There was a time, way back in the late 1990s, when coolhunting was still cool, when nearly every Madison Avenue ad agency wanted a resident hipster to interpret the spending habits of those inscrutable Gen-Xers. Then the Internet exploded, connecting everyone to everything in an instant, and suddenly, the art of predicting the next big trend got way more complicated.
Today, fads ping across continents and disappear so quickly that the coolhunter, even the whole notion of “cool,” has become passe. Every big-city scenester or bored teenager on the planet has a blog or mass e-mail anointing the moment’s hot restaurants, hobbies and handbags. Add to this, mass obsession with celebrity style and global corporatization and you can get nearly the same chai latte or straight-off-the-runway skirt in Columbus, Ohio, that’s available in Manhattan or Milan.
Trend-spotting has, in essence, become just another trend. Consequently, the most successful trend forecasters are repositioning themselves as something more than mere arbiters of taste. They’re now social scientists with a hipster edge. That’s because it’s no longer enough to be aware of “sext messaging” or video blogs or the drive-in movie revival. The real money and prestige are now bestowed on those who can translate the cultural hieroglyphics and the “whys” behind these blips.
For this reason, they no longer answer to the name “coolhunter.” Some even bristle at the term “trend forecaster.” Instead, they prefer “planner,” “researcher” or “futurist.” They often compare their work to cultural anthropology, though few, if any, have formal training in that field. They’re quick to differentiate the short-lived fads from decades-long trends. They usually stress that their predictions are rooted in hard data.
They travel the world; watch people shop, eat and frolic; videotape and photograph them; monitor blogs; study census data; chat online with tens of thousands of consumers (most under 35); and devour every shred of pop culture they can find. They believe their research not only keeps marketing executives at Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Nike and Microsoft, among others, attuned to our cravings, but they map the origins of choice and cultivate that most precious commodity of all: consumer insight.
It’s an increasingly competitive field and even the most successful work hard to stand out. DeeDee Gordon and Sharon Lee of L.A.-based Look-Look Inc. specialize in youth culture and product development and brag that their 35,000-member database of trendsetters is among the largest of the competing firms. Jane Buckingham, president and founder of the Intelligence Group, is among the more visible of the top forecasters, with a show on the Style Network and a regular gig on “Good Morning America.”
New York-based Irma Zandl of the Zandl Group is known for her bimonthly Hot Sheet, a trend-spotting guide that sells for $18,000 a year, and for predicting about 25 years ago the takeover of hip-hop culture. And Faith Popcorn, a bestselling author, has been in the business the longest, having started New York-based BrainReserve in 1974. Yet in each of the last two years, she says, her annual client billings have doubled.
All agree that their specialty lies in interpreting the broad societal movements that transcend our flash fancies and reveal new marketing opportunities. In the future, some insiders say, it’s likely every ad exec will be a futurist.
“The world’s moving faster, so clients don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what’s going to happen,” says Ken Freeman, president of the North American division of TNS, a global market research firm. “They have to plan for it.”
Still, some see trend forecasters as nothing more than expensive soothsayers, bringing the illusion of control to a $250-billion ad industry wracked by uncertainty, a fragmented audience and anti-advertising technology.
“Marketing people, in general, are always engaged in producing this fiction whereby they claim that all they’re doing is responding to stuff that’s already out there,” says William Mazzarella, a University of Chicago assistant professor of anthropology and social sciences, whose expertise includes mass media. “The critical response is marketing and advertising create trends or steer us, rather than responding to us.”
Naturally, these forecasters believe the opposite. These days, they tell us, we want anchoring, parenting and spiritual healing. We’re flocking to life coaches, preachers and yoga instructors to find it. We’re acting locally, living “consciously” and buying organic because the world’s a fragile, stressful place, say Gordon and Lee. We’ve cultivated a “curatorial mind-set,” says Zandl, creating, sampling, editing and customizing life to suit our needs with blogs, TiVo, iPods and Netflix, because if we don’t, we’re overwhelmed by information.
We’re returning to church, cheering evangelical wrestlers and “redneck” comic Jeff Foxworthy because that’s authentic America. We’re embracing our primal selves after years of tech-supported censoring; flocking to horror films and violent video games, private fight clubs and exhibitions of krumping, the aggressive South L.A. dance, says Buckingham. At the same time, we love small luxuries -- the special martini, the fancy cigar, the low-cost/high-design vacuum -- because life is short and disaster is right around the corner. And besides, we deserve it.
