Why you need classism to attract more of the right customers

By Andrew McDermott How To, Research

“You’re beneath me.”

Have you ever had someone look down on you? Treat you as if you’re worth less than nothing? As if you’re “the help” or privileged yuppie scum?

Stings, doesn’t it?

That’s classism.

But you already knew that didn’t you?

Class affects everyone. It touches every aspect of life in western culture. How you communicate, the dreams you pursue, the friends you have and so much more.

But that’s not the problem.

The real problem is the fact that, in western culture, we’re trained and conditioned to spread a horrible lie. The lie that…

Social class doesn’t exist.

As a topic, class is taboo

It’s a third rail topic everyone acknowledges but very few are willing to discuss openly.

Which is a huge mistake.

Class invades almost every part of life, shaping our interests, attitudes, beliefs, principles, morals – you name it. But what does that mean for your business?

Class controls your marketing.

If you want to take back control and your freedom of choice, you’ll first need to understand what class is all about.

Most people are confused about class

In western culture, and especially America, we love “rags to riches” stories where the underdog gets the girl and wins the prize.

They’re great, but these stories ignore an important detail.

Here’s the reality of class:

Each class has its own set of checks and balances. These obstacles keep the right people in and the wrong people out.

People mistakenly believe class is simply about how much money you make. But there are actually two important class distinctions we need to touch on here.

  • Economic class. The amount of money you make and how you spend it.
  • Social class. How respectable and educated you are, as well as the family you come from.

Your economic class is relatively simple to change. It’s simply a matter of changing your income tax bracket.

Simple isn’t always easy.

It’s incredibly difficult for some, but it can be done.

Social class, on the other hand, isn’t focused on money. The focus is centered around culture. Each class has its own unique and separate culture.

That culture shapes your environment and to a large degree, your identity.

Is that a tad bit dramatic?


Because it’s as if you’re from another country.


Well then, which areas are affected by social class?

  • Interests. Football, golf or polo? LAN parties, country club or social club? Weekend vacation in Milan or family vacation in Key West?
  • Dress code & apparel. Tattoos and piercings or pearls and power ties? Air Jordans, Joe Rocket, or John Lobb?
  • Insults and compliments. “You’re a dumb***” vs. “Oh bless your heart” vs. silence and rejection. “That’s raw vs. “Absolutely amazing” vs. no compliments whatsoever.
  • Crisis management. Physical violence (education, punishment, revenge, etc.) vs. verbal violence (name calling, scapegoating, and Machiavellianism) vs. social acceptance, social rejection and lawyers.
  • Jokes and anecdotes. High brow humor for the educated, slapstick for those who enjoy physical comedy, sketch and stand-up comedy for mainstream, middle class audiences.
  • Etiquette and decorum. Asking how much they paid to throw their party vs. complimenting your host on a wonderful party vs. saying nothing and ignoring the topic.
  • Social norms. No work, hard work or leisure? A strong work ethic or no work ethic? Clipping coupons vs. paying full price vs. buying ‘not for sale’ items.
  • Imagery and presentation. Store bought, homemade, or catered? Second hand, department store, or custom made?
  • Methodology and approach. No planning vs. careful planning vs. I pay you to plan it. No swim lessons vs. swimming lessons vs. private swim coach.
  • Word choice, figure of speech, idiom selection, etc. “Just give me a ‘back-of-the-envelope-calculation'” vs. “gimme a ballpark figure”
  • Opportunity and progress. The worldview of no progress, no hope vs. hoarding / avoiding risk vs. “Opportunities are everywhere, which one do I want first?”
  • And this isn’t even everything.

    Each class has hundreds of rules with specific right and wrong answers for each area.

    Here’s where it really gets interesting.

    The wrong answers matter more than the right ones

    If you’re an outsider, these rules are completely unexpected. If you’re unaware, you’ll be blindsided by the consequences.

    It’s the missteps, these hidden rules, that do significant damage.

    These rules don’t just “appear.”

    They’re always there beneath the surface. Those in the know interview newcomers about these hidden rules. Those who pass are rewarded. Fail the test and you’re ostracized and rejected.

    What does this have to do with marketing?

    Namely, your marketing?

    Class is a necessary part of marketing

    But, it’s accidental for most sellers when it should be intentional. This means the results are usually hit or miss. Here’s why that’s a problem.

    Customers interview sellers.

    They interview your marketing materials to see if you pass the test.

    • Do you use the right words and phrases?
    • Does management dress the part? Do they have the right pedigree and credentials?
    • What’s your stance on social issues?
    • Do you offer high quality products and services?
    • Is your business (via your website and marketing materials) presented well?

    Your customer comes from a specific class. They understand the hidden rules of their social class intuitively and they subconsciously project these rules onto you, the seller.

    They expect you to behave the way their class dictates.

    Most customers aren’t unreasonable enough to expect a carbon copy of themselves, but they want to see that you know enough…

    To pass their interview.

