Trends FAQ with Marian Salzman

What is a trendspotter?

I’ve been called many things—most frequently a trendspotter, with variations on the title ranging from futurist to futurologist, and once even the “Xena of zeitgeist,” with lots of puns about crystal balls and fortune-tellers along the way. Call me whatever you’d like, but I prefer the term “strategist.” It’s my job to hunt down global trends, then bring them dutifully back to a pack of corporate clients who can, in turn, run with them to better understand the world and thus sell more products and services. Also, let me make the distinction between a trendspotter and a trendsetter, as I don’t consider myself the latter. In fact, most trendspotters are terribly “normal,” which is just as they should be. Without any outrageous hairstyles or unruly addictions to block the view, I find it’s easier to see what stands out if I don’t stand out. Plus, it makes me more accessible to my clients.

How do you spot trends?

It’s all about pattern recognition, although that’s a big bucket into which I toss data analysis, a nose for reading implications into journalistic reporting, and also the wealth of experience I bring when it comes to constructing possible and probable visions of the near future. And then there’s the firsthand trendspotting—lots and lots of eavesdropping on café conversations and snooping into strangers’ supermarket baskets. I’ve found that the best trendspotters spend more time listening, reading and watching than they do talking. I am an observer; I watch and listen to anything that gives me a bird’s-eye view on how people are reacting to various situations and scenes. And I consume enormous amounts of pop culture, be it serialized television, radio, supermarket fiction or tabloid newspapers in the U.S. and from overseas capitals. I also analyze about 4,000 news sources through the Internet. Perhaps most important, I never think that I have it all figured out, and I never get tired of trying to figure it all out. I live in perpetual anticipation.

When did you know you had a knack for trendspotting?

After I finished school, I worked as a journalist for a couple of years but didn’t get my first real taste of trend forecasting until I got a job in market research for youth marketing, which is when I worked out that suggesting trend-based angles was a good way to reach our clients’ audiences. One job led to the next. I would have a theory, it would prove accurate, it would help a client and I began to develop a reputation. I wish I could say I’d been super-ambitious about doing it, but really it just came naturally to me.

Why does trendspotting matter?

It matters in ways that change societies and corporate fortunes. We’re in the business of generating awareness for our clients—to promote good will, consumption and, ultimately, loyalty—and the best way to serve them most effectively is by anticipating the density and velocity of the changes on the near horizon. When a multinational brand gets ahead of a trend, and can own it, and ride its wave, the benefits are long-lasting. We’ve found that clients have been able to act early based on our insights and get a head start over the competition. More and more, marketers are learning that understanding consumer behavior and motivation is at the core of their success. We also have to recognize, however, that one of the trends in recent years is the speed of change, as well as the fickleness of leading-edge consumers who embrace what’s new one day and move on to another new the next. Trendspotting is a work in progress, in constant need of revision. There’s always red ink on my page.

What have been some of the notable trendspotting successes in your career?

I’m best known for my instincts about social media and, alas, for exposing the grooming-product-happy “metrosexual,” all in the name of selling Italy’s Peroni beer in the States. Before I knew what was happening, I became the leading expert on the metrosexual set after releasing a marketing study in 2003, then co-writing a book on the topic: The Future of Men. I also made waves (and met with a few naysayers) in the early 1990s when I trumpeted the rise of the “wigger.” It might not have been a pretty term—I wasn’t the one who came up with it—but it was attributed to the Caucasian group who became unabashedly influenced by African-American culture. I still think this is my best call on a fad that has been a prevailing trend. Oprah even invited me on her show for a chat about it.

Some of my other trend calling cards include identifying and calling attention to “Prosumers” (leading-edge consumers who actively use technology to research, shop and recommend), “singletons” (a term I coined before Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw), “predatory females” (women who demand sex on the first date despite protest from the males), the anthropomorphism of pets (whereby pets are treated as members of the family) and “globesity” (obesity in America and other nations). In 1999, I also predicted the rise of terrorism, which is one trend I wish I had not been right about. And in 2007, I proclaimed that “sleep is the new sex,” a concept that reverberated with tired people around the world, although I dreamed it up primarily as a way to market flatbeds for an airline client of mine.

For the record, I’m pretty keen on one-upping my metrosexual claim to fame. As it stands now, my tombstone might very well be inscribed with the word metrosexual, which gives me even more reason to find the next big thing.

What did you predict for 2011, and how did those fare?

I find it helpful to look at my past predictions, especially in terms of what I was saying five, 10 and 15 years ago. The trends I’ve spotted in the past guide my sense of what’s now that’s pointing to what’s next. Reviewing last year’s “Trends for 2011” report, I’m struck by all I saw coming, if I do say so myself. Here are a handful of my on-the-mark trends from 2011:

Mad as Hell—and Only Getting Madder. There are always many reasons for anger, but 2010 upped the ante. Today’s 24/7 news and blogosphere amplifies the hottest people and topics, adding fuel to the ire.

Gender Bender. Masters of all they survey no more, men will have to adjust to the treatment women have long endured: being shown as sex objects or unselfish homemakers.

Talk to the Hands. As the world reboots, people are reassessing the worth of themselves and their things. Feeling a loss of control and a desire for the simple life, they are yearning to be practical do-it-yourselfers.

Net Gain. Americans, losing trust in institutions, are gaining faith in technology and are looking more to digital and social media networks to meet their needs.

Public Mycasting System. Broadcast news is dead. Mycasting emerges. Individuals are now curating interactive content, expressing their worldview in images, shared links, tweets and more.