Trend Spotters Play It Safe

NEW YORK — Call it trend spotting’s reality check.<br><br>True, it’s a premise that, at first blush, seems something of a contradiction in terms. After all, aren’t most trends supposed to have an edgy, fantastical element; a...

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NEW YORK — Call it trend spotting’s reality check.

This story first appeared in the August 21, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

True, it’s a premise that, at first blush, seems something of a contradiction in terms. After all, aren’t most trends supposed to have an edgy, fantastical element; a romantic hue, or at least a sense of cynical nihilism about them?

Whereas so many of them did so as recently as two years ago, the trends driving today’s fashion and lifestyle options are becoming anchored more firmly in the reality of people’s day-to-day lives. That’s because marketers are having a harder time capturing the fancy of a finicky consumer, one whose shifting set of priorities has only accelerated further in the year since Sept. 11. And at the same time, those businesses are coming under increasing pressure to produce bottom-line profits from virtually all of the trends they serve up. It is no longer enough to simply stir some excitement or augment sales.

The consumer’s evolving mind-set and corporate America’s new sobriety have prompted a hasty retreat from the days of hunting for fashions and lifestyle trends so cool that almost no one had ever heard of them. Many of those trends were unable to create demand and drive business. It’s not that cool has died; rather, industry’s search for the offbeat increasingly is being grounded by a new requirement: the addition of hard-core market research to project its commercial potential. This, in turn, means marketers are in the throes of redefining cool trends as those that are, by and large, less esoteric, safer and, in the end, more broadly appealing.

“When trying to identify trends, a group tends to be a lot more valuable than an outstanding, leading-edge person, whether it’s the edgiest kid in a high school or Chloë Sevigny — people who are just too out there for most Americans,” advised Irma Zandl, president of market researcher Zandl Group. For example, she noted: “In trying to find trends for high schoolers, it’s better to track the most popular kids [rather than the edgiest ones] who shop at stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch. To have broad commercial appeal, trends need to percolate from the mainstream.”

Forming the foundation of such marketable trends is data being gleaned through traditional methods, like surveying consumers and analyzing census data and focus group sessions, as well as via anthropological approaches, many of which provide the illuminating one-on-one contact with their subjects that’s favored by trend scouts and analysts, as well as their clients. The latter include conducting: “crib” chats, a take on “MTV Cribs,” in which marketers videotape teens talking about the things in their bedrooms; studies of closets and medicine cabinets, affording people a chance to chat about their wardrobes and personal care items at home, where they choose and use those items daily; slumber parties with teens and shop-alongs with a variety of consumers, in order to observe product preferences and shopping behaviors; and video and Web-cam recordings of people using products.

“Now, trend spotting is about going to fashion shows to find out what is going to sell,” offered The Doneger Group’s creative director, David Wolfe. “Before, it was about business with a capital ‘F’: spotting what was fabulous at fashion shows. It has become more bottom-line oriented, less creative, more challenging, more fun.”

For now, though, consultants and researchers are playing out that notion in a range of ways to clients in search of a hot, marketable trend.

Zandl, for one, says the businesses she’s dealing with are looking for profitable sales of $10 million to $100 million annually from mining a particular fashion or lifestyle trend, which are dynamics, she noted, that typically last at least five years and often twice that long. Zandl cited khakis and baggy hip-hop looks as examples of styles that have recently enjoyed no less than a 10-year run.

In contrast, trend analyst Edie Weiner, principal of Weiner Edrich Brown, said she and her colleagues have been identifying six major themes per quarter, or 24 emerging trends per year, for the past 32 years. “We don’t milk a trend for 10 years,” Weiner said of a process in which she and two colleagues regularly analyze and synthesize information from 60 or so mostly monthly publications, to produce 60-90 abstracts, from which the half-dozen themes are drawn each quarter. The titles scoured range from Mother Jones and the Utne Reader to the Harvard Business Review and The National Review, and from The Economist to New Times.

