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Promotional Product Trends

Finding The Diamond In The Rough
By Matt Histand

Do you admire those with the ability to find the proverbial diamond in the rough? Do you wish you had the skill to find the next hottest thing and make it pay off for your company way before the competition? Here's how to become a better trend-spotter.

In sports, when an athlete is performing at the top of his game, entering an otherworldly place where everything he does is right, it's called being "in the zone." It's a pitcher throwing a perfect game; a basketball player raining threes; a surfer riding the perfect wave. Athletes say that in those moments the world around them fades. Opponents move at half speed. Thought and action become one.

Of course, athletes help their chance of hitting the zone through practice and study. Truly great players come to every game ready to play. They've practiced and studied what the opposition's going to do. They're so prepared they don't have to think; they just do.

Trend-spotting is kind of like this. You can't go out and strike gold without putting your time in, doing your homework and honing your skills. The information you need is out there, but you have to know where to look, how to put it all together and, more important what to do with it once you've got it.

"The really good marketers are those who can take advantage of trends," says Dr. Richard George, professor at St. Joseph's University and co-author of Success Leaves Clues. "It's like surfing; the best waves are the ones you go out and meet to get the full ride. But most of us only get the last little part before it gets to shore, and we miss it."

Following The Faith
Perhaps the most famous prognosticator of the past 15 years is trend guru Faith Popcorn. Her books, The Popcorn Report, Clicking and EVEolution, predicted such trends as cocooning, casual Fridays, the return of flashy cars and customized personal products, just to name a few. The books have sold millions, and her marketing consultancy firm, BrainReserve, is at ground zero of the biggest trend of all: trend-spotting.

And where there was once only Popcorn, there's now a legion of experts helping companies target everyone from Baby Boomers to left-handed golfers. Predicting the "Next Big Thing" has become an industry of its own, and it's so popular that many companies have anted up thousands of dollars to find out what's currently registering on the consumer litmus stick.

One of the most famous of these groups, targeting kids and teenagers, is "Youth Intelligence." It charges - get this - $20,000 for a one-year, three-issue subscription to its Cassandra Report. Need the answer to a specific question? That'll cost you another grand.

But don't become discouraged wondering how you can possibly compete with companies whose sole purpose it is to track trends on a daily basis (or how you can afford one) instead, listen to Dr. George: "I don't think anybody - Faith Popcorn, a futurist or a trend-spotter - has a better look at the world than you or I."

Trend-spotting isn't a science. There's no way to predict every new thing coming down the pike. Even when it seems a forgone conclusion, fate has a way of reshuffling the deck. The best you can do? Stay informed. You might not find a sure thing, but you can certainly increase your chances of hitting paydirt.

Don't Fall For Fads
Before going any further, it's important to distinguish between a fad and a trend. It's easy to confuse them, because many people use the terms interchangeably. But they're actually very different. Simply stated, trends are broad, long-term events that evolve over time and touch many people. Fads are a short-term phenomenon usually focused around a product - Pet Rocks, Cabbage Patch Kids, Beanie Babies, etc.

Karen Raugust, author of the EPM Fad Study, has examined fads of the past 100 years and says they share some common characteristics:
  • They're limited in scope and affect only a particular social or geographic group
  • They have little impact on society as a whole
  • Their life span is usually brief - six months to a year
  • They have no underlying reason for their existence. They're isolated events unique unto themselves.
Some fads do reach classic status, like the magic eight-ball or hula hoop, but their influence is diminished and never approaches the interest initially shown in them. Of course, there are exceptions, but they're usually indicative of a larger trend. The return of flared pants - aka/bell-bottoms - is a fad, Raugust notes, but the influence of '70's styles in fashion, decor and music tie into a much wider nostalgia trend.

While there's nothing inherently wrong in getting involved with a fad, it's crucial not to place too much importance on them, and how you let them affect your marketing. If you get involved with fads promotionally early enough, they can be quite effective; if you do it too late, you'll likely accomplish nothing.

Stay Connected
The first step in being a trend-spotter is staying connected to the world. This means reading (newspapers, books and magazines), watching TV, Net-surfing, playing games, traveling, talking to people, etc. Whatever keeps you informed about what's happening now makes you better able to spot trends.

