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Fads are so yesterday

Trends are hot. Cool isn't. As culture morphs worldwide at Internet speed, forecasters fight to stay ahead of it all.

October 09, 2005|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

There was a time, way back in the late 1990s, when coolhunting was still cool, when nearly every Madison Avenue ad agency wanted a resident hipster to interpret the spending habits of those inscrutable Gen-Xers. Then the Internet exploded, connecting everyone to everything in an instant, and suddenly, the art of predicting the next big trend got way more complicated.

Today, fads ping across continents and disappear so quickly that the coolhunter, even the whole notion of "cool," has become passe. Every big-city scenester or bored teenager on the planet has a blog or mass e-mail anointing the moment's hot restaurants, hobbies and handbags. Add to this, mass obsession with celebrity style and global corporatization and you can get nearly the same chai latte or straight-off-the-runway skirt in Columbus, Ohio, that's available in Manhattan or Milan.

Trend-spotting has, in essence, become just another trend. Consequently, the most successful trend forecasters are repositioning themselves as something more than mere arbiters of taste. They're now social scientists with a hipster edge. That's because it's no longer enough to be aware of "sext messaging" or video blogs or the drive-in movie revival. The real money and prestige are now bestowed on those who can translate the cultural hieroglyphics and the "whys" behind these blips.

For this reason, they no longer answer to the name "coolhunter." Some even bristle at the term "trend forecaster." Instead, they prefer "planner," "researcher" or "futurist." They often compare their work to cultural anthropology, though few, if any, have formal training in that field. They're quick to differentiate the short-lived fads from decades-long trends. They usually stress that their predictions are rooted in hard data.

They travel the world; watch people shop, eat and frolic; videotape and photograph them; monitor blogs; study census data; chat online with tens of thousands of consumers (most under 35); and devour every shred of pop culture they can find. They believe their research not only keeps marketing executives at Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Nike and Microsoft, among others, attuned to our cravings, but they map the origins of choice and cultivate that most precious commodity of all: consumer insight.

It's an increasingly competitive field and even the most successful work hard to stand out. DeeDee Gordon and Sharon Lee of L.A.-based Look-Look Inc. specialize in youth culture and product development and brag that their 35,000-member database of trendsetters is among the largest of the competing firms. Jane Buckingham, president and founder of the Intelligence Group, is among the more visible of the top forecasters, with a show on the Style Network and a regular gig on "Good Morning America."

New York-based Irma Zandl of the Zandl Group is known for her bimonthly Hot Sheet, a trend-spotting guide that sells for $18,000 a year, and for predicting about 25 years ago the takeover of hip-hop culture. And Faith Popcorn, a bestselling author, has been in the business the longest, having started New York-based BrainReserve in 1974. Yet in each of the last two years, she says, her annual client billings have doubled.

All agree that their specialty lies in interpreting the broad societal movements that transcend our flash fancies and reveal new marketing opportunities. In the future, some insiders say, it's likely every ad exec will be a futurist.

"The world's moving faster, so clients don't have the luxury of waiting to see what's going to happen," says Ken Freeman, president of the North American division of TNS, a global market research firm. "They have to plan for it."

Still, some see trend forecasters as nothing more than expensive soothsayers, bringing the illusion of control to a $250-billion ad industry wracked by uncertainty, a fragmented audience and anti-advertising technology.

"Marketing people, in general, are always engaged in producing this fiction whereby they claim that all they're doing is responding to stuff that's already out there," says William Mazzarella, a University of Chicago assistant professor of anthropology and social sciences, whose expertise includes mass media. "The critical response is marketing and advertising create trends or steer us, rather than responding to us."

Naturally, these forecasters believe the opposite. These days, they tell us, we want anchoring, parenting and spiritual healing. We're flocking to life coaches, preachers and yoga instructors to find it. We're acting locally, living "consciously" and buying organic because the world's a fragile, stressful place, say Gordon and Lee. We've cultivated a "curatorial mind-set," says Zandl, creating, sampling, editing and customizing life to suit our needs with blogs, TiVo, iPods and Netflix, because if we don't, we're overwhelmed by information.

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