Want to Build a Hipper Brand? Take a Trip to Trend School

Intelligence Group Endeavor Gives Marketers a Crash Course in Cool

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Real school was never this cool.
Maurica at Trend School: She earned a round of applause for her passionate reading of an original poem.
Maurica at Trend School: She earned a round of applause for her passionate reading of an original poem.

Aaron aired an art film and talked up his favorite Jordan sneakers and Nike ACG jacket. Jennie unwrapped a self-styled hand-knit Bart Simpson blanket and needlepoint artwork, just before Alex showed off photographs he took in Cambodia, including one set for exhibition in a Swiss art gallery. Six years of classical piano and two years of electronics lessons brought A.J. here with a recently composed digital-music sample. James revealed his blogs, the newest featuring his cellphone number and an invitation to text him a story. Mauricia earned a round of applause for her passionate reading of an original poem.

The cooler-than-you-ever-were panel of 16- to 25-year-olds capped off the day for attendees at Trend School, a monthly one-day forum created by Creative Artists Agency's Intelligence Group at New York's Soho House. (A companion version runs monthly in Los Angeles.)

Playing with the Wii
The uber-cool kids talked to 30 or so marketer and agency execs who paid $2,500 to spend the day immersed in all things youthful. Researchers and guest experts presented findings on web and technology trends, video-gaming vibes (including a chance to play with the hot new Nintendo Wii console), viral-marketing hits, and the best emerging bands and music trends (and some new vocabulary words).

"The idea is to take yourself out of the daily grind, get out from behind the spreadsheets and only thinking about your world and your challenges. Let us give you an immersion into what's happening in their world," said Intelligence Group founder and President Jane Buckingham.

The focus skews so young because, Ms. Buckingham said, "When you talk about trends and who sets trends, it's very much that 14- to 29-year-old key demographic."

One company matriculating at Trend School is Carlson Marketing, Minneapolis, which regularly sends employees to the forums. Jeff Anulewicz, a strategist at the agency on his second visit said, "That first time there were a lot of 'aha' kind of moments, but the second time it was a lot less eye-opening and more confirmation of 'OK, we're tracking that.' It's almost a temperature check for us."

Homework assignments
And he's got homework. Back at the office, he and the other school attendees will be working on a mini-presentation for the rest of the staff. For many of the marketing execs at Trend School, it's not about picking up hot trends to push at clients but figuring out how to use the information appropriately.

"It's still about using our expertise to make sure what we're doing is the right fit for our client and the brand and the audience," Mr. Anulewicz said. "This is something we use to continue to educate ourselves and get an edge for our clients."

In other words, cool without context won't get marketers far or keep them coming back. So the aim of Trend School is to go a step further and match insights with marketing practices; for instance, technology trends such as widgets that use RSS to deliver information are a big turn-on for tech-savvy 20-somethings. So Melissa Lavigne, director-marketing and business development, suggested companies consider creating their own branded widgets to digitally distribute to consumers for their desktops or blogs.

Camel gets it
But it's not all about digital. Jennie pointed to Camel as a brand that gets it. Even though she doesn't smoke, she raved about ads using a famous Brooklyn tattoo artist to ink the ads and pack design. A.J.'s favorite item? The Upper Playground hoodie he was wearing, complete with arty imprints of famous comedians' faces in black and white.

Intelligence Group consultants and researchers call each of the attendees in the week after Trend School to individually discuss lessons learned and possible tips for their businesses. Past and repeat attendees include large and small marketers, agencies and media companies such as Conde Nast, HBO, Guess, People magazine, L'Oreal and Levi's.

"In the last five years, the bar has been raised in so many ways," Ms. Buckingham said. "We've made a generation of consumers who now basically say, 'What's in it for me?"'

Field trips in the works
Trend School started last June with Intelligence Group clients who were invited to come for free. The one-day sessions were so popular it decided to open up to everyone and started charging a fee. The sessions remain small, with a 30- to 40-person limit, and consistently sell out. Beginning this spring, Trend School will add a second day to the agenda: a "Trend Safari" that will pair companies with researchers and young consumers to hit the streets on field trips to cool boutiques and restaurants. Intelligence Group also plans to add more cities to the roster, including Minneapolis, Chicago and San Francisco.

The need for this kind of information was evident in an all-in-one-room immersion in New York where "students" questioned both researchers and the panel of kids about issues such as brand credibility, the best magazines to be associated with and viral-marketing strategies.

The teachers tended to invoke studies and consumer-reaction results, but the kids were a bit more frank. Many of them nodded when Aaron said, in talking about marketers understanding them, "I think brands are always late. Well, at least 99% of them."

That said, even the young find the speed of trends a bit confounding. "It's just crazy how fast trends come and go," Alex said.
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