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The Big Picture 8: Global Trendwatching with Abrahamson and Meehan

In 1992 Vickie Abrahamson and Mary Meehan founded one of America's premier trend-spotting and marketing consultancies, Iconoculture. Last year, they became startup entrepreneurs again, striking out on their own with Panoramix Global--a very 21st-century consumer-research firm without a home office--a virtual network of trend analysts and thinkers with their eyes on the entire world.

Want to know about the Black Diamonds, South Africa's new, young, affluent black middle class? Interested in why the iPhone tanked in China but everybody under thirty there has a Sony PSP game console? Abrahamson and Meehan have the answers--their web site alone is a treasure house of unfamiliar consumer information. In this conversation, they discuss, among other things, why they love their new business model, why marketers need to reach Muslims, and why 3M product engineers are studying tree frogs.

The Line: How did Panoramix Global get started?

Vickie Abrahamson: Our clients were complaining about being deluged by trends and trend spotters and trend information, and they really wanted to know what to do with it in a more strategic way. There was, and is, a real need to understand the trajectory of trends so you can forecast and help businesses develop strategic plans and initiatives.

Mary Meehan: We also saw an opportunity to create a new business model. We developed a collaborative style, building a network of people we knew or were getting to know who could provide expertise. This allowed us to work on different projects in a different manner than we had at Iconoculture. We saw an opportunity to take the method we had developed at Iconoculture and expand

Our approach to analysis has become more of a focus for us. We can collect data in any manner the client wants or the project requires, but it's really our analysis that's the special element we bring to the project.

The Whole Picture

The Line: How is your analytical approach different?

Mary Meehan: Rather than a singular or vertical approach, we have a very holistic way of looking at the consumer and the culture. We're looking at all the interactions and dynamics. Rather than just the "what" of research--what's happening--we're also looking at the "why" and the "how." It's really about looking at the world in which the consumer lives, examining all the basic aspects of, and influences on, his or her life that can help illuminate who that person is--and the direction and the connections that will ignite change in the category that the client is interested in.

Think about something like the iPhone. When it entered the market, the Blackberry had been the standard. The iPhone shifted the entire marketplace--everything changed. We would look at consumers and the way they function in their home lives, their work lives, their leisure lives--trying to figure out what influences are going to make something like the iPhone a success, and how could that market change?

Vickie Abrahamson: Our analysis uses the lens of STEEP: It's an acronym that was developed in the 60's: Society, Technology, Environment, Economy, and Politics. You take a problem and you overlay this lens on it: what are the political dynamics going on that are going to affect this new technology coming into the market? What are the societal impacts, for instance the relationship between women and technology? We use each one of those lenses to draw out the dynamics, what the triggers might be.

Mary Meehan: We will do everything from focus groups to video diaries to online communities to secondary research to quantitative studies--in order to being enough perspective to the challenges clients have so we can really find those insights for them.

Mary Meehan: There are a lot of good researchers in town, but I think we're the only ones with this network, this collaborative idea, though it's hard to say for sure. It is a growing business model. It's the business model of the decade.

An Expanding Network

The Line: How does a typical project go forward?

Mary Meehan: A client submits a proposal and we talk to them about their goals and what they'd like to do. Based on that we determine who and what we would need, then we call people and bring them together and develop a proposal. In this scenario, we would be the project lead, manage it, and present to the client. Our contractors may help us present or they may not--it depends on the project. We bring in people who do quantitative surveys, people who do focus groups, ethnographic interviews, and so on.

Vickie Abrahamson: We bring in people that are experts in a particular demographic. We work with a multicultural expert who is really keyed in on the youth market and on multicultural youth. We bring them in if we are asked by a client, "What's going on with this millennial generation?" There are over 80 million now between 11 and 32 or 34. What are their values, what are they excited about, what are their passions?

The Muslim Factor

The Line: Can you talk about some of your clients and what they have asked you to do?

Vickie Abrahamson: We've worked with clients from AARP to MTV. Anyone who's really interested in what's going on with consumers. Internationally, we're doing a project in Los Angeles with a very interesting group--a venture capital fund that is funded by the Swedish government to help incubate businesses in the automotive industry. They're coming to the US and Mary and I have been asked to do an overview of what's happening with consumers, what's happening with the automotive industry, what technologies are in the pipeline--again, those STEEP lenses.

The Line: What other trends are you working on?

Vickie Abrahamson: Right now we're looking for a client who's interested in what's going on in the Middle East with youth movements. This is an amazing group of new consumers just coming into the marketplace. We think there are international companies out there that would be interested in them, so we're looking for a client to put us to work on that. That would be an exciting new batch of information we could analyze and make actionable for international marketers.

Mary Meehan: The demographic changes we're experiencing right now in our country--which are going to prove a blessing or a challenge, depending on your perspective--include the growth in the Muslim population. A quarter of the world's population is Muslim; something like 80,000 Muslims have been admitted to the United States and about 40 percent of them live in the Twin Cities. I was raised here and Vickie grew up not far away, and we had a pretty homogeneous community--but it's really changed over the last 20 or 30 years.

It's a very interesting shift, and communities all over the United States are either managing this or they're not. Marketers are struggling too, with how to attract a new and unfamiliar consumer. Whole Foods launched a blog on their web site, and they decided to devote space there to preparing for Ramadan. They partnered with Saffron Road, a frozen-entrée company, and a very popular blogger. They were publishing recipes and information. They got a ton of blowback [Editor's note: right-wing bloggers in particular objected to the campaign; some details here] as did other marketers who've tried to market to the Muslim community.

Shark Skin and Tree Frog Glue

Our business model is great for attracting really amazing talent, and when you do that, you attract very interesting projects. You can keep building a network but you don't have to have a big infrastructure.

Vickie Abrahamson: You keep discovering really interesting brains out there that really bring some amazing perspectives to solving a problem. One of the groups with whom we've just made contact, and are really anxious to work with, is the Biomimicry Institute. Check out the TED conference on biomimicry. The Institute is out in Missoula, Montana, and what it's basically about is developing products using nature as the inspiration. Biomimicry is being used all over the world for innovative new products and organizational ideas.

Mary Meehan: I think the new Olympic swimsuit was based on shark skin.

Vickie Abrahamson: And bullet trains have been modeled on diving birds. 3M, looking for new adhesives, is interested in a tree frog that secretes something that makes it stick to a tree.

Mary Meehan: Who wouldn't want to do that? [Laughter] I want to be up there, me and Spiderman!

Water and the Future

Vickie Abrahamson: And trends that affect business go beyond consumer tendencies. There's the global water crisis. We've recommended to clients that they take a look at every step of their value chain and assess what their water footprint is. Basically, it's a way for them to mitigate risk. Because in the future, and I think it'll come quite quickly, activists that are concerned about water will shine a real spotlight on companies' water usage. So you need to know about global trends to mitigate your risks.

Mary Meehan: One of the things I read recently was that so many people are moving to water-scarce areas in the south and southwest that Minnesota, in particular, and the upper Midwest in general, will become far more competitive in the future, because we have this natural resource. However, this will happen only if water is managed properly.

The Line: In an interview with us, the dean of the U of M's College of Design, Tom Fisher, said the same thing.

Mary Meehan: But the less obvious way to think about these trends is to put them all together. It's that synthesis, that holistic view. If this happens here, how is that going to affect something over there, and how will these combined factors affect my business? What do I need to plan for? It's managing that interconnectedness of the global market now. It's all about systems.

Photos of Mary Meehan (l.) and Vickie Abrahamson talking with Managing Editor Jon Spayde by Bill Kelley
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