The early-adopter wars

Stodgy companies are paying big bucks to learn about the trendsetting tastes of "alpha consumers." But will sales of meat tenderizer dance to a techno beat?

Published March 22, 2001 8:16PM (EST)

Have you ever walked into a party and suddenly realized that your hair was all wrong? Or found yourself secretly wondering which was cooler, cigar lounges or oxygen bars? Witches or bike messengers? Woodstock or Zenfest? Maybe, in darker moments, you've even asked yourself some tough questions: Am I the only one who doesn't get it? Will I ever get it? Will I ever fit in?

You're not alone. Fortune 500 companies have been asking themselves the same questions. Stumped by the vagaries of youth culture, afraid of being caught flat-footed by the next big trend, managers of mainstream brands have become fixated on "early adopters." The alpha consumers. The top of the pyramid. The edge of the wedge. The scenesters and snowboarders and thugged-out matrix skaters whose consumption patterns set the trends for the rest of America.

In their zeal to understand this elite crew, executives at conservative companies now spend a great deal of time communing with consumers who bear no relation to the actual users of their product. Connie Jones, senior culinary researcher for McCormick spices, recently attended a workshop called "Trend Tracking in Trendy South Beach." Joined by executives from Amway and Hallmark, Jones visited "a lot of edgy places," she says. "Scooter stores, that kind of thing. We went to a restaurant called 'Bed.' All the food was served on a bed! But we didn't make judgments. We just recorded the data."

Jones says she can't wait to add a sprinkle of Miami cool to her McCormick product line, which is perhaps best known for its onion powder and meat tenderizer. "We do a lot of rubs and condiments," she says. "Maybe we should introduce some more complex flavors. In other words, not just a straight sweet-sour thing. Maybe it should be sweet and sour, and then go into savory." Breaking bread at Bed, Jones realized her company could be doing much more to entice trendsetters. "Suddenly, you get into succulence," she muses. "You get into bounty ... You get into flavors that are comfortable, but not terribly comfortable ... Trendsetters are very intelligent. They require constant stimulation."

But who are these trendsetters? Even as they study them, dote upon them, observe them in their native habitats, executives such as Jones seem hard-pressed to describe exactly who they are. "It's hard to put it exactly into words," she says. "They are just a lot of people who are very open to new things, very at home in their bodies."

This was a pleasantly puzzling tidbit. But I wanted to know more. So I called Maria Vrachnos at the L Report, an online guide to the culture and psyche of trendsetters. Four times a year, publishes the results of its surveys of 2,400 trendsetters in six cities -- New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Seattle -- along with a corresponding set of preferences for mainstream kids. In 1997, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called the L Report "a kind of grand matrix of cool ... Few coolhunters bother to analyze trends with this degree of specificity." The fine print comes at a price. Content Web sites may worry that a $30 fee will scare off readers, but has its hand in a much fatter wallet. A subscription to the site costs $20,000 a year. Amazingly, there are takers. Clients include Levi's, Motorola, Warner Brothers and Taco Bell.

Asked what makes a trendsetter, Vrachnos was understandably coy. "We don't want to say too much about our philosophy and methodology," she says. "That's just giving insight to our competitors." Vrachnos did allow, however, that "musical taste has a lot to do with it."

In its media kit, the L Report sheds a bit more light on the subject, describing trendsetters as "innovative young consumers," 18-30, who "define and influence their surroundings, rather than the other way around." As trendsetters evolve in their attitudes, "others take note and begin to emulate them. In this way, small trends gain momentum and are eventually embraced by the mainstream consumers."

To give me a preview of these proto-trends, Vrachnos generously made available to me for a single night's viewing. It is a fascinating document, a diligent piling-on of floating signifiers and Helmut Langian cul-de-sacs. Picture a kind of über-Dewar's Profile, reconceived by Bret Easton Ellis and costing roughly the same as a high-end Rolex.

The universe of the L Report is a Manichaean one, starkly divided between near-superhuman cognoscenti and K-Mart-shopping, mouth-breathing plebeians. Not since Highlights magazine's "Goofus and Gallant" have readers been presented with such a clear choice.

Some examples:

Asked what has impressed them lately, trendsetters cited artist Damien Hirst's new show, the micro-film fest and "gold Adidas with black stripes."

The mainstream teens said, "The food at my school getting better."

Asked what they're "bragging about" these days, mainstream teens replied: "My mom ... my grades ... my achievements." Trendsetters say "buying Nikes before they're out." Asked whom they admired most, mainstreamers cited their parents, Christina Aguilera, or "God." Trendsetters named Stella McCartney.

If mainstream teens were to be granted one wish, according to the L Report, it would be for world peace, health, happiness and "flawless skin." Trendsetters wished for less gentrification, "that I could have been born in Tibet" and that "my friends would stop taking Ecstasy."

Asked what they were telling their friends about, trendsetters cited "the wack Scarface show," "the Dirty Three CD" or "the drug-induced state I was in last weekend." Mainstreamers said they were telling their friends that "cream blush is better than powder."

