Trend Spotting: Anyone Can Play

And sussing out the latest craze may point you toward a profitable future

Hobart C. Buppert III, known as "Hoby" to his friends, was club-hopping in Vienna four years ago when he was introduced to a popular nonalcoholic beverage that cost $10 a can. Dancers were swilling the sludgy brew like it was "some sort of powerful elixir," recalls Buppert. The drink was actually loaded with caffeine--from guarana beans.

When the young Cornell University hotel school grad got back to the States, he noticed other trends: the proliferation of coffee bars; the tendency for clubgoers to alternate booze and soft drinks to sustain all-night dancing; and the growing rage for natural ingredients and gimmicky foods such as no-fat ice cream. Also, Buppert noticed people complaining about fatigue and stress. Eventually, he connected the dots, and launched Hoborama Corp., based in Miami. His first product was "Bawls Guarana," a soda with three times the caffeine of Coca-Cola Classic. The soda popped--catching on in dance clubs in south Florida, southern California, and New York. Now, it's in grocery stores in those states and spreading to Europe too.

Buppert, now 24, developed his business idea not by using reams of pricey research, but simply through observation. That same kind of trend-spotting is done by well-hyped research companies such as Youth Intelligence, BrainReserve, and Iconoculture. Major corporations, including Sony, McDonald's, and Sprint, pay big bucks for their insights.

But you don't need to hire a consultant. "Anyone can be a trendmeister," says Larry Samuel, a partner in Iconoculture and co-author of The Future Ain't What It Used To Be. In fact, says Faith Popcorn, chairman of BrainReserve and probably the best known of her breed, you might even outsmart the pros. "Amateurs are actually better at it," she insists. They aren't "restrained by the rigid structures of education and all of the false wisdom." In other words, they can often see the obvious more easily than the experts.

Trend-spotting isn't just for entrepreneurs looking to start new companies or for marketing cutting-edge products. Consider, for example, the growing cultural emphasis on well-being. Take apart that trend, says Mary Meehan of Iconoculture, and you'll see several minitrends--the yearning for mental and physical health; a desire for greater balance in one's life; a revitalized interest in hearth and home; and a new focus on spirituality.

The response: Grocery stores are stocking natural and organic foods, medicinal herbs, and nontoxic cleaning supplies. Some insurance companies have expanded to cover alternative medicine. Hardware stores are carrying air and water purifiers, nontoxic paints, and test kits for detecting contaminants such as lead.

How do you start? Remember, valuable information is everywhere you look. Try to see things the way the marketing gurus at big companies do. For example, Linda Lewi, senior vice-president for global brand marketing at Rockport Co., a division of Reebok International Ltd., reads about 30 magazines a month to spot recurring themes. When she noticed an optimistic tone in a skateboarding 'zine, she saw it as a sign that young people were becoming more upbeat. She had Rockport incorporate a cheerier tone into its advertising. The result, she says, was increased sales.

On the surface, it doesn't seem that a gasket manufacturer should care that avocado or magenta are hot fashion colors. But it's wise to file away such pieces of information for future reference. As Karen D. Seratti, senior marketing research analyst for American Century Investments, based in Kansas City, Mo., suggests, using popular colors in marketing materials could make customers pay closer attention. "It's the color people are responding to," she says.

Also, examine whether the fads around you add up to the deeper, wider trends that can suggest business opportunities. "It's like being an outfielder," says Samuel. "You don't move to where the ball is, you move to where the ball is going."

That's just where former stockbroker Tim DeMello hopes he has landed with Streamline Inc., his computerized concierge service that lets customers order such items as groceries, rental videos, wine, and even pet supplies on the Internet. He fills the orders from his own warehouse every Friday.

DeMello, 38, is an information junkie who spends 10 hours a week scanning magazines, newspapers, and the Web and watching TV news shows. He noticed five years ago that home delivery businesses had proliferated far beyond pizza and that polls showed Americans felt time-starved and hated supermarket shopping. And he determined that Web commerce had come of age, judging by the success of the Internet bookseller, and the ubiquity of Web business addresses.

Streamline, based in the Boston suburb of Westwood, Mass., already has attracted 3,500 local members at $30 a month, and the company recently raised $10 million in financial backing from investors, including Intel, GE Capital, and PaineWebber.

As DeMello has learned, diligent research can pay off, and it's a lot cheaper to do it yourself. The pros often charge $25,000 for an initial consultation and another $75,000 for specific advice tailored to your company. Instead, do the next-best thing and buy their books, which are frequently updated (table), or scan Web sites, forums, and chat rooms. And read as much as you can. Create your own brain trust by testing your theories on smart acquaintances of various ages and incomes. Some hunches can, of course, still be confirmed with cold, hard numbers, the kind of research offered by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc. and pioneer Yankelovich Partners Inc., which has been publishing its trend predictor, The Monitor, since the late 1960s. And the U.S. Census Bureau keeps an accessible database with all sorts of demographic information. Or you can hire an online survey company, such as MotivationNet Inc. in Schaumburg, Ill. (table).

ALIENS ARE OUT. But nothing really substitutes for trend-tracking in the field. Look, talk, and listen at health clubs, parks, stores, or wherever folks gather. Besides, stalking the next big trend can be fun--especially if you like to shop, like Jane Rinzler Buckingham, the president of Youth Intelligence, a professional trend-spotting firm. When she takes to the wilds of the Westchester Mall in White Plains, N.Y., she wends her way through a number of specialty stores, carefully noting what's selling well--massage products, lotions, scented candles, simple clothes--and what's not: anything with almond-eyed aliens on it.

Her conclusion? Stressed-out consumers are trying to reward themselves with small indulgences. She cautions, though, that her prey is elusive. "Don't expect a trend to jump out at you," she warns. "It emerges over time." And even if you do miss a trend, never fear. There'll always be another one coming right behind it.

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