Culture as commodity
IN a way, this desperate need among advertisers to “divine” our intimate truths has indelibly linked consumerism to culture. Now, there’s hardly time to discover and explore a new experience or a new approach to living without also considering the new line of products, technologies or services that has been tailored to that discovery. Life is being captured, repackaged and sold back to us as quickly as we live it.
How can the effectiveness of trend forecasting be measured, anyway, when the line between a genuine societal trend and one manufactured by media and advertising is now so blurred? For example, isn’t our desire for more customized entertainment -- iPods, TiVo and the like -- a response to the overwhelming glut of advertising and information?
And would we be simultaneously enthralled and repelled by uber-luxury if it weren’t for the reality TV shows and celebrity tabloids that bombard us with images of the “good life”?
“It’s easy to get lost,” says Mazzarella, “in this fairly fruitless argument of: Does the advertiser respond to society? Or does the advertiser guide society?”
Cultural anthropology has played a role in successful advertising for decades. But its importance has steadily increased since the 1970s, when marketers first faced the relatively daunting task of selling to the anti-establishment, have-it-their-way baby boomers. Still, it took more than 20 years before the ad industry took more than a passing interest in this shift.
By the 1990s, the baby boomers were the decision makers. Like their predecessors, they were confounded by a new brand of youth. The so-called Generation X, oversaturated by 1980s consumerism, proved too savvy for traditional marketing. At the same time, their tastes were often contradictory. Ad executives needed cultural translators to reach this group.
Fueling this impulse was the now-famous “coolhunt” article by Malcolm Gladwell in a March 1997 issue of the New Yorker that followed Gordon and then-Reebok general merchandise manager Baysie Wightman as they mined hipster enclaves for trends. At the time, Gordon’s L Report, a quarterly tipsheet on what cool kids across the nation considered cool, was selling for $20,000 a year. “What they have is what everybody seems to want these days,” wrote Gladwell, “which is a window on the world of the street.”
The article inspired swarms of hipster consultants who for a short time were considered the silver bullet for any faltering campaign. But as trend forecasters look back, they realize this, in itself, was a fad.
“I think ‘coolhunting’ was a sexy word that the media loved to use,” says Gordon. “Our culture loves creating new nomenclature. It’s very faddish. It doesn’t accurately describe the study of trends and analysis and what goes into it.”
The value and lifespan of information changed rapidly in the late 1990s. Just as Internet access and download speed rocketed, so did the transfer of ideas, making what was “cool” obsolete from the moment it was discovered.
“It used to be that you had to have the Louis Vuitton Murakami purse,” says Buckingham. “Well, now you can get the $10 version on [Manhattan’s] Canal Street. So when you talk to teenage girls, they say they buy the fakes because it’s all about just showing you know the trend -- not even the value of the trend itself.”
Communication became more global, more sophisticated, more multicultural and, simultaneously, more niche. There were suddenly scads of new subcultures, each with its own definition of cool. Then the economy dipped after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. When advertisers trimmed their budgets, many coolhunters didn’t make the cut.
“People went back to looking at trends in a more holistic way and stopped wanting to chase every little fad,” says Zandl. “It just occurred to people that if they were looking for development that could barely last a month, then what were they going to do with that?”
The new pecking order
FROM the ashes of those ‘90s coolhunters emerged not only a new breed, but a sort of hierarchy of people-in-the-know. Somewhere near the bottom are the fad followers, some of whom, such as Gili Rashal, founder of TheTipJar.com, and Dany Levy of DailyCandy.com, connect with the masses via free e-mails, offering tidbits on new books, music, nightlife, fashion, food, even hobbies and getaways.
Somewhere in the middle are the in-house ad agency planners and the legions of independent consultants who may have been in advertising and marketing for years but now present themselves as trend experts.
At the top of this heap are a handful of industry rock stars who compete for the accounts of Fortune 500 companies and who, as media darlings, have helped publicize the field in the last few years.
Their methods, client lists, trend criteria and observations are similar. They maintain vast databases of trendsetters and regular folks who keep them up to date via online chat, focus groups and ethnographies, which involve immersion in a subject’s life. They travel constantly on lecture tours and trend-hunting expeditions. Their clients include car and food manufacturers, fast-food companies, mass retailers and movie studios.
Despite their shared strategies, each sees her insight as more penetrating than the next forecaster’s. Not surprisingly, they don’t discuss their failed predictions but gamely note a few anonymous failures. Remember aprons for men? Probably not. And whatever happened to that legwarmer renaissance that was going to sweep the nation as it did in the 1980s?