"The armchair trend-spotter isn't going to happen," says Richard Laermer, author of TrendsSpotting: What's In The Future. "You have to be out there, you have to be touching people. And for want of a better cliché, you have to be informed."

Looking at the big picture is an essential notion for trend-spotters to embrace. The more informed you are, the more likely you'll be able to identify emerging patterns. There's an old saying: If a butterfly flaps its wing on one side of the world it can cause a hurricane on the other. Trends aren't as dramatic, but they work on the same principle because many events are interconnected, especially with today's technology.

Sometimes it's as simple as putting one and one together, like the explosion in the senior market as Baby Boomers age. Other trends require more scrutiny because they combine several different mini-trends. The current home decorating boom - characterized by the growth of stores like Home Depot and Pottery Barn - is one example. It's a result of three converging trends - aging Boomers plus an increased work week plus larger incomes equals the need to make their home a castle.

Probably the biggest obstacle in trend-spotting is training yourself in the mindset. Most of us approach a topic from only one direction. We don't take the time to examine all its facets to see how it might affect others. Most people understand the effect oil prices have in relation to their daily commute, but what about heating costs in winter, prices of goods made from petroleum or truck-delivery charges in general? "Trend spotting is taking the information and pouring it into a funnel in which the trends come out," explains Laermer.

Putting It All Together
So now you - and your counselor - are reading every publication known to man, visiting museums, talking to people from all walks of life and observing teen shopping habits. But what exactly are you looking for? Basically clues that point to change - changing opinions, economy, business practices, behavior. Sometimes it's as loud as a nationwide demonstration or as subtle as a shift in fashion accessories.

Ask yourself what effect the things you observe today will have in the future. Are they durable and resilient to the whims of our fickle society? Do they show stamina, or are the quick-flash signs of a fad present? Look for the "so-what" factor. And not just today, but three, five or 10 years down the road. That kind of foresight can be critical. A notorious example is the windows graphic display for computers, invented by Xerox in the early 1970s. Its importance was overlooked until an upstart named Steve Jobs adopted the idea for his young company, Apple Computer.

For some, reading such signs is second nature. "It's like an old sailor putting his finger in the air and being able to tell if it's going to rain," says David Holtzman, CEO of a market-forecasting company. For most, it takes deep concentration and examination. If you're having trouble, he suggests seeking out trend-setters. These are people who lead the way into new markets, the independent thinkers who are the first to embrace new ideas or attitudes. They often leave a trail of influence in their wake that can help point you in a specific direction.

Take the leading company in any industry and look at who its driving force is. What is it about that person that sets them apart? What moves have they made to prepare for a coming trend? What moves are they making now that seem unusual? These clues can be a big help in getting the inside track on the "Next Big Thing".

Trend Nudging
It may be impossible to create a trend, but can you harness its own momentum to nudge it in a more suitable direction?

Laermer thinks so. "There are a lot of really smart people right now who reinforce trends by the way they do business. They'll create a plan that will push their business in a certain direction where they think the rest of the world is going. And, in a sense, if they make it really big, the rest of the world does go in that direction."

A nudge is one thing, but be careful in giving consumers a push. Thanks to the constant barrage of marketing-manipulated come-ons and the easy access to information on the Web, today's consumer is savvier than ever before. It's especially true with children, who represent the next consumer wave.

"The Internet is their media," says Holtzman. "They use the Internet the way we use television, so their world is bigger. What you've got now is a very sophisticated set of consumers, and if something bad is going on about a product or a company - or just a general perception of quality - word gets out fast."

That may seem like bad news, but it's really not. It's only the necessary checks and balances that exist within the market. The Net and its influence will spawn trends that will affect business for years. So, no matter how jaded and cynical consumers may get, there will always be new frontiers to discover.

Once you think you have a trend identified, it's time to call your counselor to see just how many promotional products can be used to tie into it while promoting your firm. There are more possibilities than you'd think.

So even though it takes an investment of time and effort, trend-spotting may be the key to positioning you and your business out in front of the pack. Remember, when it comes to trend-spotting, "better late than never" just doesn't apply.

COPYRIGHT © 2002 The Advertising Specialty Institute. All rights reserved.
Matt Histand is associate editor of Imprint

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