In Defense of the Uncool
In Defense of the Uncool
By Rebecca McQuigg Rigal
Despite having worked in the business of trend forecasting for nearly 15 years, I’ve grown increasingly reluctant to identify myself as a trend forecaster. When I do, it nearly always elicits the dreaded follow up question: “So, what’s cool and trendy right now?” (if not a completely confused look), but mostly because the immediate connotation that people tend to draw -- that trend forecasting is all about chasing what’s new, next, and cool -- couldn’t be farther from the truth. Or, at least the truth I’ve come to know, practice, and preach over time, which is that it’s a fool’s errand to constantly be on the hunt for what’s new and what’s next without any concern or consideration for what’s now. And that putting too much stake in tastemakers, trendsetters and influencers can be dangerous without having any interest in, or understanding of normal, baseline consumer behaviors and attitudes. What’s happening now can provide crucial context. What’s considered normal can deliver insight into what might come to pass. Keeping one’s finger on “the now and the normal” may not sound as cool and catchy as having a finger on “the pulse," but they are one and the same….and if you are out of touch with today’s pulse, good luck predicting the pulse of the future.
"It’s a fool’s errand to constantly be on the hunt for what’s new and what’s next without any concern or consideration for what’s now."
It’s an attractive proposition for those of us working in creative industries to think that we can (and should) thumb our noses at the mainstream population in order to place ourselves above what we deem to be the perpetuation of the status quo. Many times, it is more interesting to train your focus on that which is cool, progressive, novel… avant garde in the insatiable quest for inspiration and innovation. But, experience has taught me that knowledge of the ordinary is a necessary tool in realizing the extraordinary, and that undesirable outcomes often occur when companies, brands and organizations choose -- whether by design or indifference -- to ignore widespread cultural cues and disregard under-or-over represented segments of the population in favor of what seems “cool”, progressive or innovative.
"knowledge of the ordinary is a necessary tool in realizing the extraordinary."
We’ve seen the implications of what can happen when this happens with increased frequency: from the outcome of the 2016 presidential election to the regularity in which highly valued unicorns catering to the novel preferences of very specific subsets of the population crash and burn, to PR-disasters around inauthentic influencer-driven initiatives gone awry, to the kind of global outrage that can befall tone-deaf brands when they attempt to co-opt social/cultural phenomena for marketing campaigns, without having any clear understanding of underlying context. Brands that want to truly innovate, evolve and scale need to pay attention to normal, otherwise, if they may be able to soak up some of that cold hard cool for a hot minute, but risk being a flash in the pan...or worse yet, the cause of a sensation that unites the internet for being so horribly out-of-touch that the inexcusable blunder lives on in social media perpetuity.
Much of what I’ve learned I’ve literally learned on the streets. My entry into the industry predates Instagram by several years and the trend services we offered required boots on the ground in progressive cities across America. It's all I wanted to do at first -- scout for trends and trendsetters... but I eventually learned that just because someone looked cool, didn't mean that they were... and just because someone was cool didn't mean they had much to say... and just because something was cool didn't mean that it translated into a key insight. Trends often exist in vacuums and silos, and further context is needed to connect the dots and understand what’s important, relevant and useful. Context was often found in conversations with ordinary people -- in the things respondents would say during focus groups about cars, make-up and home stereo systems or quantitative data from surveys filled out by hundreds, if not thousands of consumers -- and derived from observations made in the course of everyday life.
"It isn’t about what’s cool. It’s about what’s real."
I recently read a couple articles that further underscore the point. The first from Harvard Business Review talks about how Gatorade regained a top spot in the performance beverage category, after several years of lagging sales, not by chasing trends, but by taking a closer look at the behavior of core consumers and innovating around the promise of their existing product. The second article from Adweek details the increasingly murky landscape of influencer marketing, and some of the deceptive practices that have sprung up to take advantage of the crazy money being spent by agencies and brands on Instagram influencers. This piece highlights how easy it is to game the system with bogus accounts powered by fake followers and engagement. A cautionary tale to be sure, but only one example of the many pitfalls associated with putting too much stake in influencers and tastemakers simply because they are deemed popular or “cool.”
Turns out they might not even be real.
I get that it’s much sexier, more interesting and often crucial for our careers to spend ample time around the cool kids at places like SXSW and Neuehouse, stalking the feeds of Insta-celebs, reading trendy blogs and articles about unicorn founders, new start-ups, and tidbits of advice from those featured on Forbes lists. It’s comfortable to dwell in our tribes and in the progressive echo chambers that exist on social media… This is where we source ideas and inspiration and search for what’s cool… but we must not to get so caught up in what’s next that we lose sight of what’s now. Let’s look for value in the normal. It’s there. It’s real, even if a little uncool.