Buckingham, Gordon and Lee were in their 20s during the 1990s coolhunter craze. All three started at ad agencies, consulting primarily for apparel companies, and in a short time the three have become serious players with heavy-hitting clientele. Their businesses have perhaps evolved more rapidly than veterans such as Popcorn and Zandl, who have been in the trend-forecasting game for 20 years or more.
Buckingham, 36, who at 17 published “Teens Speak Out,” a book analyzing her generation, has become a sort of Gen-X Martha Stewart. She founded her firm in 1996 in New York, sold it to CAA in 2003 and moved from Manhattan to Beverly Hills. She has since published a second book “The Modern Girl’s Guide to Life” and joined the Style Network show of the same name as co-host and executive producer.
In addition to product development, entertainment and brand consulting, Buckingham’s firm sends free daily trendcentral.com e-mails, and each year publishes three issues of the Cassandra Report, a 150-page analysis of youth culture selling for $30,000 to $50,000. “When we started, it was me in my apartment with one $25,000 check,” she says. “Today we have 17 employees, 150 stringers and offices in New York and L.A.”
After the New Yorker “coolhunt” article, Gordon and Lee founded Look-Look Inc. and quickly earned a reputation for pioneering online youth-culture research. Like their competitors, they won’t disclose their annual billings, but Gordon says the company’s billings have increased each year since 1999 from 50% to 150%. Their clientele has grown too, now including Kellogg’s, Microsoft and Nordstrom.
“Ten years ago, it was harder for us to get the kinds of projects that we’re getting now,” says Gordon.
Look-Look recently helped Telemundo relaunch its youth network mun2. They created ethnographies of 24 young people across the country and then enlisted 24 others to create blogs, both of which were studied closely for marketing opportunities.
Although Telemundo also used more traditional market research for this project, Look-Look’s work provided more refined, in-depth insight on Latino youth culture and the complexities within it, says Antoinette Zel, the company’s senior executive vice president of network strategy. Specific results of the work aren’t yet public because the project isn’t complete.
“We gave [the participating youth] Polaroid cameras, we gave them journals and the stuff that came back has just blown my mind -- really unique voices that we haven’t heard before,” Zel says.
Zandl’s boutique firm in New York is run by a handful of people and has stayed independent since she founded it in 1986. “Our process has been refined over the years,” she says. “We now use much more technology, do more ethnographies and immersive work and our output is more visual, with a lot more video.”
Walt Disney Co. has consulted Zandl for years, using her Hot Sheet to inform its product development and marketing strategy. When Zandl predicted a retro revival four years ago, Disney launched a line of vintage-style T-shirts that proved so popular that it expanded the line to include stationery, toys and a $1,400 T-shirt sold by Dolce & Gabbana.
Zandl’s insight, says Jana Jones, director of consumer insight at Disney Consumer Products, “is the bottom brick you need when you build these strategies. Typically, people are already sensing [certain trends are] happening in the market. It’s really the validation that we can go forward with them.”
Perhaps the best known of this group is Popcorn. Nee Faith Beryl Plotkin, she earned fame in the early 1980s for predicting the nesting renaissance in America, which she termed “cocooning.” She has since written four books, including the bestsellers “The Popcorn Report” in 1991 and “Clicking” in 1997.
Name any fad, any cultural whim, and Popcorn can either recall how she predicted its emergence or fit the observation into an emerging trend. Oxygen bars? Our obsession with “being alive,” she says. The mass use of cellphones? All part of our need to live “99 lives,” simultaneously.
At the same time, Popcorn’s mind is constantly tuned into the tantalizing “what ifs” of tomorrow. Her 2001 book, “Dictionary of the Future,” predicts the proliferation of a “cosmetic underclass” who can’t afford to erase their age, a parent education movement that issues permits and product discounts to well-trained parents, and “personal archivists” who organize the e-mails, digital images and other data that help document our existence.
When asked about today’s obsession with cool, even Popcorn sounds peeved. She moans: “It’s like everybody’s hip now. It’s exhausting. There’s no discovery. It’s not original.”
Contact Gina Piccalo at calendar .firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Macro trends of the moment
“Conscious living” -- increased social activism, community service, spiritual awakening, eco style, the organic boom.
* “Hot land values” -- real estate craze, Middle America, Christian-themed entertainment, redneck humor.
* “Hip parenting” -- stylish, Gen-X-driven baby brands, blogs and mags, kid-friendly rock shows, members-only clubs.
* “Curation nation” -- mass customization craze, e.g., podcasting, TiVo, custom Nikes, Internet-driven interests, niches.
Sources: Look-Look Inc., Irma Zandl, Faith Popcorn, Jane Buckingham