How a Minneapolis consulting trio discovered the "iconogasm," and other tales from the trendspotting business.

Picture, if you will, a diapered toddler of monster-movie proportions stumbling and squalling across the country, toting a credit card as big as a billboard in his fatty fist, demanding to be sated. Now. This is our consumer society, where the covetous life is a national birthright, and fine minds are paid--handsomely--to divine the temperament of the toddler, to lure it here and there, to translate its inchoate gurgles and analyze the consistency of its droppings. What does baby want, and when does he want it? What is he missing, and how can we get it to him? How can we keep him from growing bored and tired? What will happen if he gets mad?

Iconoculture, a trio of Minneapolis marketing consultants, have answers, and these answers are called trends. There are hundreds of them in the group's book, the future ain't what it used to be, and they purport to reflect nothing less than a mood swing of millions, a soul-deep cultural craving, a developing demographic groundswell. All, paradoxically, unknown to the middle-class masses--until now.

Iconoculture is possibly the most prominent local player in the business of trendcasting, a growing industry that has attracted everyone from major ad agencies to tiny PC-and-PO-Box outfits, all offering to show corporate clients the path to the Next Big Thing. And the next... and the next...

Derek Brigham

Iconoculture's vision of what is and what will be hits the page in an aggressively breezy vernacular. "Germonella" (sign number 37) reflects the recognition that "there's a whole other world out there that we can't see," populated by noxious "itsy-bitsy lifeforms [that] are wilier than coyotes." This, in turn, portends opportunities for germ-resistant products, like "a line of [Playskool] playthings made with Microban, an organic substance that makes infectious bacteria such as salmonella, E. coli, and strep run home crying."

And should Dick or Jane succumb to Iconoculture's itsy-bitsy friends? Then there's "the other side," sign number 12. "One of our culture's biggest bugaboos--death--is finally being confronted head on," Iconoculture informs us, as "empowerment-crazed Americans... [try to] rationalize the Big Mystery in the belief that if they understand it, they can control it."

That very rationalization--control through understanding--is what Iconoculture offers clients in need of more specific ruminations on the Big Mysteries of the retail economy. Among the company's customers are General Mills, Honda, Wendy's, Country Living magazine, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, and American Century Financial Services; they shell out upwards of $10,000 for the privilege.

And what, short of an encounter with the Biggest Bugaboo, might prompt such eager response? Megan Meehan, who runs the company with Vicki Abrahamson and Larry Samuel, lays out the Iconoculture strategy: "We'll talk to a client. We'll try to assess their situation and their current needs. Then we submit a proposal suggesting to them how we might solve the problem. And they say, 'Great--we love this.' And we go out and do our thing. We look through research that we've done. We go out and do more; that just means we all three head out to our various locales and points unknown to gather all this information."

Deliberately or not, Iconoculture's vagueness about their methods hints at a sort of cultural omniscience and omnipresence. "A lot of the clients that we work with are very intelligent, active, out-there people," Meehan says. "But they don't have time to read the amount of material that we do. And while they may understand it once we present it, they don't have the same sort of 24-hour-a-day antenna-up, radar-going thing.

Samuel, Meehan, and Abrahamson collectively cite 49 years of marketing experience in a variety of button-down jobs, though their comportment after six years together is pure corporate casual. Samuel, who has a Ph.D. in American Studies, wears a neat denim shirt and speaks most naturally in the self-written jargon that is the trendcaster's calling card: "I think there's just been a little bit of a backlash against the whole self-help/me/victim-America thing," he'll say. "That was real '80s, early '90s. We're speaking to it as a trend; it's post-peak."

Meehan has served as the volunteer head of the board of Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Abrahamson, the oldest at 49, is a marketing veteran in product-naming. The trio proudly characterize their work together as a textbook example of "zentrepreneurism," a "fusion of one's personal vision with one's professional vision, grounded in activism and a holistic philosophy."

Such lofty pronouncements aside, Iconoculture's worldly methods share a handful of traits with those of the phone psychic. Keep the client talking; only hint at the source of your foresight; and never predict heartbreak, ruin, recession, or depression. The group's vocabulary is one of ever-shifting opportunity. I see a dark-haired stranger coming into your life, a floating dollar sign, a new job.

In the group's book, these possibilities are called "iconogasms," and they have the glib phrasing and open-ended banality of a fortune cookie. They come about two to a page, accompanied by a picture of an open eye with a lightning bolt bisecting the pupil, and a text slug reading "cultural climax, marketing opportunity" (Irreverence!).

iconogasm: cultural climax, marketing opportunity. "Create a big bang through celestial products and services."

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