    Let me show you what I mean.

    Let’s pretend you own a prestigious tech company. You have a business problem you need help with so you decide to hire a consultant. You’re publicly asked to choose between two people.

    Consultant A, (we’ll call her Alice) who looks like this:

    Portrait Of Businesswoman Working In Creative Office

    And consultant B (Brenda), who shows up dressed like this:

    Mature woman hand chin open shirt

    Who do you hire?

    It’s kind of a no-brainer right? If you’re like most people, you’d go with Alice.

    Brutal but true.

    Brenda could have all of her marketing ducks in a row. She could be brilliant, smart, capable.

    Her track record could be flawless.

    But, it doesn’t matter how perfect she is, she’ll never win the contract. She’s the touch of death to any prestigious firm.


    Because she doesn’t know about the “hidden rules” we talked about earlier. Alice has the right class values, so even though she’s less than ideal, she wins.

    When it comes to class, everyone has a value system

    If you’re selling to a specific culture you’re expected to say and do the right things. It’s a dance – the visuals, the words, non-verbal communication – they must accomplish two things.

    1. 1 Fit the culture. A prestigious law firm looks for prestigious people. A no-frills manufacturing company prefers to work with straightforward suppliers, etc.
    2. 2 Be congruent. If a banker makes $1.5 million per year, but he lives in the wrong neighborhood and dresses poorly, he’s incongruent. He’ll be punished with social pressure and rejection until he learns to “follow the rules.”

Bankers are expected to look like this:

Business banker meeting with a client

They’re not supposed to look like this:


They’re expected to drive luxury cars, live in nice houses and throw lavish parties. If there’s a class mismatch, there’s a problem.

That problem brings us to you

It’s common for businesses to struggle with class. Often times, they’re…

  1. 1 Selling to customers in more than one class (or culture)
  2. 2 Typically unaware of the class they’re in (and how that classism affects them)
  3. 3 Confused about how to change their class or become what we call “class fluid.”

In fact, it’s common for businesses to struggle with all three of these problems.

1. Selling to customers in more than one class (or culture)

Certain industries, like retail, bring a wide variety of people together. Amazon sells to 86 percent of online shoppers on the internet.

Amazing right?

How are they able to juggle a wide variety of interests, values and preferences so well? How can you do the same?

  • Step 1: Find your ideal customer. Amazon knows each of their ideal customer’s problems. Their values, goals, desires, frustrations and fears – all of the details that shape their decisions. They customize your home page, showing you things you’ve already shown interest in.
  • Step 2: Cater to customer wants. Amazon customers don’t want to pay extra for shipping, but they want their order now. Amazon’s answer? Free same day delivery with Amazon Prime. Don’t want to create a new wishlist for each and every store you visit? Amazon offers universal wishlist.
  • Step 3: Keep it congruent. Amazon sells to high net worth customers. They sell to the middle class. They sell to the poor. But they ensure that any changes they make don’t conflict with the values of other customers.
  • Step 4: Raise the collective standard. They offer good things – incentives, benefits and rewards to all of their customers. They teach customers with low expectations to expect better, to expect more. Those with high expectations are reassured they’ll be taken care of. Amazon raises industry expectations and standards, forcing competitors to match them or lose their customers.
  • 2. Unaware of the class customers have placed them in

    Imagine a high priced law firm is looking for a commercial roofer.

    Class distinctions tell us they’ll probably feel more comfortable if the roofing company’s employee looks like this:

    Architect Studying Plans Outside New Home

    What if the customer is a homeowner in the lower middle or working class? If they’re focused on price, minimizing expenses, or just getting the job done, our roofer might scare them off.

    Based on the values they’ve learned they may be more comfortable with a roofer that looks like this:

    A roofer cc by Tony Alter

    A roofer cc by Tony Alter

    This reasoning is typically a subconscious thing but there are some customers who think this way naturally.

    Either way, it’s a disaster.

    What if you don’t want to be lumped into the mold customers have put you in? What if it’s inaccurate, or comes with unpleasant downsides (e.g. customers who haggle or complain)?

    It’s simple. You match the neutral and positive elements of their class.

    Keep the good, toss the bad.

    What if these ideals aren’t the ones you had in mind?

    You re-evaluate. You figure out whether the person you’re targeting is actually your ideal customer. If they are, your choice is simple. If they’re not, find the right ideal customer. Then, update your marketing to reflect those changes.

    3. Confused about how to change their class to become “class fluid”

    Organizations of all kinds – schools, businesses, non-profits – run on middle class rules and norms. These norms are the default, the starting point for customer interactions.

    What if you’re dealing with one offs?

    Say you’re dealing with a discerning upper class customer. Do your policies need to change? How would you go about helping them?

    What if you’re dealing with a working class customer? What do you say? How do you communicate without offending them?

    Where do you start?

