Trend Spotting Field Trips

February 24, 2006
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Lee Gullett, creative director of Grand Rapids software and marketing firm iMart, admitted he was once skeptical of the Stretch program. He helped develop it as an educational philosophy for the company’s creative group, and though he saw it as an interesting selling point, he had doubts.

“How do we know what’s going to be a trend?” Gullett confessed. “We don’t.”

It takes roughly two years for a trend to reach the mainstream, he explained. By then, it’s an everyday thing. But, as part of Stretch, members of iMart’s creative group have the opportunity to spot developing trends years before mass adoption.

“The company has evolved from a technology company to a creative company,” said iMart CEO Gary Mahieu. “The technology is becoming a commodity. It’s the creative that will differentiate you.”

With that in mind, the iMart team realized that for all its charm, Grand Rapids is not the center of the design world. So every six months or so, the creative group takes a field trip to one of the nation’s creative “hot beds” — Chicago, New York or Los Angeles.

“We go to the areas where trends have really emerged,” Gullett said.

The delegation strafes retailers and galleries, buying samples and taking hundreds of pictures. These are collected in iMart’s library as the seeds of dozens of potential trends — colors, textures and an endless assortment of fads and breakthroughs that could influence clients’ brands.

Last year, Gullett began spotting variations of some of iMart’s collected samples on shelves at Target and other retailers.

“Trends are started by the fashion industry a lot of times,” said Yang Kim, principal of BBK Studio in Grand Rapids. “They have new colors for the season, new textures or materials — whatever it is for the season. Those trends tend to trickle down, especially colors.”

Kim said that many designers get inspiration from travel, adapting ideas from discoveries in other locales, commonly outside of the United States. But she feels that in today’s “shrinking world,” travel may not be necessary to find these influences. Television and the Internet both provide insight to fashion trends across the globe. Barring that, she said, there is always the mall.

“It wasn’t too long ago that Banana Republic and J. Crew and those kinds of companies came here,” she said. “Even though that might be sort of commercial, it shows how things are coming to small towns more and flattening the access issue.”

For Fairly Painless Advertising in Holland, staying on the cutting edge is less of an issue than just staying as sharp as its clients. A key client is Zeeland furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., one of the most innovative companies in the Midwest

“By virtue of just keeping up with our clients, we have a continual influx of new ideas,” said Principal Chris Cook.

Fairly Painless has followed its clients across the globe. It monitors current events, newspapers, magazines, the Internet and its own network of partners, including young, trend-setting companies.

On one occasion, it contracted an anthropologist to examine the historical usage and potential future usage of a client’s product.

“Other times, we’ll talk to 300 CEOs of midsize companies; maybe there are trends occurring unbeknownst to any of them,” Cook said. “There are certain trends that take place, and you’re not aware you’re part of it until you pass a threshold. Then there is a paradigm shift.”

This is a phenomenon made popular in recent books like “Tipping Point” and “Blink,” both by Malcolm Gladwell.

Lee Jager and Charlie McGrath, principal and creative director of Jager Group and Structure Interactive, respectively, both feel that everything their staffs need to keep in touch with “what’s hot” can be found, for the most part, from the comfort of their Grand Rapids offices.

“Advertising is an easy thing to see what’s going on at the national level, because you see it,” McGrath said. “If someone is doing something new, we become aware of it pretty quickly.”

With the bulk of its work in the Internet arena, Structure Interactive has an even greater advantage. Everything in that space, across the globe, is available for instant viewing.

“The downside is that there is so much clutter out there,” McGrath said. “Everyone here is essentially a filter. We have 40 people with overlapping interests finding things to help the company — 40 little squirrels gathering nuts for winter.”

A survivor of the dot-com era, the technology-driven firm has learned to be wary of trends. Many times, an investigation results in warning clients to avoid a new technology. In general, McGrath said, the firm is not as concerned with matching strides with fashion as it is with outpacing its clients’ competitors.

Like McGrath, Jager gets much of his industry gospel from trade media and industry groups.

Gullett was critical of industry experts, however.

“If you rely on experts, you’ll be a little slow,” he said. “You’re just a follower, really. We’re the players: You have to be out on the playing field. If the designers don’t feel it’s the cool thing, it may prove the experts wrong.”

As a counterpoint, Jager disputed the notion of New York, Chicago and the like as the industry’s creative centers.

“The most creative agencies aren’t in the big cities anymore,” he said, citing the nations’ “hottest” agency, Miami’s Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Bill McKendry, chief creative officer of Hanon McKendry, is West Michigan’s most outspoken advocate.

“A few years ago, they opened up an L.A. office,” he said of the Miami firm. “They shut it down within the year. Not because it wasn’t profitable, but because it affected their culture. They started acting like an L.A. firm.”

For similar reasons, he said, his firm has attracted clients away from the major cities.

“It’s not about looking at New York or Chicago anymore; now they’re looking for cues that come out of Middle America,” he said. “They’re looking for Heartland values … a perspective that will help them reach mainstream America.”

McKendry and Cook both cited the furniture industry as proof of West Michigan’s creative excellence.

“These aren’t things that are going to be on the cover of GQ,” Cook said, speaking specifically of the design revolution ignited by Herman Miller’s Aeron chair a decade ago. “But these are trends that affect any of us.”    

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