Trendspotting

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

It is a brazen testimonial to start the book and serves to introduce a comprehensive and compelling political philosophy. In Popcorn, we encounter an American who will proudly inveigh for that most red-blooded of revolutionary tenets: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property. "Ask not what your consumer can do for you," she writes, in her rendition of the line that still makes a nation go misty, "but what you can do for your consumer."

So what can Popcorn's trends do for the consumer and the client? What can't they do. For $20,000 a year, BrainReserve, the company Popcorn founded in 1974, will send out a bimonthly "TrendPack," colorfully labeled "the future in 3-D." Inside are such goodies as "the ethnic/world music of the Gipsy Kings; Terra Chips, crispy, colorful, thin-fried vegetables (yuca [sic], yam, parsnip, lotus, beet); herbal energizer pills, even an honest-to-goodness crack vial (empty), plucked from an East Village rooftop." On the street, peddling an empty vial for $20,000 would either get you laughed at or honest-to-goodness shot, but "a roster of a hundred culture-watching clients" apparently ponies up.

Also available for the discerning corporation are the "BrainJam," an "ideation session that uses trends as a springboard for generating ideas"; the "TrendView" seminar; the "TrendTrek," in which Popcorn leads the client on a field trip into a natural retail habitat; and "TrendBending," or "the process of 'reshaping' a product, business, or idea to the trends, to move them closer to consumer wants and needs."

In practice, such a consultation seems to consist of little more than making a checklist of a dozen trend terms and testing a product against them to determine if it is "on" or "off"; call it a Magic 8 Ball with fewer sides. By way of example, Popcorn cites a satisfied client, Bacardi, and its "Breezers," a line of preprepared, low-alcohol cooler-drinks.

How does the Breezer match up to the Fantasy Adventure trend? Well, "rum carries with it its own resonances of tropical paradise and island adventure." Put a check mark in the "on-trend" box. Egonomics? "This young and breezy lifestyle refresher was 'made just for me,'" Popcorn writes; another check mark. Cashing Out? "It gives you permission to believe you've 'left the rat race' for a dream place, if even for just minutes." Tally the boxes...unseal the envelope...and..."The Breezer is a runaway success!" But then we saw that coming, didn't we?

Compare Popcorn's approach to Iconoculture's, and it becomes clear that trendcasters are also assiduous recyclers. Iconoculture's care packages are called "Iconopacks," its presentations Signs of the Times.

Also available (and described at www.iconoculture.com) are the trend commandments, comprising "10 proven, time-tested bits of wisdom to determine where and how to look for trends"; the iconoclock, which "plot[s] the key dimensions of your topic of interest decade-by-decade through the 20th century and project[s] a future scenario based on its cultural arc"; culturama, a "product and character development, campaign strategy, brand naming, positioning, and promotion;" and, of course, the iconogasm.

Popcorn's BrainReserve claims to do $20 million in business each year, and when the clients are named in the acknowledgements that lead off The Popcorn Report, the register fills five pages. G.E., Kodak, Citibank, Xerox, Seagrams, Mirabella, Martha Stewart, Philip Morris, Nabisco--all the names are represented here, many at the level of president or chair. And lest the reader miss the point, a largely identical tally is reproduced in the back of the book.

Part of Popcorn's success must be credited to such persistent self-promotion. Since creating the term "cocooning" back in 1987--it's "the need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world"--she has displayed her handiwork like a flashcard to media and clients alike. Writing in the New Republic in 1994, Ruth Shalit counted nearly 1,000 Popcorn citations in a single decade, with nearly 60 name-specific mentions in the New York Times alone.

Neither Popcorn's corporate clients nor the features editors who lap up her pronouncements seem to mind that her "Discontinuity Trend Analysis" involves little more than CommonSense. Though BrainReserve claims that its 40 employees "braille the culture" by combing through some 300 publications and performing 2,500 to 3,000 interviews a year, a former staffer quoted by Shalit dismisses much of that as a bold fiction. And researchers at other trend firms assert that their work has a remarkable way of turning up in Popcorn's words.

Such complications, however, haven't detracted from Popcorn's popularity. Nor, for that matter, has her own paradoxically lucid diagnosis that as a nation, "we're consumed out." As far back as 1991, Popcorn warned of a "Socioquake!" (an echo of the cultural dislocation first portended in that Old Testament of the trend industry, Alvin Toffler's best-selling Future Shock) and offered this prescription: "Gloom is the short term, hope is longer-term--and the trends and methodology that you read in this book are the bridge that will take you to the longer-term, safely and profitably.

"To turn the tides we need someone with candor. Interactive leaders with courage, not wimpiness... Why doesn't America call together a BrainJam (or call it a Summit) where a smart mix of politicos, business types, educators, and thinkers get together to solve this country's problems?"

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