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Trend Spotting

Futurist reveals 16 forces shaping America.

Random and chaotic may be how the vast consumer marketplace looks to most of us, but when futurist Faith Popcorn scans the globe, she sees major trends that propel many consumer buying decisions--from "cocooning" (where Americans have turned into homebodies) through "pleasure revenge" and "small indulgences" (where we puff cigars between nibbles of Godiva chocolates). Not only does Popcorn describe today's trends, but she also pinpoints the forces shaping tomorrow's marketplace. And a stream of big businesses contract with her marketing consulting firm BrainReserve to get this scoop.

Is Popcorn's picture of tomorrow on the mark? "I haven't been wrong about a trend yet," she claims. And she predicts her new book Clicking (HarperCollins) will help even more entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Read on for her tips on how to get rich betting on tomorrow.

Entrepreneur:Why do you say clicking is crucial for entrepreneurs?

Faith Popcorn: Clicking is about changing yourself and your business to fit the trends. It's about being in sync with what's coming tomorrow. You click when you're in the right place, at the right time, doing the right things.

Clicking is an acronym. "C" stands for courage. "L" is for letting go--maybe you're not happy doing what you do and you need to let it go. "I" is for insight, seeing what you want to be. "C" is for commitment to change. And "K" is for know-how--getting the skills you need to make things happen. When you click, you see the future clearly and are ready to seize opportunities.

As an entrepreneur, when you understand the future, you'll make fewer mistakes. As a marketer, trend knowledge is invaluable. To be where the consumers are just before they get there, offering these consumers what they didn't know they wanted, spells success.

Entrepreneur:What's the difference between a fad and a trend?

Popcorn: Trends are big and broad. A fad is shorter in duration--a flash in the pan--and fewer people are involved. For instance: Punk hair colors and nose rings are fads. But trends are different--they are giant in terms of how many people they involve--and they last at least 10 years, sometimes longer. Cocooning is going into its 20th year, for example.

Do trends apply everywhere? The answer is a qualified "no." If a region or part of the world is under severe financial hardship and people have no money to buy what they would like, they can't be considered an active and viable part of the "trendscape," the consumer scene. Otherwise, we feel comfortable saying the trends we've spotlighted are not only national but global in scope.

Entrepreneur:Is the Internet a fad or a trend?

Popcorn: It's a trend. Just look at how it fits with trends like clanning and cocooning, and you see how big the Internet can be because people are looking for new ways to link together.

Trends help you interpret what's going on and whether it will last. When you look at the Internet in terms of it being a trend, you understand it will definitely continue to grow.

Entrepreneur:Aren't some of the trends contradictory?

Popcorn: That's human nature. How many people go out and jog for an hour, then go home and eat a pint of ice cream? That's fitness and fatness in the same person. Besides, in a nation of 266 million people, a trend can be gigantic but only involve 20 million people.

Entrepreneur:You say that a good way to cultivate business ideas is to question the obvious. Why is that?

Popcorn: Because the obvious often isn't so obvious. You may see something in front of you, but when you analyze it, you see it's really something else.

More broadly: What we're trying to do in detailing the trends is to force you to think differently. Clicking is about breaking clich├ęs, ripping apart refrigerator philosophy--comforting words to live by that don't hold true anymore.

Entrepreneur:A skeptic might challenge your accuracy on these predictions.

Popcorn: I haven't been wrong about a trend yet. At BrainReserve, we are systematic about how we come up with our predictions. We interview as many as 4,000 people a year, one on one, and we've done that for 22 years. We read 300 publications a month, plus the bestselling books. We monitor the top-rated television shows, movies and music. The art of all this is scanning today's culture for signs of the future. The signs are everywhere--you just have to open your eyes.

Entrepreneur:What industries are "clinging to old-think," as you put it--meaning they are out of touch with today's trends?

Popcorn: In Clicking, we analyze banking in terms of the current trends, and it is off-trend on all 16 [trends in the book]. No industry can keep insulting its clients forever without a rebellion. There are real opportunities for an on-trend bank of the future.