“Coming up with six themes a quarter is ball-breaking work, but our view is that these themes are a motion picture, not a snapshot,” Weiner said of the grueling research. It’s a process used by Weiner Edrich Brown to identify four primary dynamics:

l Is there anything new here? “That’s a really tough one when you’ve been in business 32 years,” Weiner admitted .

l Pattern recognition, or the connection of seemingly unrelated trends to fill in pieces of a puzzle. For example, a new technology and changing demographic may combine to create a new group, like digital grannies — parents of the oldest baby boomers, who often are more interested than those boomers are in the Internet.

l The surprising source, or a person who is unlikely to take a particular stand, such as a doctor who endorses a high-fat diet.

l The glaring contradiction, that is, anything well expressed and well documented that contradicts what Weiner Edrich Brown had been telling its clients thus far.

As more and more trend advisers embrace an increasingly research-driven approach, the phrase “trend spotting” has, ironically, taken on a negative connotation for some, such as Wendy Liebmann, president of retail and marketing consultant WSL Strategic Retail. Instead, she insisted, it’s all about consumer research versus an allegiance to the cult of celebrity. “We tend to shy away from the term, as it has developed such a bad reputation over the past four or five years,” Liebmann stated. “Trend spotting suggests the notion of celebrities as kingpins of marketing, but for us, it’s all about talking with and/or watching the shopper, and measuring changes in quantitative and qualitative ways.

“The only thing we are doing differently now is we are listening to consumers in a quantitative way more frequently — monthly or bimonthly,” Liebmann continued. “The process needs to be ongoing in order to see how people have behaved over the past five to 10 years. If we don’t understand that context, we could be leading people down a garden path.” For example, Liebmann said, WSL may begin to ask consumers if reading the allegations over Martha Stewart’s financial activities is having a spillover effect on how her products are viewed. And, if it has, perhaps WSL would ask if the phenomenon has had an affect on their trust in other branded or celebrity-endorsed items and whether more effort should be focused on playing up a company’s heritage.

One who hasn’t shrunk away from the trend-spotting phrase is author Richard Laermer, whose study of the practice, entitled “Trend Spotting,” was published this March by Perigee. However, Laermer has joined in the chorus about the negative influence of the cult of celebrity. And he’s taking the notion a step further, suggesting that the celebrity influence is now having a detrimental affect on the business of fashion. “When I tried to get people to talk about fashion, they tended to want to talk about other things, like economics, politics, technology,” Laermer said in relating his experience while interviewing approximately 100 people for his book

“It seems like Hollywood has cheapened fashion’s image,” he continued. “It’s almost like everything is an eye-roller, these days, because the celebrity thing tends to be about a J.Lo, a Jennifer Aniston, rather than the luxurious association of Hollywood and fashion in the Thirties and Forties. Now, the [public’s] mimicry is not wholehearted.”

Doneger’s Wolfe took the thought a step further, telling Laermer in “Trend Spotting” that entertainment’s influence on fashion is bad because “nothing is being originally created for the movies. Clothes are bought off the rack and put together by stylists. Those clothes are a year old. That is why so much of fashion is at a standstill.”

And in an interview, Wolfe expanded the thought, remarking: “We are not in a time of creativity or originality. We are in a time of marketing. A lot of looks are derivative; we are in a time of recycling. Gallagher’s, a used-magazine-and-book store in the East Village, is a huge resource for designers.”

Wolfe’s observation hints at a minor theme sounded by trend analysts and market researchers: Companies may be playing it safer with trends but there is the peril of playing it too safe, and thus becoming boring to the consumer. There is still a window open — if a narrower one — for, say, the $70 candle that will make someone feel great about their home environment, or music by Detroit thrash rocker Andrew W.K., whose CD cover portrays him looking dazed after bashing his nose into a cinder block. That more extreme CD was recently highlighted in “True View,” a trend report published by Northbrook, Ill.-based Teen Research Unlimited, which generally has been veering more mainstream, noted the firm’s trend manager, Rob Callender.

Still, today’s climate portends it’s the Vanilla Cokes of the world that are destined to be businesses’ bell ringers rather than some edgy drink no one has ever heard of, Zandl said. Indeed, she estimated the combined volume produced by Vanilla Coca-Cola and Diet Vanilla Coca-Cola this year will be close to $1 billion.

“Its success is not a surprise, given vanilla’s popularity,” Zandl said. “Should Coca-Cola have done Blood Orange Coke or Ginseng Coke because they’re more edgy? They wouldn’t have sold, because hardly anyone’s heard of those flavors,” she projected. “Meanwhile, Vanilla Coke is currently outselling Diet Coke.”

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