution during the 1980s saw five lifestyles disappear as a result of the dwindling manufacturing base and downsized blue-collar workforce. One cluster, Rank & File, vanished entirely because of declining union membership. Even new standards of political correctness worked changes into the system. The former Tobacco Roads, a downscale African American cluster whose nickname was based on Erskine Caldwell's Depression-era book, was dropped because it sounded pejorative in the 1990s. Instead, the Southern-based cluster picked up some neighborhoods from the predominantly white Share Croppers cluster and now goes by the more benign label Scrub Pine Flats. The second-wealthiest lifestyle, called Furs & Station Wagons in the 1980s, lost its moniker because animal rights groups had bullied the rich into forsaking their fur coats (or at least putting them into cold storage). Claritas staffers spent weeks debating a replacement name for these new-money suburbs, considering suggestions like Jeeps & Jewels and Spandex & Minivans. The winning name: Winner's Circle.
Behind the changing cluster names, the fragmenting of America has not been a smooth process. When communities that have been accustomed for generations to a certain way of life are invaded by newcomers or surrounded by distinctly different life-styles, friction is bound to occur. Longtime residents often jealously protect their familiar ways, shunning other clusters that don't share their values a finding that has broad cultural and commercial implications. When giant Arkansas-based retailer Wal-Mart set its sights in 1990 on Vermont then the only state in the union without one of its megastores the company encountered surprising resistance. Residents in the state's small towns simply didn't want discount palaces like "Sprawl-Mart" with their oversized shopping carts, computerized inventory control, and other trappings of outlet culture. It turns out Vermont is home to the country's largest concentration of residents classified as New Eco-topia, a cluster typified by consumers with above-average educations and a fondness for civic activism. With its population of small-town consultants, merchants, and telecommuters, New Eco-topia's consumer patterns are more typical of city dwellers' than those of their country neighbors. Residents tend to surf the Internet to stay in touch with mainstream news via web sites for CNN or ABC-TV. They're more likely than average Americans to own stock, buy health food, and write letters to editors. In Westminster, Vermont, town council meetings can go on for two days as residents debate everything from school budgets to buying the fire department volunteers new jackets. Whereas New Eco-topians make up 1 percent of the U.S. population, in Vermont they represent fully 20 percent. These are the exurban Americans "granolas," the natives call them who fled the city and don't want their adopted rural state to become what they left behind: a clutter of superstores and seven-acre parking lots. After years of fending off the incursion, state activists relented in 1994 and Wal-Mart got its store, but only after agreeing to build a scaled-back outlet near the downtown of Saint Johnsbury (population 8,000 New Eco-topians).
Across the nation, cluster residents announce their distinct lifestyles to the rest of the world through their purchasing power. They demand products from cheese to jeans to minivans tailored to reflect their changing tastes and attitudes. In the opulent 1980s, the yuppies of Young Influentials bought gold jewelry as a status symbol. Now, in a less ostentatious age, the hot new status symbol is a good job that allows time for exercise. With affluent tastes now running more toward utilitarianism and self-fulfillment, the onetime owners of BMW sedans tool around in Range Rovers with racks toting skis and bikes. In the Young Influentials community of Redmond, Washington, home of Microsoft and Nintendo, workaholic techies routinely put in long days on the job and then head for the surrounding mountains on the weekends to go hiking or biking. Arleen Hiuga, a store manager of REI, a recreational equipment company, sees a steady parade of Young Influentials who come in to be outfitted for "adrenaline sport" activities that are both physically and psychically challenging. "When your reality is sitting in front of a computer screen for eighty hours a week, you require a balance and pursue a sport for decompressing," she says. "The ultimate experience is a challenging climb uninterrupted by the sight of other nature lovers." Of course, these Young Influentials still meet those challenges with a few creature comforts. Among REI's best-selling products are global guidance systems that provide latitude and longitude lines anywhere in the wilderness and espresso makers designed to work over a campfire.
