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By Gerry Boyle '78
If you listen to "emo" music, wear Nike Prestos, ride a collapsible bike or have a jacket with a built-in pocket for an MP3 player, Barbara Coulon '94 wants to talk to you. Or maybe she already has.
Coulon is a professional trend spotter, which is to say she is paid to spot what's hot before the rest of us know it's even simmering. From her base in New York, she prowls the streets and boutiques, restaurants and clubs of the nation's trendiest cities and reports back to her clients: MTV, Procter & Gamble, Calvin Klein and Sprint, among many others. "It's sort of the ultimate liberal arts," Coulon says. "You have to have your hands in everything."
Vice president of trends for an agency called Youth Intelligence, Coulon is part psychologist, part anthropologist and part marketing maven. An art major with a business minor at Colby, she set out to find a way to combine her pop-culture creativity and business savvy. After a stint with a Boston advertising agency, Coulon moved to Youth Intelligence, where she and company founder Jane Rinzler Buckingham and one other trend spotter were the only employees. Three years later Coulon is one of 10 employees, and business is booming. "In terms of youth marketing, it's a great time to be in it just because 'Gen Y' is so in the media and they're a huge consumer group," she said in a recent interview from her Manhattan office. "We never have a slow time."
For those who need a glossary, "Gen X" is 20-somethings. "Gen Y" is teenagers, the consumer group watched most closely as companies try to predict what products will be in demand in the future. Buckingham is 32; the rest of the staff is under 30. At 26, Coulon is a veteran. The 20-something trend spotters collect intelligence on the street and deliver it to corporate boardrooms: ABC Networks, American Express, Coca-Cola and Sony among them.
The companies subscribe to The Cassandra Report, a Youth Intelligence study that runs 200 pages and reveals tastes of 300 young "trendsetters" and 750 mainstream consumers.
"We usually always do New York, L.A. and one other trendy city like Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta," Coulon said. "So first we'll go to a happening area or store or a boutique, where trendsetters would normally hang out. Then we'll ask them a series of questions: 'What activities do you like to do? What magazines do you read? Tell me something interesting about yourself.' If they have interesting answers, then those are the types of people that we talk to.
"It's hard, because the mainstream sample, that we can do quantitatively." For the trendsetters, it's a mixture of instinct and analysis.
Coulon has the ability to do both.
"She's really able to piece together trends from different places," Buckingham said. Coulon also has the discipline needed to back up her trend-spotting opinions with data, Buckingham said. "It's sort of a fun business, so people think it's all about shopping and buying products. It's also about quantitative research and making sure that the numbers add up and making sure everything is done as methodologically correctly as possible."
While Buckingham noted that the media have a tendency to make trend spotting a bit more fun than it really is, there is the satisfaction of seeing your picks go mainstream.
Scooter-like go-peds, an oddity when Coulon first spotted them, are now sold in Macy's. Coulon also spotted "emo" music (like punk but mellow), fur wraps, Braille jewelry, hipsacks, Cuban jazz and lifestyle stores (furnished apartments where everything is for sale). "It's just sort of detecting it earlier than everyone else," she said.
All this from a product of suburban Boston (her mother is a nurse, her father a retired financial services manager) who wore baseball caps and plaid shirts in college, and who by her own admission wasn't the trendiest person at Colby. Now she reads UK magazines like Wallpaper and The Fact and ID, lives on 23rd Street in Manhattan and travels at least one week a month. Coulon has been featured in Glamour magazine, which called her career "craveworthy." Coulon concedes it's pretty cool but points out the downsides. For one, talking to 200 people in a week can be draining.
Another potential downside: youth marketing is best left to the young, and youth, like a trend, is fleeting. Coulon said her age isn't yet an issue. "Not right now," she said. "People still ask me if I'm still in school."Gerry Boyle '78
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