The Search for Cool is Hot Work | The Guardian


“It’s not just about what trousers the kids are wearing,” says William. “It’s about what this says about their attitudes, and where they are going. If they are wearing combat trousers, what does that say about their state of mind and about what they’re likely to be doing next year?”

Seeking out the trends as they happen is the latest news in market research. Nic Fleming looks at where the trail can end with trend forecaster with trend forecaster William Higham.

A tall man in a green army jacket strides across the busy shop floor and triumphantly pulls a pair of pink and white women’s knickers from a rail. “See,” he exclaims loudly. “Great aren’t they? They’re everywhere. It’s about playing, a return to innocence.”

It is not the undergarment itself which has excited William Higham, but the multiple cutesy images of Miffy the rabbit, a character from a 1950s children’s book series, which are emblazoned across it.

Unsurprisingly he is attracting sideways glances from the otherwise entirely female clientele of the women’s underwear department. A female shop assistant gives him a stern stare.

Funny looks are, however, all in a day’s work for Mr Higham. He hunts for what is cool, and in his quest to keep a finger firmly on the pulse he spends as much time loitering at gigs, film previews, clubs, private views, record shops and cafes as he does in the office. Then there are the clothes shops, which explains his presence among the knickers and bras in Topshop on London’s Oxford Street.

“Rabbits,” he muses thoughtfully as he replaces the knickers. “The Flaming Lips had people dressed as them on stage at Glastonbury, Eminem’s character in 8 Mile was called Rabbit, Leo’s gang in Gangs Of New York are called The Dead Rabbits, the films Rabbit Proof Fence and Donnie Darko came out in the same month. The question is, why?”

Cool hunting is the hip branch of market research. In recent years consumers, especially the young, have become increasingly fragmented and streetwise. Companies realise they can only get a limited understanding of their markets through traditional research techniques.

Mr Higham says: “Five years ago if you asked a kid to be in a focus group, he would say ‘What’s that?’ Now he says ‘Okay, how much are you paying me?’

“It’s not just about what trousers the kids are wearing. It’s about what this says about their attitudes, and where they are going. If they are wearing combat trousers and going to church more for example, what does that say about their state of mind and about what they’re going to be doing next year?”

Just as teenagers will not admit to spending half an hour getting their hair into that trendy, pseudo-messy look, companies do not necessarily want you to know they’re spending big bucks trying to be cool.

A non-disclosure agreement prevents Mr Higham, 35, from revealing which “large European electronics company” he is currently providing regular youth behaviour reports for. He has worked for the VH1 channel, Universal Music, Film Four and media agency Mindshare. He started his youth trend prediction company Next Big Thing last year after a decade of marketing and public relations for the likes of Sony, Virgin and Polydor Records. There are no formal qualifications but an understanding of basic psychology and sociology, an outgoing personality and good contacts are important. He estimates he earns around £40,000 a year.

Leaning against a lamp post, Mr Higham watches a snappily dressed teenage girl leaving a department store in a t-shirt which proclaims I’ve Got A Friend Called Jesus. Intrigued, he goes over for a chat. He returns talking about the revival of organised religion. He is also smiling because one of her friends asks where he got his (Adidas Samba) trainers.

This is known in the trade as “deep hanging out”. He spends several hours each week just observing what the kids are doing, and how they are doing it. He says: “In a record shop for example, I’m looking at what young people are wearing. I’m particularly interested in any wording on t-shirts or badges. Do they go to the sales section? Are they spending a lot or just browsing? Which section is busiest, rock or dance?”

What is cool for the leaders of particular social groups or sub-cultures often becomes trendy for other more mainstream groups later on. Sociologists call this diffusion. The recent 1970s disco revival began in underground clubs, moved into high fashion and then went mainstream.

He picks up early clues to what trendsetters are doing in a broad range of areas and combines this with his knowledge of psychology and sociology to predict future mainstream youth behaviour patterns.

For example, he recently noticed plenty of lace, leather and cloaks in fashion shoots, and several cool new bands referencing Joy Division and The Cure. Clients were warned to expect a Goth revival, with a renewed interest among many customers in romanticism, fantasy and spirituality.

Jo Peters is perusing a pile of laminated sheets containing Polaroid snaps and hand written teenage scribblings. Lucy from Billericay, who is “12 going on 13”, reveals an interest in witchcraft. Her montage includes pictures of her herb garden, the devil and a polar bear’s backside.

Dozens of similar sheets are spread out across a desk in a trendy American diner-style booth in a hip open plan office near Trafalgar Square. Ms Peters provided 20 British 11-to-19-year-olds with disposable cameras and asked them to write about their lives for the second Snapshots of Youth report. She trawled their efforts for valuable insights. More than 200 young people in 10 countries are due to join the scheme.

She has the grand but tiring-sounding title of Worldwide Scout for Mindshare. Her task is to keep clients including Nike, Playstation and Gillette informed about the best ways to communicate with their youthful audiences.

Peters says: “Snapshots began with 17- to 19-year-olds a couple of years ago. It’s great because it allowed us to see the world through their eyes. The aim is to find out how teenagers are consuming information from different communications means. This is all the more important because media has become more fragmented. Now we’ve extended the age group to 11-19.”

Peters abandoned an English and Sociology degree to take a job in ad sales for Time Out before becoming an advertising manager at ID magazine. There she built up a range of valuable contacts which helped her land a job in trend forecasting and research at the A Vision communications agency. She has been with Mindshare for three years. Like William Higham she stresses prospective cool hunters should enjoy socialising and be good at networking. Related careers include music industry A&R scout and fashion trend forecaster.

Peters has a network of experts around the world with whom she talks regularly to keep her finger on the pulse, from the latest music in Japan to political goings-on in Italy. Next year she is hoping to visit a squatter group in Bologna running multimedia club nights after one of her Italian contacts tipped her off about it.

A short while later Peters is sat in front of a giant Apple Mac screen, computer mouse in hand, in the company’s lime green editing suite. A few days earlier she filmed a succession of teenage boys who look like they have spent far too long in darkened rooms giving their opinions on this year’s Playstation gaming event. Now she is editing the footage for a 15-minute video voxpop to go to the company’s marketing managers.

“If you don’t understand the consumers there is no point trying to talk to them,” she says. “This helps us understand the target market, think differently and come up with ideas. We are always looking at innovative ways to communicate with these groups, whether its through websites, network gaming, or LED displays on buses. Kids in particular are more mobile and use technology in a different way. We are here to keep our clients informed and in touch with their markets.”

Leaving Oxford Street for the boutiques and record shops of Soho, William Higham has a Eureka moment. “That’s it!” he exclaims, starring at a bus stop advert featuring five toy rabbits. “A few years ago the fun and independent monkey was everywhere – Planet of the Apes, Gorillaz, the Bathing Ape fashion label and Ape culture magazine. Now young people are stressed out and insecure. They want to rediscover a sense of community. Who better for them to identify with than the rabbits of Watership Down?”

View original article in The Guardian by Nic Fleming: