Q+A – Robyn Waters

In your book, under N for “No Secrets,” you claim that the Internet has ushered in the end of privileged information. What’s changed?

It used to be that people would sneak into runway shows to take photographs or make sketches because the product wouldn’t show up in stores for a year and then knockoffs could happen after that. Now, with all of the news media and online trend services, if pink is the new color, you almost can’t miss it. It happens so quickly and it’s everywhere.

So how do trend-watchers compete now?

I believe very passionately that it’s not the trend itself that’s so important, but the translation of the trend to your customer, the audience for your brand, or the ultimate user of whatever product you’re doing. You don’t just copy it. You need to translate it in a way that’s effective for who you’re trying to reach.

You say customers are looking for “authenticity,” a word people use in many different ways. What do you mean?

A product that really stands for something or has meaning to the individual. If you take the food world, the authenticity, or the provenance, of an ingredient has become important. Instead of saying “red apples,” a recipe will say “red Pippin apples.” There’s an orange juice marketed as not just from Sicilian blood oranges, but from oranges that are grown in the soil of Mount Etna. Anything that makes somebody feel more connected to the real thing resonates strongly with people.

But some would say, “This is authentic because it was grown locally,” while others might care about Mount Etna soil.

For every trend there’s a countertrend. Right now, the average distance the food on your plate has traveled is 1,300 miles. The star fruit came from New Zealand and the strawberries came from California, because it’s winter in Minnesota. You can find everything from bok choy to lemongrass in your produce section. That’s one kind of authenticity—it’s the real thing from a real place. At the same time, in the U.S., the rise of farmers’ markets has been dramatic. We want to know that the corn we bought at the farmstand was grown by the farmer two miles down the road.

If design is “more than function and aesthetics,” what’s the added dimension?

The added dimension comes from going into that authentic inner place. The example I use in my book is Philippe Starck and the sippy cup. When he first suggested that Target produce a sippy cup on a pedestal that looked like cut crystal and had two handles like a loving cup, the buyers were like, “I’m sorry, but that’s not what a sippy cup is. A sippy cup should not be on a pedestal.” But why not? I just had coffee with a woman I used to work with at Target. Somehow the sippy cup came up. She still has it. She remembers who gave it to her. When she sets a nice table for dinner for her family, she puts that at her little girl’s setting. It’s this special thing. It’s just a $3.49 plastic sippy cup, but it represents so much more.

You talk about appealing to “desires, not just needs.” But how do you respond to critics who say that’s what’s wrong with capitalism—it’s encouraging people to waste money on things they don’t need?

It’s not necessarily a desire for more things. It might be a desire to simplify your life, to find some peace of mind. I’ll give you a great example: Caldrea dishwashing liquid. You don’t need an all-natural, aromatherapeutic dishwashing liquid. You just don’t, particularly if it costs $8 a bottle. But if you use this product, and if the scent of lavender makes you feel good, and if it makes the whole process of washing your dishes more appealing, then that’s a desire. I live alone. I don’t run my dishwasher that often. I use this Caldrea liquid. I love doing the dishes. If you can take a chore like that and turn it into five minutes of peace and healing and fun, that brings value to the customer.

Virginia Postrel (www.dynamist.com) is the author of The Substance of Style (Perennial, 2003) and an economics columnist for The New York Times

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