But yuppie tastes aren't just changing; America's yuppies are disappearing altogether. The Young Influentials cluster has shrunk from 2.9 percent of U.S. households to 1.1 percent as baby boomers have aged, married, left the city for the 'burbs, and begun shopping at Price Club rather than Sharper Image. Taking over their city apartments are the Generation Xers of the Bohemian Mix cluster, those twenty-something singles who never seem to leave their local coffee bars, which offer them retro music and obscure 'zines. In fact, children are becoming an endangered species in many Bohemian Mix neighborhoods. Karyn Robinson, a thirty-three-year-old writer from Dupont Circle, a Bohemian Mix section of Washington, D.C., observes that she's more likely to see a gay couple than a family with children on neighborhood streets. "The breeder culture is nonexistent around here," she says.
Likewise, advancements up the socioeconomic ladder by African Americans have resulted in cluster adjustments. The former Black Enterprise segment, typified by upwardly mobile blacks, disappeared in the 1990 cluster system as surveys showed its residents had more in common with nonblack families of similar socioeconomic status than with other blacks. As a result, the residents of zip code 30034, outside Atlanta, formerly a Black Enterprise community, are now classified Kids & Cul-de-Sacs, with higher-than-average purchases of BMWs, computers, and cell phones. Race does play a major role in some consumption patterns, particularly affecting media preferences. Surveys show that African Americans who live in integrated suburban communities still share with their inner-city brethren some of the same tastes in TV (BET), radio (gospel), and magazines (Jet, Ebony, Essence). When urban black radio station WVAZ in Chicago was trying to attract Citibank as one of its advertisers, the financial services firm resisted because the demographic profile showed that the station attracted a high percentage of downscale urban blacks. Yet a cluster analysis revealed that about 30 percent of the audience were upscale residents who'd assimilated into Blue Blood Estates and Young Literati areas, and the bank eventually signed on. "The issue isn't skin color," says Linda Brown, research director of Eagle Marketing in Fort Collins, Colorado. "It's attitude."
The lack of any predominantly black affluent cluster shows that the civil rights movement and anti-discrimination laws have provided the opportunity for African Americans to put down roots almost anywhere they can afford. Between 1980 and 1990, the proportion of blacks in some overwhelmingly white suburban clusters more than doubled. But two trends trouble demographers: First, few black-only communities in America are wealthy. And second, there's little sign of upscale African Americans returning to city neighborhoods to help revitalize them. Census data confirms that the gentrification of the nation's cities remains a phenomenon of young white singles. "The black middle class will never come back to the inner city," says Edward Smith, director of American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. "People who can afford to leave the city have done so, and they're happy."
For all the progress toward integrated subdivisions, some aspects of race relations haven't changed. Socially, people tend to cling to those like themselves, a fact that helps explain why, outside of housing or employment, much of America remains a segregated society. True, blacks and whites are intermarrying at rising rates, but mixed-race families still account for less than 3 percent of all households. And there's no one cluster dominated by mixed-race residents. More common is the lifestyle of New Empty Nests, a cluster of predominantly white upscale suburbs where residents say that the races get along and relations are certainly better than they were in the past, but social divisions remain. In the cluster community of Tucker, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb surrounded by increasing numbers of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, one can walk into any number of restaurants and shops and almost never see any of the minorities who live nearby. And Sunday remains the most segregated day of the week in the area's racially divided churches. Reverend Michael Cash, minister of the First United Methodist Church of Tucker, attributes the voluntary segregation to historically different styles of worship. "The black singing style includes clapping and swaying, and the preaching style is longer and more rhythmic than in white churches," says Cash, a thoughtful forty-two-year-old white clergyman. "The joke we like to say is, 'God leaves the white sanctuaries at noon,' because the black churches are still going on." But Cash isn't laughing as he shares this fact. Of 1,500 members of his church, none are black.
