So now that we’ve all agreed that The World is Flat and also that we’re a nation of people drowning in debt, Boston Consulting Group senior consultant Michael Silverstein has a new theory for us: Middle class consumers are on an eternal treasure hunt, looking for an emotional connection to our purchases, from mac and cheese to the kinds of pens we write with. So how does all of this effect the way marketers, advertisers and PR people communicate to consumers? Silverstein says this, “If your offering isn’t exciting enough to inspire trading up, but not enough of a bargain to satisfy the treasure hunters, you’ll have no emotional connection with your target audience.” (Keep in mind, this book focuses strictly on the consumer goods category.)

Having seen various “strategy” forms (these are forms that make a PR person answer, in short form, what their goal or vision is regarding messaging and product positioning. For instance, a public relations team member might write something like, “We want consumers to think of Sprinter’s Flavored Beverage as a way to live a healthier lifestyle.” Unfortunately, that’s generally the bulk of it sometimes. They build their powerpoint slides around that pithy wish list.), there is a noticeable lack of actual, thought out market research or connection to the consumer in these hollow, easily replicated messages. Somehow, many PR firms without research arms, think that market research isn’t necessary, outside of skimming through a few articles here and there.

In Silverstein’s book, Treasure Hunt: Inside the Mind of the New Consumer, the reader is repeatedly told that companies need to be more cognizant of the middle class consumer’s needs. More and more people are ‘trading up’ to premium brands and ‘trading down’ to cheaper products, at the same time, but in different categories, which is entirely dependent on the consumer’s unique set of life circumstances, age and values. For instance, a single woman in her thirties who works for a hip ad agency in Chicago will spend a lot of money on her personal appearance and entertainment, buying expensive clothes and going out to dinner with friends. This same woman also trades down in the furniture, groceries and healthcare, often snacking on free crackers and soup from 7-Elevan at lunch. A family of four may scrimp and save on food, entertainment, gas and clothing for months and months, so each family member can have their own personal television set by Christmas.

This book is mainly geared for the consumer goods category, which is why it might be a particularly important read for those who work in public relations. Strategy and messaging often go hand and hand in the business and if crafters of these messages don’t take a long, hard look at the middle-market category of consumers, they might easily lose them to premium or low-price products of brands.

One of the most interesting case studies is that of Kraft. In the late 90s, Kraft chose to perform a little “value engineering” by informing their food scientists that they should concoct a lower cost cheese food instead of real dried chedder and buttermilk it used before 1997. Kraft is in danger of losing the middle market to lower cost brands.

Silverstein brings an incredible amount of analysis in his case studies, taking stock of the consumer and the communications strategy into account when speaking specifically about companies who have failed and succeeded in the market. He is currently a senior vice president at the leading Boston Consulting Group. For more information, you can visit the book’s site.