Another industry in trouble is the supermarket. People hate to shop there--they don't have time, and when they go, they can't find anything. Car dealerships also have tremendous problems--many customers think that when they go to buy a car, they just get abused. Some customers want to be able to get home delivery of new cars. Wouldn't you like a dealer who first asked you questions about your needs, then later brought cars to your home or office for you to test drive? All these industries--banking, supermarkets, car sales--offer opportunities for on-trend entrepreneurs who find new and better ways to give consumers what they want.

Entrepreneur:What recommendations for marketing are you most proud of?

Popcorn: We did incredible work for MetLife [insurance], whom we helped identify an underserved women's market that represents a potential $1 billion in business.

We knew that the first financial services company to demonstrate loyalty to women entrepreneurs would be in a position to gain market share in a huge and growing market. So for MetLife, we created a way to sell insurance to entrepreneurs--especially female entrepreneurs--and at the same time provide them with help in their businesses.

We transformed the word "insurance" agent into "success" agent, and that agent, besides selling insurance to women, also helps them succeed in business by mentoring them in areas like bookkeeping, hiring employees and the like. And we found that when a woman entrepreneur is treated that way--in a friendly, interactive, considerate fashion--she will tell about 500 people.

Entrepreneur:Have there been suggestions you've made to clients that they didn't implement?

Popcorn: Many. My favorite product idea was for a microchip that could be put in a child's tooth and used to track him or her. We were working for a company involved in military electronics, and it had the capability to do this. We worked up a business plan, and it could have been very profitable, but the company was afraid that a maniac would start ripping kids' teeth out and that the company would look bad. They were more afraid of potential negative PR than they were interested in tackling the abduction issue.

Entrepreneur:Which of the 16 trends do you see as especially powerful right now?

Popcorn: Icon toppling--the idea that anything big and established will topple. This means difficulties for big business, government and the medical and legal professions. Alternative delivery systems will grow. This is a very big trend, and the alternatives--small businesses, alternative medicines--will do very well also.

Entrepreneur:What's your advice to entrepreneurs about how to use your book?

Popcorn: Put your ideas to the trend test. Using the trends as a screen can save you from false starts, misguided attempts or outright failures in whatever venture you have in mind. It's easy to do. If a business fits with at least four trends, being off-trend won't cause it to fail. But when fewer than four trends apply, you're picking up on a fad or reaching too small a market segment.

How do you know if an idea is on-trend? Write down all the trends vertically on the left-hand side of a piece of paper. Head other columns horizontally across the top of the page: Yes, No, Maybe, Possible Change. Take each trend in turn, and consider how well the business idea is supported by that trend. If the idea seems on-trend, look for ways to make it more so. If not, don't give up. Try to figure out what you would have to do to reshape the idea and make it trend-friendly.

Entrepreneur:Another click you talk about is the "heart click." What's that?

Popcorn: Here's a great for-instance: A hospital nurse noticed that when her patients went home, they often didn't have the energy to cook. So she created an after-care service to deliver hot meals. She did this because she really felt for these people, and that's what's essential in a heart click. It's when the idea tugs on your heart more than it involves your head and your economic analysis of the business plan. And sometimes heart clicks work very, very well.

Entrepreneur:Does a small business need to jump on a trend in its early stage?

Popcorn: Often there are good reasons not to be first. Nathan Pritikin is a case in point. Thirty years ago, he was preaching the value of a low-cholesterol, high-carbohydrate diet, and he was mocked. Now much of what he said is taken as fact. If you're first, you will often have a hard time precisely because you are first.

An entrepreneur can come into a trend several years after it started and still do very well--if he or she has good ideas and executes them inventively. You don't want to get in too late, of course. But waiting until the second or third year of a trend can be smart. You'll see if it is in fact a trend or merely a fad. If you decide it's a trend, then look for creative ways to work within the trend.

Entrepreneur:Can a small business afford to bet on a clicking concept?

Popcorn: Absolutely--we are already getting letters from people who have read the book and clicked into businesses. There are lots of ways to succeed once you know the trends. Above all, the most important thing I hope to give entrepreneurs is the heart and courage they need to follow their ideas.

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This article was originally published in the December 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Trend Spotting.

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