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  Future Trends: Ethnographics and the Trend Commandments

by Cliff Kurtzman
Chief Executive Officer, ADASTRO Incorporated.

February 19, 2004

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new
landscapes, but in having new eyes."
- Marcel Proust

What does the future hold? What will change, and what will be the same? If we are correct in our efforts to understand the trends that will shape the future, what changes should we make in the way that we operate our businesses to best position ourselves for success? And what actions should our organization take in order to have some influence over the future in which we will operate?

These are questions ADASTRO addresses nearly every day of its existence. Doing so is an essential component in helping our clients make strategic, marketing and organizational changes that radically enhance the value of their business enterprises. By examining a broad spectrum of demographic, social, political, economic, technological, legal, and environmental shifts, we are able to develop strategies and recommendations that will have a real and lasting effect on the future value of our clients' businesses.

In November 2003, I had the opportunity to attend the IRR Future Trends conference held in Miami's South Beach district. This event gave me a chance to zoom in my focus and realign my aim by looking at trends of a much briefer nature than the longer term societal shifts that ADASTRO typically focuses on for its clients. Trend questions of a shorter term nature might include: what colors or clothing styles are going to be fashionable over the coming year? What kind of television programs will people be interested in watching next season? What will be popular in the next year in terms of things like food, dance, automobiles, interior design, electronics, sports and recreational activities? How are people's attitudes changing towards big businesses, towards saving and spending, and towards sex?

Having answers to these questions is absolutely critical to those that market products and services that are affected by short term fashions and trends. They need to be able to anticipate what products to introduce into the market, decide where to spend their advertising budget, and determine the right messages to convey through their marketing activities, many months before the products are introduced and the advertisements actually run. In this article, I'll provide a review of three sessions at the Future Trends conference that provided insight into many of these issues.

An Introduction To Ethnographic Research

I spent the first day of the conference in a workshop devoted to learning about and participating in ethnographic research--an observation technique developed by anthropologists that involves the systematic study of people as they go about their daily lives. The workshop was led by Drs. Barbara Perry and Ruth Sando, both of Barbara Perry Associates. There were 22 people in the workshop, which consisted of a seminar followed by a fieldwork exercise.

During the seminar we learned that while it is easy to collect a lot of data on people's activities, in order to effectively predict future behavior, you also need to understand the meaning behind the data. Ethnography is used to understand behavior "in context." It allows development of an "insider" perspective on people's values, customs, beliefs, behaviors, and what drives each of those factors. It asks "what do people do? How do they do it? and why do they do it that way?" As Barbary Perry noted in her handout, quoting anthropologist Clifford Geertz, "The trick is to figure out what the devil they think they are up to."

The two main activities in the ethnographic process are observation and interviewing. Observation of behavior involves immersion in the environment in which behavior occurs. Detailed observations begin a process that results in new connections, patterns and insights being recognized by the researcher. Observations includes describing observed behavior, describing individuals (grooming, dress, accent, age, gender, etc.), and describing the physical environment as if through the lens of a camera. It is a continual challenge to the observer to remove their own assumptions and prejudices so that they do not bias the observations and inhibit discovery.

Interviewing involves learning from people who are knowledgeable about their lives in order to gain perception into the meaning of what they do, to probe their beliefs, and to check the researcher's assumptions. Direct quotes are recorded. Personal inferences, emotional reactions, and hunches made by the observer or interviewer are also recorded separately.

An ethnographic sample is typically fairly small and constructed to be representative of a particular group. The goal is to find patterns and clues that allow the researcher to get closer to understanding how a target audience thinks. Sometimes researchers will go out into the field to observe and interview, other times they will recruit a group of individuals that they believe to be influencers in a particular area, and then periodically observe, survey and/or interview the members of the group to learn about their behaviors and attitudes. In contrast to focus groups, which typically are constructed in order to confirm hypotheses, ethnographic research uses groups to make new discoveries and create new hypotheses.

Large companies such as GM, Intel and Kodak have staff carrying out ethnographic research full time. Other organizations conduct the research through outside consultants, while others assemble their own cross-functional teams.