    You learn the rules.

    Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you’re a criminal defense attorney.

    You come from an upper-middle class background. When you speak you use formal register (e.g. proper syntax, large vocabulary, proper pronunciation, etc.).

    You have a problem. You’re representing people from the underclass.

    Right now, they’re from the lowest rung in society. When they speak, they use casual register (e.g. 400 – 800 words in their vocabulary, use slang, interrupt constantly, highly skilled in non-verbal communication, etc.).

    If you aren’t aware of these rules, there’s a very good chance you’ll confuse, bore or offend your customer. If you know the rules your whole marketing strategy changes.

    • Your website will use imagery they’re drawn to. It’ll be simple to use and easy to understand.
    • You’ll lean heavily on video since your customer doesn’t read much.
    • Your marketing will lean towards the entertainment side of things since you know that’s a high priority in your customer’s life.
    • You’ll create personality in your business because you know it gets your customer’s attention.

    You’ll know which materials your customer reads, where they spend their time, who to partner with, and more. All of a sudden, it’s easy to attract the customers you want.

    All because you learned the rules.

    If you don’t know the rules, you’ll do what everyone else in your industry does, getting the same results (more or less). See how much of a difference an understanding of class can make?

    But America isn’t classist

    Western culture isn’t classist. We’re different!

    It’s a myth that many people seem to believe. They believe anyone can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. And therein lies the problem.

    Social class makes that extremely difficult.

    It’s not just the fact that people from various classes aren’t sharing information. It’s also the fact that most people aren’t even aware of the problem (or the damage it’s doing). Social class is taboo – it’s something we’re not supposed to talk about.

    That makes identifying the problem (and fixing it) incredibly difficult.

    But it’d be wrong to use classism in our marketing even if we could fix it. Right?

    Actually, no.

    Research shows most people are pretty happy with the class they’re in. It’s common for people of one class to believe there’s something wrong with every other class. “They’re the weirdos, not me.”

    It’s awful because it isolates us from everyone else.

    Instead of learning from one another we end up rejected and alone. Becoming class fluid, gives you opportunity. You’re able to meet people where they are, as they are. You’re able to communicate with them, grow with them, to become more.

    As we’ve seen, it’s good for business and it’s great for all of us.

    I’ve done well without classism why start now?

    Social status changes.

    Those who are high on the totem pole can be low tomorrow and vice versa.

    Social class and economic class are intertwined, but they’re not the same thing. A plumber makes more than a college professor so his economic class is higher. But, thanks to a variety of factors, the college professor’s social class is higher.

    Both class elements are difficult to change, but it happens all the time.

    It isn’t always easy to simply look at or identify the class you want. When it comes to people the answers aren’t always so black and white.

    Do everything right and you may still have others looking down on you.

    Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, has experienced contempt and hostility. He’s been accused of running a racist company, called a criminal and treated with disdain and contempt.

    You know what condescension and contempt feels like.

    Classism isn’t going away.

    Whether you’re rich or poor, upper, middle or underclass, the contempt is inevitable. It’s a painful part of living in a dysfunctional world. But there’s nothing stopping you from achieving what you want to achieve.

    “You’re beneath me” doesn’t have to be a deal breaker

    When it comes to class, most people are clueless about the hidden rules. Had someone look down on you? Treat you as if you’re worth less than nothing? As if you’re “the help” or privileged yuppie scum?

    Use it.

    Imagine a world where you and your business are class fluid. Where you determine the direction you’ll take. Where you’re able to free yourself from the invisible rules controlling your life.

    Imagine a world where every choice you made – for yourself, your business – was yours?

    Awesome right?

    It’s only possible if you do the work. Start slow, work smart and learn the rules. Do that and you’ll have a chance at building your business, on your terms.

  • Victor

    My company is about 120 persons. And I assure you I would have never hired Alice if Brenda was somewhere nearby. I think that if a woman keeps strictly attached to dress code company rules she’v very restricted in her reasoning and capabilities. Modern business (like Apple) needs creative stuff – not just “rule-oriented” assholes.

    • Makes sense Victor. A few (very rare) people are class fluid. These people can see past these arbitrary rules. Perhaps you’re one of them?

      Most can’t.

      Here’s a good test to test your class immunity. How do you respond to stereotypical outcasts (e.g. homeless, uneducated, poor, disadvantaged)?

      If you serve/associate with outcasts comfortably, without awkwardness, fear or hesitation you may be a natural. The vast majority of people are not.

      If you are, the world needs more people like you.

  • Pedro

    Really good stuff!!! This is a complicated subject, and with the “politically correct” trend growing more every day, I think you make a great point and are absolutely right.
    I really enjoyed reading this post, to the point of commenting on it, something I almost never do…

    • Thanks Pedro. I appreciate that and I’m glad you got something of value out of the post. It is a complicated topic but the issue is the fact that it’s not always safe to discuss.