COOL HUNTING GOES CORPORATE

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If you want to know what's hot, ask Paris Hilton. But if you want to know what consumers crave, ask the trend spotters.

Only please don't call them trend spotters. These days, the most astute practitioners prefer trend analysts, or trend translators or even the prosaic market researchers. Trend translating has grown up from last decade's "cool hunting" to serious business as marketers such as Levi's, Target, British Airways and Bacardi look not simply to uncover trends, but to build a consumer connection through them.

"We're experiencing an intense interest in high-quality trend material, basically helping marketers and execs to shift through the terabytes of interesting info," said Reinier Evers, founder of Trendwatching.com

Faith Popcorn, after 31 years of trend analysis, saw her business double in the past year. Jane Buckingham of the Intelligence Group also saw client subscriptions to her "Cassandra Report" nearly double this year. Michael Tchong's new Ubercool venture drew almost 500 to its first "trend party" in June.

Marketers spent $18.9 billion on market research worldwide in 2004, with the U.S. accounting for $7.3 billion, or about 40% of that, said Larry Gold, editor of newsletter Inside Research. While it is difficult to break out trend forecasting or account planning specifically, he estimates that 16% of the U.S. money spent is on qualitative market research, which is where those specialties fall.

The rise of market research should also be evident this week at the Association of American Advertising Agencies' annual account planning conference which will be attended by more than 700 people, an almost 20% increase over last year's 592. The planning conference is now the 4A's second largest, just three years after it absorbed the Account Planning Group U.S. and began running it.

Today, the leading forecasters-such as Ms. Popcorn, Irma Zandl, DeeDee Gordon and Sharon Lee, Mary Meehan, Mr. Tchong and Ms. Buckingham-are quick to point out that finding "cool" or hip ideas and products is only one small part of a much more serious business objective.

It was 1997 when Malcolm Gladwell's The New Yorker article "The Cool Hunt" first pulled back the curtain on trend-spotting. The article, highlighting the success of urban trend spotters Baysie Wightman and DeeDee Gordon working in the field among cool teens, generated an unbelievable amount of interest in the industry.

NO MAGIC BULLET

The article helped create a misperception for marketers: the idea that a magic consumer-insight bullet awaited if they hired the right cool hunter. "Twenty years ago I worked at Chiat/Day and we'd have these presentations [from trend spotters], and I have to say, it felt like they just pulled this stuff out of the air. ... Today it is still an art, but it's backed up with science," said Catrina McAuliffe, co-chair of the 4A's account-planning committee and director-brand planning at Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis.

Trend translators, however, do acknowledge cool hunting has its place, and the forecasters all employ their own networks of "hot" watchers. Others check in with independent purveyors of cool, such as Josh Rubin at CoolHunting.com, Josh Spear at JoshSpear.com, and Piers Fawkes and Simon King at PSFK.com.

But that kind of information becomes the starting point for broader research and wider forecasting in the evolved industry. The bottom line is that today most consumer companies will struggle to succeed without customer insights.

"Our clients used to be mainly fashion, entertainment. ... But now we have clients in all categories. It's been a huge shift where people realize they need this," said Ms. Gordon, who now has her own firm co-founded with Sharon Lee.

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