Ethnography produces both an external and an internal outcome. The external outcome is the new insights that emerge, and the ability to see and interpret events, opportunities, and messages as they will be seen and interpreted by others.

The internal outcome is an opportunity to challenge assumptions that would otherwise be difficult to challenge without the materials and experience that ethnography provides. It allows self-reflection on organizational beliefs that may be limiting the field of vision and constraining organizational innovation and effectiveness.

During the seminar part of the workshop, we talked about how trends evolve. Often they go through a series of phases where something starts as a "fringe" activity, gets adopted by those on the "edge," enters into the "realm of cool," becomes the "next big thing," and then becomes part of accepted social convention. The growth of the Internet fits this model. Other trends come about because unexpected catalysts create a radical shift in behavior. An increased focus on security in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 fits this model. We talked about how some trends reach a "tipping point" of sufficient adoption after which they are essentially unstoppable in gaining momentum, while others fail to reach the tipping point and wither. We talked about how some individuals seems to be key influencers amongst their peers... they act as "dancing bees" that bring a message that is adopted by the entire "hive."

For the fieldwork part of the workshop, we divided into teams of three people and were sent into the trendy Lincoln Road Mall part of South Beach (in the Miami area) on secret missions. We each took a personality test to determine if we were "realists," "builders," or "dreamers" and each team consisted of one person from each category. I was the "builder" on our team. The "realist" on our team worked for Samsung in Korea. The "dreamer" on our team worked for an advertising agency in Connecticut.

The assignment for our team was to pose as interior decorators from the firm "InVironments, Inc," a company that creates interiors for residences and businesses that enhance the environmental experience. We were to observe the venue in order to generate creative new ideas.

We made our observations at midday on Monday, November 17, 2003. It was sunny and in the 80s (F). The Lincoln Road Mall is outdoors and closed to automobile traffic, and it consists of shops and restaurants which frequently extend well beyond the physical shop out into the open mall area. The area is quite upscale, full of tropical/palm tree foliage. People dress from very casual to trendy, and dogs on leashes are commonplace.

We noticed quite a number of trends that would apply to our particular mission. There was a heavy concentration of Asian and Indian influence throughout the area, however, there was also a common pattern that consisted of the blending of styles from multiple cultures. This occurred not only in the design of the spaces, but also in the many fusion-oriented food choices. Concentrations of bright vibrant colors were often used against broad white or plain colored backgrounds. Spot lighting was frequently used to accentuate an interesting feature.

There was an overall trend towards simplicity in design. Small pieces of furniture were often used in areas having a lot of open space. In addition to using concentrated accents to make spaces visually interesting, soft music and waterfalls provided an auditory element, and incense or other aromas often added an olfactory element as well. Overall the effect was of calmness and relaxation... I wondered why there wasn't a place to stop and get a massage in Mall, because it would have fit in very well with the other elements of the area.

Right in the middle of this commercial area was the Miami Beach Community Church, which offered a place of refuge from the external environment, and it reminded us that the work environment also needs places of refuge where one can get away from interruptions and reflect on things in quiet.

After completing our reconnaissance of the area and having lunch at one of the sidewalk bistros, we met back up with the other groups and compared notes. One of the other groups had the same mission that my group had, so it was interesting to note the differences in what we each had observed. There also truly did seem to be fundamental differences between the observations made by the realist, builder, and dreamer on our team, so the strategy of putting us into teams consisting of individuals with each of those personalities proved worthwhile.

Overall the brief field experience seemed to be a useful exercise in getting us to think about and understand the complexities of what would be involved in attempting to conduct a real ethnographic study. We certainly could not have achieved the same level of learning solely by listening to a lecture.

Ethnographic Research: An Application

Another session at the conference provided insight into an actual case-study of the use of ethnographic research at a well known commercial company. This session was presented by Vicky Purnell, Senior Director of Marketplace Insights, Dockers, Levi Strauss Signature Brand, and Barbara Bylenga, President, Outlaw Consulting. The strategies discussed in this session are useful to marketers that wish to expand their ability to understand their consumers and predict future trends.

