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Faith B. Popcorn's business acumen reevaluated (but the original did contain a kernel of truth)

Jack Smith

July 14, 1987|Jack Smith

Faith B. Popcorn, chairman and chief executive officer of BrainReserve, a New York marketing consultant firm, has written me in anger about my recent column on her business.

Perhaps I should say sorrow, rather than anger.

Her letter ends: "I think you should know that you hurt someone you would probably like (and respect) had only you met her."

She complains that I based my column on a Newsweek story, "Putting Faith in Trends," which was "slick, over-processed and, in fact, extremely inaccurate," and that I should have contacted her personally.

I don't know whether the Newsweek article was inaccurate; but since it presented Popcorn as bright, aggressive, successful, and not without a sense of humor, I saw no harm in quoting it.

What she objects to is that Newsweek focused on what it called her "slickly packaged predictions" about consumer trends, many of which, it observed, presented "a blinding glimpse of the obvious."

Popcorn points out that BrainReserve is a marketing consultancy with a staff of 20 "who work long hours, weeks and months on projects geared to new product development, repositioning and strategic assessment.

"I started this company 14 years ago and I think that my clients (mainly within the Fortune 500) are too smart to be 'hoodwinked' over that long a period of time.

"We don't sell trends or what you call 'packaged predictions.' Trends are a very small part of the basis for our marketing recommendations, although they're the only part of the product the press seems driven to write about."

Surely Popcorn can understand that. It is not easy to interest the generality in such bizspeak fields as new product development, repositioning and strategic assessment, but trends are something all of us can understand.

The trends that seemed so obvious, Popcorn says, were uncovered by her company between six and 10 years ago, before they became obvious.

"The first time I mentioned what an impact AIDS was going to have on America (five years ago), I was literally laughed at. No one else, not the newspapers nor the pharmaceutical companies, thought that AIDS was going to spread beyond a small core group."

As for her prediction that people would be returning to "Mom food"--basic meat loaf and mashed potatoes--that "was something that I espoused when everyone else was rhapsodizing about \o7 nouvelle cuisine.\f7 "

I did suggest that her prediction about AIDS was obvious, not knowing that she had made it five years ago, but I did not agree with her prediction about the return of mashed potatoes and meat loaf. It seemed to me to conflict with her prediction that, in Newsweek's words, "an appetite for new sensations will increase experimentation with a variety of products."

She was certainly right about the variety of products. At this moment my wife has in our freezer an assortment of veal patty parmigiana; lasagna with meat, tomato sauce and cheese; chicken Burgundy; pate primavera; beef enchiladas ranchero; cheese enchiladas ranchero; shrimp and chicken Cantonese, linguini with pesto sauce, eggplant Parmesan, pasta shells and beef, and linguine with bay shrimp and clams marinara.

I haven't had a meat loaf since our boys left home.

Popcorn was also right about the passing of \o7 nouvelle cuisine, \f7 but I do think its demise was inevitable. I foresaw it the night my wife and I took Herb Caen and his girlfriend to an Italian restaurant and paid $250 for a dinner whose entree was a plate artistically decorated with a sliver of veal, two asparagus spears, one small Brussels sprout and three tiny carrots. Of course, we also had some wine.

That brings up a point over which Popcorn is particularly out of sorts. Challenging her prediction that hard liquor was coming back in style, a trend evidently discovered in behalf of one of her clients, I wrote:

"I counterpredict. She is probably just buttering up the Seagram people. The old days of the three-martini lunch and the extended cocktail party, with everyone getting sloshed on gin, vodka, Scotch and bourbon, are gone forever. People are into wine, beer, mineral water and sobriety."

"You went very far afield in your paragraph on hard liquor," Popcorn says. "I've never talked about the return of 'getting sloshed' or non-sobriety. But I have been hearing from an ever-growing number of both men and women that they're getting tired of white wine (you might check the fact that wine sales are declining) and they are mentioning a renewed interest in the taste of stronger liquors."

It was indeed naive of me to suggest that if people returned to hard liquor they would necessarily get drunker. It is quite possible to get as drunk as you like on wine and beer, though maybe not as fast.

Popcorn concludes: "I suppose there's some consolation in the old adage: Any PR is good PR as long as they spell your name right (and you did spell two-out-of-three correctly)."

Now \o7 I'm \f7 hurt. I used Popcorn's name 10 times in that column, and I spelled it correctly every time. It isn't hard to spell.

Anyway, I don't like to hurt anyone. As I said the first time, I admire Popcorn for her chutzpah, and I certainly envy her if it's true, as Newsweek said, that she has an IQ of 190. That's almost off the chart.

If she ever comes to the Coast I'd like to take her to lunch.

We could have a couple of snorts of whiskey and a good meat loaf with mashed potatoes.

I do think I'd like her.

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