She was called the “Nostradamus of Marketing” by Fortune magazine. She is a trend-spotter extraordinaire and trend-bender who influenced the thinking of many large corporations. In her bestselling book “The Popcorn Report” – published in 1991 – Faith Popcorn revealed predictions of services, products, technologies and social behaviours she and her think-tank believed would dominate our lives in the 21st century. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, let’s look at how Ms. Popcorn’s futurist prophesies turned out. There are some good lessons for wealth-seekers and hype-avoiders alike.
Faith Popcorn started her company, BrainReserve, in the 1970s, as a “TalentBank” composed of the brightest people she knew. It was dedicated to brainstorming solutions to social and marketing problems. She brought together people who wouldn’t ordinarily exchange ideas, or who would actually sometimes be in competition. Her vision was that the consumer future would pan out from a convergence of psychological, social, demographic and economic influences. By bringing experts together, she found that each could contribute their piece of the puzzle to create an intriguing mosaic which showed a map to the future.
Popcorn’s BrainReserve was created on the premise of hiring inner-circle people she knew well – her sister, her best friend, her sister’s friends. The collective thrived despite ignoring the seventies mantras of “don’t share information”, “have important-sounding job-titles” and “hire some MBA’s.” Faith Popcorn was swimming in a different stream already in her time, just by following her gut and using wisdom she learned from her parents and grandparents.
The core of “The Popcorn Report” centered around ten main predictions which the BrainReserve constructed as part of their search for answers to the dilemmas of the nineties. Here we will take a look at whether these predictions came true, and whether they still hold lessons for us in a post-9/11, post-recession, somewhat traumatized but always hopeful, world.
Trend 1 – Cocooning In A New Decade
The tendency to hole up, to hide under the covers, to retreat to the basement entertainment sanctuary, was already in full swing in 1991. It was the drive to go inside when it was just too tough and frightening to go outside. Faith Popcorn predicted that in the new century there would be an Armoured Cocoon, a Wandering Cocoon and a Socialized Cocoon.
In some parts of the world, the Armoured Cocoon is a sad reality today, with gun ownership and the gun lobby still strong in certain states in the US. People who have been victims of crime have an understandable tendency to try to protect the home. Women are increasingly being reeled in by the gun lobby. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson wrote:
“To target urban and suburban women, gunmakers have adopted a two-pronged marketing strategy. One: Feminizing the weapons by dressing them up in hot pink. Two: Marketing powerful guns to women as the only surefire protection against sexual and violent predators.”
The Wandering Cocoon engendered some more esoteric ideas such as “a personal plane in every driveway” which was apparently under development since 1956. Some ideas which did come to fruition are more luxuries in the car to make the drive-time a “sanctuary” for commuters, as well as more personalized services for airline passengers. But in my opinion only a few airlines really tapped into this trend and left some opportunities on the table.
The Socialized Cocoon turned out a bit differently than Faith Popcorn envisioned. She didn’t predict the rise of ubiquitous social media, which enables marketers to reach into our cocoon any time of day, anywhere we find ourselves. Sadly the Socialized Cocoon of the twenty-tens is sometimes anti-social or a-social because we have replaced face-to-face human contact with images on a small screen and a few lines of text, or an impersonal video or voice exchange.
Trend 2 – Fantasy Adventure
“Send me out into another life. But get me back home for supper.”
Escapist travel, which Popcorn predicted, came to be in the form of Disney cruises and destination travel.
Adventures in Food also became a trend from which many purveyors of cuisine have profited.
Then the entire reality TV show trend is something she could not foresee, but it is part of the need that she identified for vicarious fantasy adventure – stepping into another world briefly while still staying ‘safe’.
What Faith Popcorn didn’t predict was the huge impact of online shopping, e-books and NetFlix on armchair adventures which now offer an instant escape into fantasy, without leaving the Cocoon.
Hollywood certainly still cashes in on the human psyche’s need for relatively affordable escapist adventure, as we can clearly see in the huge box office gains in the last two decades.
Trend 3 – Small Indulgences
“And damned if we don’t deserve them”
Marketers have always been aware of the universal and timeless human impulse to gain temporary relief from strain by splashing out on something small and affordable. Ms. Popcorn’s prediction was that we would become more militant in our sense of self-entitlement. But the key is Small.
