By Robyn Waters
When I began my career in the late 1970s, the trend spotting business was pretty simple. A trend was something that everyone wanted at the same time. Back then, if you kept your antennae up, your radar out, and connected the dots you could pretty much determine what the next big trend was going to be. If you were smart enough to do something about it fairly quickly, you could make a lot of money and ride that trend all the way to the bank.
Sometime during the late nineties it became very trendy to be trendy, and the business of ‘cool hunting’ was born. Cool hunters were those uber-hip, bohemian types who were always on the look out for the next big thing. Manufacturers paid big bucks to hear their pronouncements. Marketers developed elaborate campaigns to capitalize on their trend predictions. Fashion magazines vied for newsstand sales by leveraging the cool factor and being first with the latest trend info. Cool hunting quickly became the Holy Grail for increased sales.
Then, just when we thought we had it all figured out, everything changed. It was as if overnight the consumer developed a severe case of schizophrenia. I had to admit that as a Trendmaster I could no longer deliver the answer to the question: What is the next big thing?
The reason became glaringly obvious: There wasn’t just one next big thing. Rather, there were many different next big things and they were happening concurrently. It became clear that for every trend there was a countertrend, and both were equally valid. The trend itself wasn’t what was important anymore. It was how the trend meshed with the conflicted, paradoxical, and often counter-intuitive desires of the consumer that really mattered.
I trace the origins of this mind shift back to the year that Sharon Stone wore a Gap turtleneck with a designer skirt to the Oscars. Around the same time, Hanes t-shirts worn with Armani suits became de rigueur in Hollywood. Prominent designers began courting discounters like Target to sell their designs. As a result a new genre of retailing came to prominence: the upscale discounter. Now there’s a paradox.
Everywhere you looked there were contradictory trends. Just as video game sales skyrocketed, sales of old fashioned board games took off too. While Sony racked up sales of X-boxes, Cranium became a huge hit. Retailers fought for their fair share of X-box allocation and Family Game Nights flourished as sales of board games like Monopoly and Candy Land experienced double-digit increases.
Cars got bigger and more in-your-face (Hummers and super-sized SUVs) and smaller and cuter (the VW Beetle and the Mini Cooper) at the same time. Fast food restaurants proliferated and the Slow Food movement took off. Our waistlines increased, but so did membership in health clubs across the country.
We became, according to British Elle, “the Ecstasy and Echinacea generation.” Women who insisted on eating only the best organic natural foods thought nothing at all of injecting themselves with botox (essentially a form of botulism) to help nature along a bit.
Bottom line, it became hip to contradict. David Brooks pointed out in his book Bobos in Paradise that today’s Bobos, short for bourgeois bohemians, see nothing contradictory in the fact that they are fanatical about recycling but love driving their gas guzzling SUV’s. Detroit, by the way, recently delivered the perfect product in response to that paradox: the new Ford Escape, a hybrid compact SUV!
So if there isn’t one next big thing, what is it that we should all be looking for? My theory is that we should be looking for the paradoxes. Charles Handy said: “The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more paradoxes there are.” Well, times are certainly turbulent, and our choices couldn’t be more complex, whether you’re buying something as simple as shoes or as complicated as a retirement portfolio. Paradoxes abound, and they’re always worth exploring.
I think F. Scott Fitzgerald was way ahead of this trend. He believed that the test of a first class mind was the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the head at the same time and still be able to function. I practice that every day at my local Starbucks. Not being a coffee drinker, my standing order is a tall hot chocolate with skim milk…..and whipped cream.
Robyn Waters is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get A Jump On What Your Customer Wants Next, and the founder of RW Trend, LLC, a trend consulting company based in Minneapolis, MN. She’s the former Vice President of Trend, Design and Product Development for Target Stores. Visit her at www.rwtrend.com.
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