Apparel trends change quickly, and there is often a long lag time between when a company must make product decisions and when those decisions are realized in the marketplace. For example, during late 2003, Levi Strauss needed to make decisions on styles for the Spring season of 2005.

Vicky Purnell described four tools that Levi Strauss uses to help them anticipate the future. These include:

  1. Trendsetter Panels
  2. The Fashion Forward Game
  3. Unmet Needs Ethnographies
  4. Immersions and Interactive Presentations

==> 1) Trendsetter Panels

Barbara Bylenga talked about how the trendsetter panels are created and used. They recruit trendsetters in 3-5 "leading edge" cities. Trendsetters range in age from kids through adults. In this particular instance, a 1500 person "panel" consists of individuals from ages 15 to 39 in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The panel is used to support both the Levi's and Docker brands. The groups are segmented into three age groups and three behavior segments. They recruit approximately 200 new panel members each year.

Trendsetters are NOT mainstream... they are forward thinking, progressive individuals on the forefront of what is new and happening. Trendsetters tend to innovate, and set trends for what will become fashionable in the future, rather than follow the styles that are currently in fashion. In the online world, I think that many of those that blog on Livejournal or Myspace fit that description. Looking at trendsetters allows one to understand upcoming mindset shifts, style trends, and usage behaviors. It allows one to gain insights into what may be coming through brainstorming, product development feedback, strategy development, and generational understanding.

Trendsetters are never defined by usage. Whether or not they wear Levi's is irrelevant to their selection as a trendsetter. Trendsetters are paid for their time (with cash, not free product). They are selected through field research rather than apply for the position. They go through a three-phase review that include a face-to-face field interview with and experienced interviewer, an agency review, and then a client review.

Trendsetter panels break the four "Golden Rules of Research," which prescribe that you should never establish a relationship with a respondent, that you should limit past participation, keep incentives small, and never disclose the client's identity. These rules are replaced with new guidelines: 1) never incentive with product; 2) never "send 'em home"; 3) incentives are investments - pay well; 4) make projects fun; 5) respect their time - incent when canceling; and 6) protect their privacy.

Internet resources are used throughout the process. Relationships with panelists are often maintained through email and on-line surveys are used with the panels. Online scrapbooks and photo galleries document history. The data collected is proprietary, and a database is created to allow Levi's with online access to panel data and results.

==> 2) The Fashion Forward Game

In the Fashion Forward Game, Levi's partnered with Sachs Insights to develop a unique methodology. The objective was to understand consumer's likes & dislikes around futuristic clothing ideas. They looked at the viewpoints of mainstream consumers, trendsetters, and futurists/anthropologists.

A game show approach was used to keep respondents involved and honest. Similar in style to the Newlywed Game, respondents were recruited in pairs of people that really know each other, and who will shop together and talk about clothes together. This included both male/ female couples and "gal pals." The pairs were split up and one group was shown various concepts, and asked to independently rate the concepts as "Love it", "Like it", "Whatever", and "No Way." They also were asked to talk about their reactions behind their ratings. The second group was asked to predict how the other member of their pair would react to the concept. The pairs then get back together and hold up signs showing their answers at the same time. If they disagreed, then they talked about their differences.

Levi's found that the Fashion Forward Game worked because it was fun, with pairs getting into a competitive spirit, and they enjoyed learning about how well they knew their partner. The game held their attention, and they were not shy in pointing out why they thought their significant others were wrong.

==> 3) Unmet Needs Ethnographies

For this research, Levi's partnered with Teri Gacek Associates to understand consumer's hidden clothing dissatisfiers, focusing on factors other than fit. They wanted to determine what consumers wish that their clothing would do for them, and what they hate about their current clothes. They conducted two exercises to learn from their panelists.

In the "Suitcase Exercise," panelists were asked to pack a bag for a week stay away from their home, assuming that they will need to carry on their current life. They then asked the panelist to tell them the story of every item in that bag, where it came from, why they needed it, what it meant to them, etc. It enabled the researchers to learn which items the panelists considered to be most important, which items "work hardest" for people, and tricks that people might not otherwise relate (for example - "I only need one pair of black pants and 6 shirts and I can make it through the week.")