As middle-class whites and blacks have left the nation's cities, immigrants have moved in, at some of the highest rates seen this century. Nearly one million foreign-born residents arrive now each year, mostly from Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. Asians, the fastest-growing minority group, inhabit a number of upscale segments in above-average concentrations, illustrating their successful assimilation into American society. The number of predominantly Hispanic clusters increased from one to five, but, in a sign of the growing poverty among Hispanic Americans, none of these clusters is affluent. Only one is midscale suburban, and two are midscale urban. In the Mobility Blues cluster, concentrated in cities throughout the western states, the households are filled with young middle-class families who dream of sending their kids to college, read Working Woman, and enjoy HBO. Meanwhile, in more downscale Family Scramble, newly arrived Hispanic couples, struggling to protect their children from gangs, drugs, and violence, are more concerned about finding affordable housing and English language classes. In all, sixteen clusters have above-average concentrations of Latinos.
Today, the American Dream is no longer a single vision but depends on what you see when you look into a mirror. In Grain Belt, a cluster of tiny farm towns, the dream means having enough people to sustain a community. In the small middle-class cities of Starter Families, it's finding a good job and being able to buy a home. In a new cluster called American Dreams, composed of cities filled with first- and second-generation Americans, one can find varied hopes within these remnants of the melting pot. In Buena Park, California, a cluster community in the Los Angeles sprawl, the descendants of Japanese, Dutch, and Hispanic immigrants have achieved the traditional signs of status: comfortable homes, well-paying jobs, and college educations for their children. Yet even in this enviable setting, cross-cultural mixing is limited. Older Dutch-descended residents attend their own parties, and the newer Hispanic residents keep to their own stores. Tom Shozi, the sixty-nine-year-old son of Japanese immigrants, was born in Colorado, interred in California concentration camps as a teenager, and today calls himself "an all-American," with his cowboy boots, Chevy pickup, and country music tapes. But when not working on his strawberry farm, he and his wife attend a Japanese church, watch Japanese soap operas on cable, and socialize at dinner parties with Japanese friends. In his bicultural home, Shozi takes off his shoes at the door and sits down to a typical dinner of meat loaf and mashed potatoes eaten with chopsticks. "I still like to keep a little bit of our Japanese heritage, but I can't understand the current fascination with sushi," he says, making a face at the thought of eating raw fish. "I'm just as American as anyone else." Well, not exactly. But that's the point.
Cluster marketing at home and abroad
The splintering society is no surprise to corporate marketers, who have been working with clusters for twenty-five years. An estimated fifteen thousand North American companies, nonprofit groups, and politicians have used clusters as part of their marketing strategies. Abroad, the need for micromarketing has fueled the creation of cluster systems in two dozen countries withnew countries being added every few months. The popularity of clustering reflects a tidal wave of demographic forces that is leaving fragmented societies in its wake. Throughout Europe, many nations are experiencing aging populations, rising divorce rates, little household growth, and declining birth rates. Less restrictive zoning laws are encouraging suburban sprawl as young families leave old city centers. Meanwhile, increasing racial and ethnic diversity is obliterating the rigid class structures of the past. One result of these changes is that fewer people define themselves by their job titles, and many no longer feel compelled to conform to traditional notions of how they should behave on and off the job.
"When I get a passport and am asked for my profession, I say, 'Geodemographic consultant,' and they respond, 'Come again?'" says Richard Webber, managing director of England-based Experian Micromarketing. "Most ordinary people don't understand the jobs their neighbors do anymore. So they can live however they like and consume whatever products they want to reflect their unique lifestyle."
This do-your-own-thing attitude has also spurred the growth of lifestyle segmentation systems because increasingly stringent privacy laws limit how businesses can collect and use information on individuals. In countries with fresh memories of repressive Communist governments, citizens fear that personal data can be used for surveillance. Cluster systems, however, can circumvent such concerns by relying on neighborhood-level data drawn from both public and private sources: census statistics, car registrations, electoral rolls, and independent surveys. Experian, a global leader in gathering such data, made its name as a credit-scoring agency, helping insurance companies charge rates based on neighborhood clusters. According to its fifty-two-segment British MOSAIC system, motorists from country clusters like Gentrified Villages and Rural Retirement Mix pay low fees because of few thefts and little congestion.