Reading, discriminating marketers will learn that trendsetters are reading i-D, Wallpaper and a rave magazine called Urb, and that they garb themselves in Katayone Adeli, Imitation of Christ and Martin Margiela. Mainstream teens, by way of contrast, prefer to curl up with Sports Illustrated and Teen People, while wearing clothing from the Gap, Old Navy and, heartbreakingly, a store called "Mr. Rags."

Not surprisingly, when asked to name their favorite shampoo, trendsetters proved themselves equally selective. While mainstream teens are content to lather up with Pert, Suave and Head and Shoulders, trendsetters opt instead for Phytologie, René Furturer and, bien s{r, "free ones from fashion shows."

Asked to reveal how they pamper themselves, trendsetters spoke of champagne pedicures, Evian face spray and "facials at Bliss." Mainstream teens voiced a sturdy preference for "masturbation."

When not receiving facials or having their toes dipped in Bollinger Grande Cuvée, trendsetting teens claim to be experimenting with digital filmmaking, vintage computers and "geometric prints from the '60s and '70s." Mainstream teens say they're having sex, "rolling up my jeans" and "going to college." Asked about the "newest thing your friends are doing," the mainstreamers, in a sudden burst of Eisenhower-era conformity retrograde even by their standards, cited "getting married," "working on cars" and "going to nudie bars." Trendier types mentioned "freestyling" and "drunk bowling."

Eschewing Pringles, Oreos and Coke, trendsetters are snacking on tofutti, salt-and-vinegar chips and Italian ice, which they wash down with green tea and fresh peach juice. While their mainstream peers work up a sweat playing soccer, doing sit-ups and "cheerleading," trendsetters prefer Tae Bo, tai chi and Pilates. When they're feeling whimsical, they like to collect antique accordions, Weinburg sculptures and "broken toys." Mainstream teens, by contrast, must content themselves with "bottle caps" and "baseball cards."

Asked about their personal style, trendsetters described themselves as "indie hipster," "urban low-maintenance," "Vogue meets MTV meets '70s porn star." The mainstream teens kept it simple, describing themselves simply as "cool" (if they only knew!). Asked to name their favorite body part, trendsetters cited their penis, stomach and neck. Mainstreamers, meanwhile, had a soft spot for their arms, chests and -- proving that the two groups could agree on at least one thing -- penis. Asked to name their favorite cuisine, trendsetters named soul food, Indian food and Japanese. Mainstream teens, possibly misunderstanding the question, named Lean Cuisine.

There's more. Asked for their "turn-offs," trendsetters cited Limp Bizkit, the South Pole and "the Gap empire." Mainstreamers named Grape-Nuts and Pepto-Bismol.

Asked what they were sick of, trendsetters cited "bling-bling," "corporate-sponsored raves" and, languidly, "telling my life story." Mainstream teens said they were sick of school.

Asked what they wouldn't be caught dead in, trendsetters named leopard-print, raver wear and Abercrombie & Fitch. Mainstream teens were less opprobrious, vowing merely not to be caught dead in "a dress."

The problem with all this is fairly obvious. There's no doubt that trendsetters (if any still exist after the bursting of the new-economy bubble) are swell people: They create cool art, sell ingenious drugs and open boutiques on Elizabeth Street that specialize in things like inflatable burlap dresses. What's less clear is why mainstream conglomerates like Taco Bell and Motorola should use their recondite preferences as a basis for brand positioning. Just ask Pepsi, which suffered a major embarrassment following the introduction of Josta, a soft drink laced with the herb guarana that was yanked from the market when it turned out that mainstream consumers detested it. Or Aramis, which last year introduced Surface, a line of makeup for men. Emboldened by spa-hopping early adopters, the company convinced itself that the middle-American male consumer was ready for concealer, bronzer and other forms of manly maquillage. Early sales, however, have been less than flush.

These alpha-consumer missteps have shaken the faith of even the most diligent trend-watchers. "We had a near-miss with techno music," says Dan Hilbert, brand manager for Rolling Rock beer. "Boy, that sure didn't happen the way it was supposed to." A faithful reader of the L Report and the Cassandra Report, its chief competitor, Hilbert came to believe that "the techno thing would just freaking explode."

Drawing up plans for a Rolling Rock town fair in Latrobe, Pa., Hilbert contemplated adding a second stage of just techno. In retrospect, he says, "it's good we didn't do it. It would have been Bizarro world. People wouldn't (have) gotten it."

The problem with trend trickledown, Hilbert says, is that "trendsetters are very micro-trend. The young-adult influencers, they're into some weird stuff. The way they think is not necessarily an indication of where a company should go."

As it turned out, the Latrobe town fair was a great success. "Beverages were $3 each," Hilbert says. "Tickets were affordable. We had the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Moby, Stone Temple Pilots. People were dancing. Everyone had a good time."

Then, presumably, they went home to masturbate.

By Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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