In the "Goodwill Bag" exercise, people were asked to tell the story of the clothing items that they would give away to Goodwill. They learned that these items fall into three categories: 1) favorite items that have just plain worn out; 2) Items that they have never worn; and 3) items that have been ruined. The stories behind each of these items helped Levi's understand unmet needs and develop strategies for how to address those needs with innovative products.

==> 4) Immersions and Interactive Presentations

This strategy engages internal audiences in order to help them understand, retain and leverage trends in their marketing and product initiatives. The insights collected through the above activities must be communicated to marketing, merchandising and design personnel that support the Levi's brands. They have used diaries to bring the consumer to life, and presentations that incorporate video showing customer quotes have been particularly effective in communicating memorable insights. Immersion sessions include a museum-like experience that engages with videos and exhibits.

The Trend Commandments

In this session Larry Samuel, who is president of New York City-based Culture Planning, gave a presentation discussing his book, "The Trend Commandments (tm): Turning Cultural Fluency into Marketing Opportunity." My review here will cover both his presentation and the book, of which we were given a complimentary copy.

In the introduction to his book, Samuel makes the observation that "Moses was without a doubt the go-to guy when it came to delivering messages from the CCO (Chief Creation Officer) and making travel plans but he was no marketing genius, trust me." The Trend Commandments are intended to fill the gap and become a template for marketers that want to be in the right place at the right time with the right ideas.

Samuel defines a trend as nothing more (and nothing less) than a particular expression or articulation of a society's values which is in ascent, i.e., rising in popularity, status, worth, and power. Samuel continues "Many people believe trends to be about the latest, the hippest, the coolest, tipping us off to what's in versus out, what's hot versus cold, what's new versus old. The truth is that most trends are in fact not cool (or even 'trendy') at all, having little or nothing to do with the fashion, hairstyle, band or drink of the moment. Trends are exponentially more democratic, populist, and, most importantly, opportunistic and leverageable then coolness. To put it another way, coolness is the guy or gal you date for kicks but trends are whom you take home to mom or dad (or your board of directors)."

The 10 trend commandments are intended to provide a framework around which you can ground your brand, and to help you choose which marketing battles to fight. With that in mind, here is an overview of each of the commandments:

Trend Commandment #1: Stir Passion

Passion consists of ideas, events, activities, or pursuits that are grounded in powerful emotions. Passions say who you are not only to others but to yourself as well. Passion almost always leads to business opportunity, as all great success stories are based in a deep emotional connection. One can think about marketing as the challenge or opportunity to identify sources of passion among consumers and to then make your product or service part of that passion.

With each Commandment, Samuel provides ten trends that fall within the domain of the Commandment, and then he suggests ten opportunities to utilize the commandment by leveraging on current cultural trends. I can't go into all 100 trends or opportunities within the scope of this report but I can give you a flavor of his content with the 10 passion related opportunities that he outlined for Trend Commandment #1:

  • Invest passion in your products and services in ways that will make the world a richer place.

  • Find a way that your product or service can help consumers let other know that they will leave a lasting impression on the world or those that they care about.

  • Give strangers the opportunity to find each other (and passion) at your web site.

  • Allow your customers to be players versus spectators when it comes to making purchase decisions.

  • Bring passion to your marketing party by making your brand part of a love connection.

  • Hitch your marketing wagon to the passion surrounding any and all forms of committed relationships.

  • Empower consumers by positioning your product or service as a weapon against real or perceived enemies.

  • Help consumers keep others from unnecessarily knowing what goes on behind their closed doors.

  • Tap into the power and the passion of high-touch in our high- tech times.

  • Stir passion by coming up with ways to let consumers have it their way.

Trend Commandment #2: Spark Creativity

The dynamics of popular culture appear to be shifting as more people demand to participate in its production rather than just its consumption. The Internet, for example, has opened new windows that allow each of us to express ourselves in new ways. We live in a society where we all can be artists, writers, poets and musicians if we so choose. Empowering consumers with the ability to be creative is one of contemporary culture's dominant themes.

