I spend the day at Northwestern, giving a paper to the Marketing department. I was talking about reading trends. I have worked up a new model for doing this, borrowing heavily from Complexity theory and the work of Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute.
I blew by one opening slide called “trends trending upward.” The point of this slide is to note in passing, and much too summarily, that the dynamism of consumer taste and preference appears to be growing.
Here’s the slide as I presented it.
1. trend sensitivity is up: Russian glasses
2. more trends at work: end of big slow breakers
3. producing stations more numerous (NY, LA, London, Paris to Atlanta & Iceland)
4. end of mass society: fragmentation of taste
5. trends penetrating new sectors: paint at the hardware store
6. trends peak faster
7. so far the corporation plays catch up
8. what happens when corporations become fully engaged?
Most of these are pretty transparent. The “Russian glasses” notion come from the experience of a friend of mine who examined the possibility of selling prescription glasses in the 2nd and 3rd world, only to discover that Russian visitors are really quite well informed about that fashions in glasses. We used to be able to take advantage of a “back water” effect. That’s gone.
Point two was about the old days when we had plenty of time to spot new trends and to watch them roll through the marketplace. Now it is closer to a perfect storm, with several trends colliding with sometimes unpredictable results.
Point three noted the problem of how many centers can now participate in cultural innovation. At one time it was enough to keep an eye on NY, LA, London and Paris because innovators else would find themselves shut out by the gatekeepers. Now we know that innovators can happen even in Iceland. This means we must monitor more widely and the changes that we will miss something (and suffer the blind side hit) have gone up.
Point four is clear enough, as is point five. A good way to make point five, I find, is to note that trends have penetrating even that bastion of function and pragmatism, the hardware store. Our great grandfathers would be astonished to find that paint colors in hardware stores now change routinely.
Point six says simply that trends move more quickly. And this is just about the only reason I think to feel good about the amount of money we pay our cultural icons. Their moment upon the stage of celebrity can be very brief indeed.
Points seven and eight suggests that as it stands the corporate world is usually playing a game of catch up, often hanging onto trends by their fingernails. This won’t last long. In the next decade we will see corporations solve the trend watch as they have solved every other problem. And once this happens, our dynamism will be redoubled. Once corporations are full participants in the trend game, we will set off in a cultural adventure that will be pretty darn astonishing.
This is another way of saying that as people like me create models to track and predict change, the corporation will get better at creating this change. And then the model building will have to begin again.
McCracken, Grant. In Press: 2006. Flock and Flow: tracking consumer taste and preference in a dynamic marketplace. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.