Spotting a 'Microtrend'? Easier Than You Think

Mark Penn's 75 Profiles Dish on Niche Behavior but Fall Short on Insight into Tomorrow's Consumer

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Few book jackets manage to snag quotes from former heads of state. Mark Penn got two: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, not to mention an effulgent blurb from the world's richest man.

The puffery is not surprising. As CEO of PR firm Burson-Marsteller, legendary political pollster Penn got a now-infamous "thanks" from Clinton following his impeachment acquittal, and is credited with getting Tony Blair elected to his third term. And though he's taken a sort of sabbatical from Burson -- to work as chief strategist on Hillary Clinton's presidential bid -- he's still working closely, according to press reports, with one client: Bill Gates.

Despite Clinton's praise that "Microtrends" will "help you see the world in a new way," an extensive read begs the contrary. The book's format -- 75 encyclopedic summaries of a niche social or consumer group in America, e.g., Impressionable Elites, Pampering Parents; the list goes on -- offers few morsels we haven't read before. In his reflections on millennial coffee culture and youth, Penn explains that "today's students, especially, feel themselves to be under more pressure to excel than students of prior generations -- and with late nights out, 24-hour convenience stores and little adult supervision, more and more of them are going Caffeine Crazy." You don't say!

Penn's insights are not untapped profundities, but rather banal nuggets from a trend report you might find below the fold of a USA Today weekend edition. Jumping from chapter to chapter, each prefaced with cutesy alliterative titles such as "Wordy Women" and "Commuter Couples," I was left thinking "Haven't I read this somewhere?" And yes, if you scan the 38 pages of source notes, it's likely you have.

Unlike Malcolm Gladwell's tipping-point phenomenon, Penn is not positing a radically new view of the world; rather, he's rehashing what The New York Times and Newsweek and Time have taken upon themselves to flesh out. If you don't read the news, maybe this is the book for you. If you're looking for a cheat sheet on the millions of gallons of ink spilt in the popular press on social trends over the last decade, "Microtrends" is for you.

It's a solidly researched book, but I would have much preferred Penn cut the number of niches in half and more thoroughly made the connection within each of what I assumed his main thesis to be, as outlined in the introduction: "In today's mass societies, it takes only 1 percent of people making a dedicated choice -- contrary to the mainstream's choice -- to create a movement that can change the world." Alas, there is no narrative thread woven throughout the 75 sections.

Penn should have let the book stand for what it is: A reliable book of stats. A stand-in for the filing cabinet your assistant has yet to fill with clippings passed down from the office of the communications director.

The book's untraceable discourse makes me wonder just how much involvement Penn had in the compilation of the material. Unlike the lone author or journalist, when you're the CEO of a big PR firm, you've got dozens of minions to tap to do the legwork, not to mention a co-author and a polling firm. It makes me wonder if the ever-busy Penn -- he reportedly works from 7:30 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily on the Clinton campaign -- decided to assume the full duties of writing a book, if he slowed down long enough to engage his topic fully the way he effectively does in the introduction and conclusion of "Microtrends," what might result. Maybe that book would be the next "Tipping Point." But "Microtrends" isn't. --Mya Frazier


In "Microtrends," Clinton family insider Mark J. Penn, he of the "soccer moms" moniker from the '90s, sets out to shatter the world of mass media by contending America is now driven by tiny slivers of real people with singular, can't-miss-this behaviors. He's gone looking under rocks and below the radar for segments of the population that are shaping our society through a bevy of means.

CEO of Burson-Marsteller, and president of Penn, Schoen & Berland, Mr. Penn has a vision of a country that is filled with a cacophony of small groups on a mission.

Think pixels, not broad strokes.

A sample of the 75 "forces" paving the future of consumerism might elicit a grimace -- Mr. Penn sees us a little fatter, more likely to own a second home and...well, you Pet Parents know who you are. While a few of the marks are easy targets (see "Video Game Grown-ups"), Penn manages to unearth a few unforeseen gems. The New Luddites, more cynical and lonelier than their counterparts with a Facebook following, are much more numerous than imagined, and are striking back at technology "with their pens, legal pads, index cards and scraps of paper in pockets containing all their to-do lists." (It's instructive to note that Mr. Penn then suggests ad opportunities for makers of quiet cars, book publishers -- pretty much any market with a low-tech angle.)

Consider the Vegan Child of carnivore parents, or more interestingly, the Aspiring Sniper. (Hint: Don't think Columbine, think video-gamers-cum-patriots.) Research cited claims many of the young males who grew up with World of Warcraft and other first-person shoot-em-ups are, in this post 9/11 world, dead-set on making America safer for the rest of us, one bullet at a time. Mr. Penn argues openness is out, stealth is in -- on the Internet, in politics or the military.

"Microtrends" winds down with a paean to personal choice and the formation of various coalitions built around issues and lifestyles. As with Ad Age's nod to the The Consumer as its Agency of the Year in 2007, Mr. Penn argues every brand communication that can be personalized to the unit level has a better chance at becoming the norm, when the right product will be marketed to the right niche. --Mike Ryan
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