I often notice how my friends tend to jump in the water as soon as something new or innovative comes floating down the river. Hard as I may try, I cannot claim to be so different, as I go with the flow of mass market trends myself. But what makes these “currents” so enticing? And were these trends intended or even planned by clever marketing?
Let us begin with what is likely the most recent trend: the fidget spinner. A simple idea, but it hides a sad story. The original was invented by Catherine Hettinger in 1993 and patented in 1997, but Hettinger never found any companies willing to buy her idea of a gyroscopic toy. In 2007, Hettinger relinquished her patent, unable to afford the 400 US dollar renewal fee. Years later, corporations began producing her fidget spinner at cheap prices for the mass-market. Then, these companies started selling fidget spinners with slogans like “Control your ADHD” or “Reduce your stress levels,” and suddenly, the fidget spinner went from a simple children’s toy to an allegedly therapeutic object. From then on, the market exploded, and the fidget spinner began appearing in every store in Germany, from REWE to Toys R’ Us. The “therapeutic” spinners, little more than a cross between a toy plane propeller and a throwing star, sold like hotcakes. Some observers predicted a sales bottleneck due to their huge demand. The corporations manufacturing and distributing the spinners made huge profits, while the original inventor received nothing.
But why is it only now that the fidget spinner has become a bestseller when it has existed for over twenty years? The fidget spinner and its success exemplifies the fact that trends cannot be planned. You can have a great marketing strategy, but it is impossible to predict what consumers find appealing and how long their enthusiasm will last. Trends come and go when they want to – or, more precisely, when consumers want them to. Becoming the “mainstream” is also a decisive factor of a trend’s success, as humans are naturally social animals. Trendiness can also be a euphemism for peer pressure. Something uncreative would naturally not be successful… would it? By following a trend, the amount of mental effort you need to put into deciding to buy something is kept to a minimum – you buy it to go with the flow. The fear of falling behind a trend also plays an essential role in accepting that trend. With the rise of a trend, a fanbase around the trend may also form. This fanbase then pushes its trend onto everyone else. The greater the hype around a trend, the greater the fanbase. The greater the fanbase, the greater the fanbase can push to be heard. A trend does not need a particularly intelligent, innovative or unique idea. Rather, to achieve mass-market appeal, you only need a mass that markets that product.
But it is not only ordinary consumers who can start and end trends. Influencers, particularly celebrities, can make a huge difference in the success of a trend. One example is the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy, which garnered over one billion views on YouTube with the help of an entertaining video and an easy-to-learn dance. But as far as its artistic merit, Gangnam Style is not exactly high art. How did the hype around this song grow? In the pond of pop music, Gangnam Style received the help of a big fish – an international pop star by the name of Katy Perry. While the video was still only popular amongst South Koreans, Perry shared the video to her Twitter fanbase of 25 million followers. When someone as famous as Katy Perry likes a song, I can save myself the trouble of forming my own opinion and just agree with her. Like the leader of a tour group, this big fish swam ahead holding the flag of the song high and helped the song get to the top of the German charts for a total of 50 weeks.
Just as quickly as a trend begins, so can it die. After first looking at a new trend with rose-colored glasses, the public may begin raising legitimate criticism for the product. Gangnam Style is about as creative as a copy scan, and fidget spinners have been catching on fire in school yards. Eventually, only a few fans of the trend will be left, trying desperately to keep their trend alive. Trends across the board die this way and rarely return to life.
In retrospect, one can see that the success of a trend was due to luck, or more harshly, due to coincidence. No one can foresee what strikes a chord with the mass market, when that chord strikes and how long that chord lasts. But a person does not evolve from a social animal to a solitary one overnight. Market trends will continue to arise and will continue to pull fish into their currents, but once reality hits them, these fish must learn to trust in their own judgments.
But if trends always die and are reborn this way, does it make any sense to criticize them? Before one can answer this question, we must first ask a more important question: is this trend positive or negative? For me, it is a matter of perspective. For corporations that sell products and not services, trends can be good, even if consumers stay off the trend’s bandwagon. Trends illuminate future plans for companies as well as providing them profit. Trends lead companies to ask what consumers want, and how they, as companies, can profit off those desires. The visibility companies can garner due to a trend is actually the greatest way companies profit from them. For example, Toys R’ Us became the main distributer of fidget spinners and reaped the successes of the trend.
Now, let us switch from the perspective of the corporation to the perspective of the consumer – the client. I am deliberately referring to the consumer as a single person so I can better depict the disadvantages of trends for individuals, rather than that of the masses. Every one of us has two opportunities when faced with a trend: go with the flow, or against it. The first option requires less personal initiative, which is by and large the greatest reason trends are successful. The second option requires reflection and a critical exanimation of what ends up on the market. The trend must be appraised realistically, and forming an opinion is only “allowed” when all aspects of a product have been examined. A trend can also be negative for those of us who would rather form our own opinions and do not blindly rely on those of the public or our friends. Following a trend is the antithesis of forming your own opinion, after all.
Lastly, I believe that trends are extremely important for economic growth, as no other opportunities allow for such great public response during the trend’s lifespan. Companies must understand what “mainstream” means, as mainstream consumers are the greatest target group for potential customers.
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