Throughout the world, there's remarkable similarity in the way businesses are using the cluster technology for analyzing trading areas, profiling customers, and driving media strategies. The increasing globalization of culture is also prompting multinational companies to look to clusters as a common marketing language to reach customers across many borders. In Spain, foreign retailers like Marks & Spencer are already using cluster profiles of city consumers to decide where to open their stores. In France, Pepsi has tapped cluster profiles of shoppers at Alcampo, the hypermarket grocery chain, to determine how much to pay for a meter of shelf space to display its soft drinks. Clusters have aided Detroit carmakers analyze motorists across Europe, though sometimes the results have caused manufacturers to make a sharp turn in their thinking. When General Motors profiled buyers of its sporty Tigra sedan, company officials were shocked to find fans not among the clusters of young suburban couples, as anticipated, but in areas filled with older urban retirees, who said the car made them feel young. GM altered its marketing and media plan accordingly.
Back in the U.S.A., marketers now spend an estimated $300 million annually on clustering techniques, which have become well-accepted tools in targeting direct-mail campaigns, selecting sites for new stores, and profiling the behavior of the nation's 100 million households. With the increased precision in data collection and greater power of desktop computing, the demand for information segmented by clusters is exploding. The new marketing buzzwords are narrowcasting, particle marketing, and segments of one. Claritas now calls itself a "precision marketing" company, able to target the households on any given street. Even corporate giants are now trying to hone their messages to the diverse tastes of America's splintered consumers. Ethnic minorities control some $600 billion in annual buying power in the U.S. Today there are three TV networks and 350 newspapers catering to Latinos alone.
In the current business climate, marketing wars are being waged in microneighborhoods with surgical precision. No longer can businesses target-market a whole city or even a zip code. In 75081, the zip code of affluent Richardson, Texas, a camera store looking to sell Nikons would score big by targeting the households on Oakwood Drive, classified as Winner's Circle and filled with well-educated mobile executives and teenagers, who buy a lot of expensive photo equipment. Meanwhile, less than a mile west on Woodoak, merchants would do better selling cordless drills and circular saws to these Kids & Cul-de-Sacs households, with their large families and upscale incomes.
Such information can be translated into bottom-line results. Until fairly recently, beer was marketed as a mass-appeal product much like milk. Major brewers stuck to limited product lines, rarely launched new brands, and fought over market share during routine price wars. But today liquor stores sell dozens of microbrews, and big brewers masquerade as microbrewers Anheuser-Busch makes Elk Mountain Amber Ale in aggressive fights over market share. With baby boomers aging out of their wild beer-guzzling days (consumers over fifty-five drink only about half as much as twenty-something-year-old drinkers), brewers have introduced nonalcoholic beers, such as Coors Cutter, to hold on to older consumers.
And it's worked. In Urban Gold Coast, a cluster of densely populated urban neighborhoods filled with singles and young couples, residents drink imported beer at rates three times the national average but nonalcoholic beer 50 percent less often than the general population. In Gray Collars, a cluster of inner suburbs home to aging couples, consumers drink imported beer at a rate one-third below the national average and nonalcoholic beers at 50 percent above the average. To compete in this landscape of shrinking niches, Miller now targets its brews to customers one corner bar at a time.
In the past, national retail chains and catalog companies have been the most aggressive users of geodemographic marketing systems. But a new generation of small and midsized users are finding ever more creative ways to employ the cluster system and retain core customers. On college campuses, admissions officers have been particularly innovative in employing the clusters to recruit and retain students. American University in Washington, D.C., matches the clusters of its applicants with alumni recruiters to make the interview process less of a culture clash. At Concordia College, a small liberal arts school in Seward, Nebraska, marketers dispatch targeted brochures to students requesting information. The mailer sent to students from upscale suburban clusters like Winner's Circle and Executive Suites focuses on careers previous graduates have entered in copy titled "A Stepping Stone to Your Future." Those from the middle-class Middle America cluster receive another, headlined "An Affordable Education" and focusing on scholarship opportunities at the school. At Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, officials assign roommates based on their home clusters in an effort to reduce conflicts. "It helps link people with similar backgrounds, so they're more comfortable in the residence hall," says Theodore Kelly, president of CERR, a cluster-based college consulting firm in Falls Church, Virginia. "And it sure beats making roommate assignments based on five general questions." No longer will parents hear about their child's "roommate from another planet."