Already in the nineties, there was a trend where consumers started to scale down their expectations of luxury, for example to buy a little red chair instead of a little red car, or a good quality Timex instead of a Rolex. People go on shorter mini-cruises instead of extended European holidays. We certainly are overextended now, even more so after the 2008 economic disaster. That brought a new realism and a wave of need for pampering ourselves just a little every once in a while, but the key now is quality. Although Faith Popcorn could not have predicted the Great Recession, she is spot-on with where our head space is now in terms of small indulgences.
Trend 4 – Egonomics
“It’s the I in what they buy”
Ms. Popcorn writes that “the songs we sing can give us away”. Songs like “I Did it My Way” or “I Gotta Be Me” were belted out in the 70s and 80s and must have had an influence on the “Me Decade.” She was again shrewdly correct in her prediction that consumers would flock to products made for “me”. Steve Jobs and Apple brilliantly took this to heart and their success with the iPod, iPhone and iPad was clearly riding the wave of our need to express our self-centredness.
Ms. Popcorn also predicted high customization in everything from shoes to sofas to cars. Here again, to some extent, car manufacturers did tap into the trend, but marketers could have made more of it. “Why not custom seats for people with bad backs? Custom controls for those with shorter legs or imperfect vision? Why are there still so few products for left-handed people?”
Trend 5 – Cashing Out
This has been a universal theme since the 1960’s (“I want to get out of the Rat Race”) but Ms. Popcorn predicted that it would gain huge momentum. There are indeed many who have cashed out to the Cocoon, by starting home businesses or working from home.
There is a highly successful website called FlexJobs.com which lets companies advertise legitimate telecommuting and work at home jobs – companies such as IBM and Salesforce.com are using the service. FlexJobs even offers free work-at-home webinars.
Trend 6 – Down-Aging
As the Baby Boomers age, we see a refusal to give in to traditional limitations of age. People are working longer – in part because they are financially forced to keep working. At the same time, consumers are drawn to products and services that strike a chord with the kid within – the big goofy kid who doesn’t have depressing adult responsibilities in a scary busted-up economy.
Trend 7 – Staying Alive
“Do the right thing and you never have to die”
Health Care/Obamacare is a hot topic in North America as the population gradually starts skewing towards an older average age. Healthy living is a gigantic industry. The Popcorn Report predicted that a lot of food would be lab-grown in this decade, which didn’t quite turn out, but the trend towards a Health Culture can certainly be seen.
Trend 8 – The Vigilante Consumer
“We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to buy it anymore”
Ms. Popcorn predicted that the Protest Generation would grow up and morph into the next generation of protesters – Vigilante Consumers. She was pretty accurate on this one, since new avenues for feedback have opened up with consumer blogging and social media.
Companies such as Wal-Mart have taken this trend to heart. Wal-Mart has introduced an online tool which lets consumers compare prices on 80,000 food and household products to prices from competitors. A store credit is awarded (the difference in price) if a shopper finds an item for a lower price elsewhere.
Trend 9 – 99 Lives
In the ambitious ‘80s, many people were frantically running around trying to be as many people as possible. The ‘90s brought a drive toward “Lifestyle” and technology already started changing our concept of time.
One of the biggest groups who use technology now to manage time is working parents who have to play multiple roles. In the twenty-tens, there are an increasing number of people choosing to or forced to make career changes, and the continuing education industry has certainly started cashing in on this trend.
Trend 10 – S.O.S (Save Our Society)
Ms. Popcorn wrote: “To understand a society’s future, listen to the questions the children ask”.
This prediction has at its core the notion that in our world of abandoned war-traumatized kids on one end of the spectrum and more fortunate kids worried about climate change at the other end, “doing good is no longer an option.” Great visionaries such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are already living this with their charitable work. We could all do our small part, we don’t have to be billionaires to help in any way we can.
Perhaps the most interesting suggestion from “The Popcorn Report” is the idea that anyone can create a BrainReserve. Using our hyper-connected social media, one could easily bring together the eight or ten smartest people in one’s circle, and let them be a Life Board to meld ideas for a new business venture or a social game-changing foundation. It’s up to each of us how we will use the brilliant, if sometimes esoteric, results of Faith Popcorn’s extensive market research and insightful analysis which spanned decades, and which, based on the above, were not too far off the mark.