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

To paraphrase: Popcorn is a woman from a town called Hope; she's building a bridge to the 21st century; and she believes a Renaissance Weekend might heal the nation. Faith Popcorn, you can believe, also feels our pain.

Of course, Popcorn and Iconoculture are by no means the first trendspotters to command coin from the captains of industry. The modern age of the prophet-for-hire might have begun in earnest with media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who brought his delphic insights to boardrooms across the country (as described by Tom Wolfe in The Pump House Gang).

Derek Brigham

At these cryptic lectures--fees for which could run up to $50,000--McLuhan would hold court as "master and monomaniac... telling apparently knowledgeable people that they didn't have the foggiest comprehension of their bailiwick." He might inform package-designing giant Walter Landor that "packages will be obsolete in a few years" as customers demanding "tactile experiences" would "want to feel the product they're getting." Or he would tell General Electric that their business was not, in fact, light bulbs, but pure information. Such epiphanies, Wolfe wrote, prompted a panicked and only slightly skeptical response from McLuhan's corporate clients: "What if he's right?"

In the years since McLuhan's mid-'60s heyday, the anxiety of the executive class has shifted from nagging doubt to a full-blown crisis of confidence. At the root of the matter might be a recognition that the consumer economy has met its gravest threat to date: anonymity. A statistic determined by the advertising agency BBDO a decade ago tells the story without ornamentation: Two-thirds of Americans "believed that most brands in most categories were exactly alike."

One result has been the near-manic proliferation of specialized shops doing what was once the job of ad agency "research departments," which conducted polls, surveys, and demographic studies. There are now independent research firms specializing in consumer electronics, casual apparel, packaged goods, automobiles. And the level of attention devoted to any one item resembles an epistemological quest: Can you ever really know a car?

R. L. Polk & Company, the country's oldest automotive-research firm, maintains a database of 184 million vehicles: They can, writes author Randall Rothenberg, "tell marketers (of everything from sheet metal to tires and spark plugs) exactly what kinds of autos, of what age, are in whose garage, in which zip-code districts." Another firm, Maritz Marketing Research, Inc., conducts consumer interviews over 600 WATS telephone lines, in 41 focus-group suites, and at 16 shopping malls.

Lest the advertising agency surrender all authority in auguring the "brand essence" of a product, the last decade has seen a steep growth in a research approach called account planning. An uncertain hybrid of qualitative and quantitative analysis, it can seem to merge the worst impulses of the two: the fuzzy focus of the soothsayer and the info-hoarding of the retail statistician. Which is to say that account planning, to some extent, is the trend business by another name.

Unlike the practical market researcher of old, the account planner conducts a search for the amorphous soul of a product, be it canned meat or tampons. It's a religious undertaking, filled with endless questioning and contemplation on the quiddity of the thing. The process is nothing less than a search for meaning--if a very small, canned, congealed meaning.

The planners' most valuable technique is the focus group, and their methodology draws liberally from the acting workshop, the town-hall meeting, and regressive hypnosis. Pat Cameron, director of strategic planning at the Minneapolis ad agency Campbell Mithun Esty, describes how the firm solicited feedback on popular commercials from 800 kids 6 to 17 years old: "We asked questions like 'If you were in the commercial what would you be doing?'" Cameron recalls. "And, 'If you were the brand in the commercial, how would you respond to the other kids?'"

Most of the largest ad firms now incorporate similar methods in their campaigns. BBDO, a decade after uncovering the peril of product anonymity, has cast its lot with account planning: "We've recently embraced [the technique] in all our division offices," says Steve Hayes, the agency's director of new business.

And what of the number crunchers of old? "I think many people in research have evolved into account planning," Hayes says, "and those who haven't have evolved out of the business."

Campbell Mithun Esty's interest in underage focus groups highlights another recently learned lesson: To marketers determined not to "evolve out of the business," no creature is more valuable prey than the animal called the Young American (juvenilis americanus). Endowed with disposable income, the young shopper will dependably carry a brand loyalty well into her 20s, while the treacherous older consumer plays the field. Accordingly, some of the most ingenious work in the trend business is devoted to poaching juvenilis americanus and manufacturing a happy, controllable habitat in retail captivity.

The most august firm in the trend industry, Yankelovich Partners, Inc.--creator of the ubiquitous newsletter "The Yankelovich Monitor"--established its name through an unprecedented series of five attitudinal surveys that culminated in a book titled The New Morality: A Profile of American Youth in the 70's. The chart-and-graph-filled work reflected more than 3,500 detailed interviews and reached what must have appeared to be alarming conclusions: Twenty-one percent of college youth believed that "the American system... ought to be abolished."

« Previous Page
Next Page »