Even government agencies have turned to clusters for social marketing projects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use the clusters to ensure that their health and safety messages are understood in the communities needing assistance. When the CDC was called on to provide workers at an Alabama beryllium plant with safety information, a cluster analysis of the neighborhoods surrounding the factory gave CDC field-workers "cultural sensitivity training beyond the stereotypes to help them better reach their audience," says Susan Kirby, a CDC marketing communications scientist. In Kansas, adoption officials at the state's Social Rehabilitation Services Office had difficulty finding couples who would adopt special-needs children. Accordingly, they cluster-coded couples who'd adopted children with physical or learning disabilities in an attempt to find their "clones." Their work yielded some surprises: Among the most receptive couples were those in New Homesteaders, a midscale town cluster, and Southside City, a downscale African American neighborhood type. With several different target groups, Kansas officials developed a statewide direct-mail campaign with multiple messages, featuring a photo of a white or black youngster, depending on the cluster, with the same caption: "A kid like this deserves a home like yours." The response outstripped that of any previous campaign, notes Bob Nunley, director of the Kansas Geographic Bureau. "It also tickled the hell out of me because many of my white liberal friends didn't believe that black couples adopt black kids. And the clusters proved that they did."
The beauty of the cluster system is that it can reveal consumer niches in the unlikeliest of places. Executive Suites, the third-wealthiest lifestyle type, has lots of Beef Jerky fans; the blue-collar households of Rural Industria are a good market for pagers; and Golden Ponds seniors have a devilish desire to visit theme parks. Young Literati, a cluster of urban singles with a high concentration of writers and artists, displays an unusual fondness for Cheerios. When Time Inc. Ventures launched its urban culture magazine VIBE, its advertisers believed that the target audience was inner-city kids. But receptive readers were also found among white-collar suburbanites living in Young Influentials and Money & Brains communities those who parrot the in-your-face street styles of the inner city. Accordingly, the magazine began selling advertising space for consumer electronics that would appeal to upscale suburban tastes.
Although market researchers have known about it for years, politicians are only now beginning to use cluster technology to satisfy the myriad voting factions. Party-line affiliations have so disintegrated the nation's two parties can't even muster a simple majority when electing a president that strategists are turning to cluster affiliations to understand how allegiances shift depending on the issue at hand. During the 1996 presidential campaign, the Clinton reelection team used the clusters to identify the nation's swing voters and craft ads and speeches to help President Clinton address their concerns. Pollster Mark Penn directed a survey of ten thousand voters to probe their attitudes and lifestyles. The results yielded a profile of uncommitted voters who came from clusters like Big Sky Families and Family Scramble. As a group, they tended to be young, socially conservative voters who cared deeply about family and fiscal concerns. Acknowledging that portrait, Clinton ads began blasting Bob Dole and the Republican proposal to cut Medicare, and Clinton speeches began casting the president as the staunch defender of issues like family leave, education, and the environment. In the aftermath, election observers cited the family-friendly strategy as being key to Clinton's eventual victory with 49 percent of the vote.
