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. Whats changed?
It used to be that people would sneak into runway shows to take photographs or make sketches because the product wouldnt 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 cant miss it. It happens so quickly and its everywhere.
So how do trend-watchers compete now?
I believe very passionately that its not the trend itself thats so important, but the translation of the trend to your customer, the audience for your brand, or the ultimate user of whatever product youre doing. You dont just copy it. You need to translate it in a way thats effective for who youre 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. Theres 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 theres 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 its winter in Minnesota. You can find everything from bok choy to lemongrass in your produce section. Thats one kind of authenticityits 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, whats 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, Im sorry, but thats 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 girls setting. Its this special thing. Its 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 thats whats wrong with capitalismits encouraging people to waste money on things they dont need?
Its not necessarily a desire for more things. It might be a desire to simplify your life, to find some peace of mind. Ill give you a great example: Caldrea dishwashing liquid. You dont need an all-natural, aromatherapeutic dishwashing liquid. You just dont, 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 thats a desire. I live alone. I dont 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