Trend Commandment #3: Declare Independence

The notion of independence is ingrained in the American cultural DNA, an essential part of who we are as a people. Alternative culture almost always feeds mass or mainstream culture, functioning as a leading indicator of what will soon be considered conventional. Marketers will find success by aligning themselves with consumers' instincts and drive to be independent.

Trend Commandment #4: Deliver Experience

In a society of middle class abundance, many of our basic possessive needs have been met. As that occurs, we are seeing a wholesale shift in the concepts of identity and status, changing our individual and collective orientation from materialism towards experience. While possessions are symbolic reflections of who we are, experiences are actual and are who we are. Marketers need to shift from a passive voice to an active one, and translate their products' reason-for-being into experiential terms. They need to think of consumers as anthropomorphic sharks constantly feeding on new experiences to gobble up and digest.

Trend Commandment #5: Get Smart

Living in an information age, smartness has emerged as a key component in our cultural DNA. Smartness has has infiltrated and infused everyday life, paralleling the evolution of the computer chip and the Internet. Marketers need to incorporate "smarter is better" into their strategies, as smartness will only increase in worth and status in the future.

Trend Commandment #6: Nurture Nature

Our postwar love and trust in chemistry and weird science is as dead as the Cold War, replaced by a desire to breathe, eat, and wear nature as much as possible. Today's environmentalism is different than previous ones because it is part of the system rather than in opposition to it. Consumers want to celebrate nature both at home and away from home.

Trend Commandment #7: Build Community

A marketer's real job is to create communities around their brands, turning their brand into a community. There is a feeling by many today that relationships with others matter more than money, success, and material items. Consumers choose certain brands because they believe they and the brand have something in common, that the brand is essentially a community that the consumer wants to join. For marketers, building communities around brands is a way to infuse them with a form of power that exceeds any particular feature or benefit they may offer. The challenge for marketers is to grow their communities without diluting their power, which is a tricky balancing act.

Trend Commandment #8: Surf the Edge

Trendsetters that are on the edge are not concerned with what people think or how it looks. Edge culture is willing to take risks, look foolish, and face social ostracism. For marketers, surfing the edge means allowing the margins to seep into your corporate culture, brands, and plans, incorporating their essence into products and services.

Trend Commandment #9: Think (and Act) Global

Thinking globally and acting locally may have been a sound philosophy as recently as a decade ago but now such an idea is untenable. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of a communication medium that makes having intimate relationships with someone half way around the world an everyday affair, it's only natural that one should not only think global but act global. From a marketer's perspective, many of the most interesting, dynamic, and opportunistic ideas and things are where disparate cultures intersect, creating synergistic hybrids that never existed before.

Trend Commandment #10: Mine the Past

The faster we hurdle into the future, the more we seem to use the past as a cultural anchor to slow down the pace of our 24/7 world and as a common denominator that our diverse, fragmented society can share. We're preserving and honoring the legacies of the past, reviving lost traditions and experiences, and looking for the romance and glamor of the past. Samuel urges marketers to view the past as a "post-modern grab bag from which virtually anything and everything can be retrieved and reconfigured."

In his book, Samuel also gives ten examples of the application of each Commandment to ten sectors: Autos; Beauty; Entertainment & Media; Fashion; Finance; Food & Beverage; Healthcare; Retail; Technology; and Travel & Hospitality.

All in all, I found the observational synthesis presented by Larry Samuel to be quite perceptive. The Commandments themselves are not new observations, but Samuel has done an outstanding job of thematically tying them together and relating them to how marketers can use them to leverage on current trends. I recommend his book, listed in the references below, if you are interested in learning more.

Additional Reading:

Ethnography: A Tool for In-Depth Understanding by Barbara Perry Associates (505) 743-2027

How the Y's are Different: Shifting Gender Roles Among 20-26 Year Olds by Outlaw Consulting, Inc., November 2003

The Trend Commandments (TM): Turning Cultural Fluency into Marketing Opportunity by Larry Samuel, 2003, ISBN 0-9724925-1-8.

Watch Me Now by Alison Stein Wellner, American Demographics, October 2002.

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