The bare plurality Clinton needed to be elected president reflects an important truth: Cluster lifestyles have become a force more potent than race, geography, gender, or ideology in shaping voter attitudes. Politicians must now tap into sophisticated survey techniques that use lifestyle and demographic data to reach ever smaller divisions of the electorate. Americans are too complex to be counted on to behave as traditional voting blocs of union members, Catholics, or senior citizens; seniors, for example, don't all feel the same way. The suburban retirees who live in Pools & Patios are lapsed Republicans, wary of the party's stand on abortion and other social issues. In Mines & Mills, many aging voters still support unions and describe political issues in terms of class conflicts between management and labor; they still see government as their protector. When third-party presidential candidate Ross Perot ran for office in 1996, his supporters represented a variety of backgrounds up and down the cluster ladder: the yuppies of Young Influentials, the immigrant families of American Dreams, and the blue-collar workers of Rural Industria. All found themselves disconnected from the traditional two-party system that so often casts candidates and concerns in stark pros and cons. "On most issues, the clusters reveal a checkerboard effect," says William Krause, a survey statistician with Wirthlin Worldwide in McLean, Virginia. "All across America, the views of voters shift according to the issue and their perspective on the world."
Ultimately, the clusters reveal the many cultural divides that separate Americans on political and social issues. Tensions exist between the clusters of whites and minority groups on issues like affirmative action, immigration, crime, and culture. And increasingly, ideological gaps are widening as homogenizing institutions like the military draft disappear and individuals retreat to the comfort of their special interests. The 1998 debate in San Francisco over requiring school students to read literary works written by nonwhite authors can be explained in cluster terms. The top five clusters in San Francisco (Young Literati, Bohemian Mix, Urban Achievers, American Dreams, and Money & Brains) all have large numbers of Asians and foreign-born residents. They face a daily challenge of trying to balance cultural pride with the desire to be American that in the past meant celebrating a Eurocentric literary canon. The school system's compromise solution, requiring students to read at least one nonwhite author a year, is a harbinger of controversies to come in a nation of increasing diversity.
But at least such school debates are taking place. In Sun City West, Arizona, an exclusive Gray Power community west of Phoenix, elderly residents voted down tax referenda that would have funded a school district that includes a high proportion of young families classified as Boomers & Babies. At Dysart High School, the result was that the marching band had to fold, the number of librarians and school nurses was halved, and the football and basketball teams nearly disbanded because of budget constraints. Battles like this are becoming commonplace in the splintered society. Politicians call these "wedge issues," but they no longer divide the population into two adversarial camps. Instead, they now scatter a range of views into smaller factions. Today, there's little agreement on what truths Americans hold to be self-evident.
The consumer backlash
While its insights are undeniable, this clustered view of life is not universally accepted. Charges of oversimplification, stereotyping, and redlining are often leveled, and there are revolts against the "I am what I buy" mentality inherent in a consumer-based construct. There's something unnerving about being measured and pigeonholed on the basis of address or purchase patterns. Do you feel as if you belong to Money & Brains or Mobility Blues? Are you really a hunk of Brie or a country cottage by a lake? How much do you really have in common with others who watch The X-Files or join investment clubs?
Like many systems used to understand and predict consumer behavior, the clusters have raised privacy concerns along with the specter of an evil, all-knowing marketing monster. Many companies that operate data warehouses containing information on consumers use cluster systems, the better to divine the desired Boomtown Singles or Greenbelt Families consumers among lists of magazine readers or political contributors. And the information-gathering business is booming, projected to grow to a $10 billion industry this year. Companies like Metromail and The Polk Company gather and sort information on the lifestyles and spending habits of most of the 100 million individual households in the nation.
Of course, databases filled with personal information have existed since computers were invented, but the current explosion in data collecting and abuses through inaccurate credit reports and zealous promotions has understandably alarmed consumers. A 1996 survey by Louis Harris & Associates for Equifax Inc., a giant credit bureau, found that nearly nine out of ten Americans expressed concern about threats to their privacy. In 1997, more than 8,500 privacy bills were introduced in state legislatures. And there's every fear that without strong federal oversight of the data-collection industry, breaches of privacy in the information age will increase. Today, companies rake in information from loan applications, medical histories, driver's licenses, warranty cards, and credit card receipts."In the not too distant future," warns Democratic congressman Bob Wise of West Virginia, "consumers face the prospect that a computer somewhere will compile records about every place they go and everything they purchase."
But fears about Big Brother's power over consumers may be overstated. Cluster firms see themselves as matchmakers for parties with common interests, helping sellers understand and respond to the needs of shoppers. And no database in the U.S. not even the census contains complete records for every household or individual. Some industry experts estimate that as much as 30 percent of all database records on an individual or household may be inaccurate because people move, change jobs, divorce, or have children. Others note an important reason that most marketers consider privacy a low-priority issue: money. While a list of addresses in one zip code destined to receive a brochure for a new record shop may be bought for as little as thirty cents per address, it routinely costs ten times as much for information to identify particular households that bought a record in the last month. Clusters make bottom-line sense, allowing companies to simply target homes one block at a time and avoid any nasty questions about invasions of privacy. "We try to bring neighborhoods to life," declares Nancy Deck, president of Claritas. "Everything we've done to date concerns consumer behavior at the neighborhood level. And it works because cluster data gets you most of the way there while avoiding the extra cost of household data and respecting an individual's privacy."
Perhaps the most powerful defense against the abuse of cluster information is the American consumer's healthy independent streak. Marketing remains an art as much as a science, and eight out of ten new products still fail every year because consumers are too fickle to be manipulable. Contrary to the notion that America has become a totally acquisitive society, the cluster system reveals lifestyles that reject that ethic. In Single City Blues, a cluster of young, downscale urban singles, there's an almost nihilistic disdain for consumer electronics like boom boxes, video games, and cell phones that plague people in public places. Hanging over the counter at Anne Hughes's Kitchen Table Caf in Southeast Portland, Oregon, is a large drawing of a flip phone with a red slash through it announcing the restaurant to be a "cell-free zone." Hughes, a bespectacled earth mother who frequently hosts neighborhood potluck dinners, refuses to buy a television set, dismissing TV as "air pollution." When a Nielsen pollster once called to ask about her viewing habits, she explained she didn't own a set (making her a member of a group that represents only 1 percent of the population). A few minutes later, the pollster's supervisor called back to make sure his associate hadn't misunderstood. Much of America looks at Single City Blues' disaffection for TV as an aberration. In Southeast Portland, that's life.
Still other critics are less concerned by the cluster systems themselves than what they reflect: an increasingly fragmented society divided by income, race, ethnicity, sexual behavior, and the percentage of fat in our diets. A recent Newsweek poll found that nearly 60 percent of Americans believe the national identity is threatened by the increasing diversity of the populace. Economist Paul A. Jargowsky worries about "a pronounced trend toward increasing economic segregation." In the 1990s, the United States had the least equitable income distribution among all developed nations including England, with its aristocratic traditions. If present trends toward more fragmented lifestyles continue, this gap between Americans will only widen.
Concerns over a thinning social fabric can't be easily dismissed. In America's past, various institutions crossed cultural divides: public schools, the military draft, and the English language. Today, rising minority populations are threatening all these institutions and, thus, the social fabric. Sometime within the next fifty years, whites will be outnumbered by minorities in the U.S. Already, a white backlash of sorts is taking shape as evidenced by rising enrollments in private schools and an estimated eight million Americans now living in gated communities. More and more, people are turning to the private sector to insulate themselves from the rest of society; the latest retail experiment is the notion of so-called membership malls. Some critics wonder if the nation will splinter like the Soviet Union. As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. worried in his 1992 book The Disuniting of America, "Will the center hold? Or will the melting pot give way to the Tower of Babel?"
There's no clear answer. The clusters merely show that although the nation is far from being one big leafy suburb, Americans today are managing to find happiness within their patches on the national quilt. And as society continues its fragmentation in the future, cluster systems will be essential tools for understanding the changes affecting the U.S. population. One day in the future, we may be sliced and diced 275 million ways, one for every American citizen: You'll have your own personal lifestyle type known by you, your family, and any businessperson or politician with access to a database. But even in that fractured state of affairs, America will manage to endure, united in the recognition of its historic role as a great experiment in diversity. In this clustered world, you are where you live, even if your country is splintered into countless, clamorous lifestyles.
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