Book Review

May 9, 2007
From The Wall Street Journal

In Hot Pursuit of the Next Big Trend

Coolness is like obscenity -- easy to recognize but hard to define. That doesn't stop people from trying. Companies wonder how to capitalize on "cool," and consultant-authors, sensing a warming market, start up their laptops.

Which brings us to "Coolhunting: Chasing Down the Next Big Thing," by Peter A. Gloor and Scott M. Cooper. The authors are affiliated with M.I.T., and their definition of cool is, like, totally different from Jessica Simpson's. They pause to cheer Apple Inc. (Steve Jobs is "coordinating an innovative galaxy") and guitar-hero Eric Clapton, but Messrs. Gloor and Cooper save their real enthusiasm for . . . Switzerland.

That's right: Switzerland. The pint-sized European banking haven is a colossus of cool for these authors, and presumably not just because Mr. Gloor is Swiss. The country embodies the qualities they ascribe to hipness: cooperation, shared vision, altruism and fun. "To us," they write, "things that are cool make the world a better place."

If Switzerland seems a long way from Paris Hilton, it is. "Coolhunting" is more interested in technology than fashion. Specifically, it's concerned with the ways in which algorithms can analyze online communities to identify trends and the key players who create them -- so-called influencers. The book also celebrates the creative intelligence of self-motivated "swarms" of people.

A vivid example of the swarm in action: On the television series "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," contestants who seek the help of the audience rather than asking an expert are more likely to receive the correct answer. The authors note that Cisco Systems has tapped into "collective intelligence" by analyzing information that it captures from customers, academics, venture capitalists and other potential indicators of where innovation is heading.

The bee analogy buzzes throughout "Coolhunting," as it did in Mr. Gloor's previous book, "Swarm Creativity," where he minted the acronym COIN (for Collaborative Innovation Network). Find the most connected people, say the authors, and you'll find the trends.

This advice may sound familiar: Trendspotters and anyone else hoping to monetize the next big thing have been looking for these "influentials" at least since Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" popularized the idea in 2000. What's newer here is the link to innovation, or "coolfarming," as the authors call it, a fascinating process of group creation that the Internet has made easier or at least easier to graph. "Coolhunters," conclude the authors, "look for coolfarmers."

In a section called "Coolfarming That Truly Changed the World: Netscape" -- not, perhaps, the freshest example they might have chosen -- Messrs. Gloor and Cooper describe how Silicon Graphics founder James Clark cultivated Web pioneer Marc Andreesen and his tech-smart friends to create the Netscape browser. Netscape was a breakthrough product because it performed well but also because it was given away. "Just by providing a spot on the Web where millions of users could get their browsers for free, they succeeded in making their site one of the hottest properties on the Web," the authors write. The luster of Netscape Communications has since faded, but the company long ago entered the technology hall of fame for illustrating the power of creative collaboration and the advantages of harnessing a crowd by giving away something of value.

Hunting for cool in any effective way outside the realm of the more easily tracked and quantified Web is a challenge, the authors admit. One potential area for profitable coolhunting may be cellphones. Messrs. Gloor and Cooper describe how a European telecommunications company gave free cellphones to a high-school class in 2004 and then closely studied usage patterns "to learn about trends, trendsetters, and influencers in a peer network." The charts and diagrams about these high-schoolers' cellphone usage are likely to interest only the most fanatical marketers. But the authors make a plausible case that if phone companies can identify teenage trendsetters like "Sarah" in this study, and then convene a focus group of Sarahs, the companies may be able to tell "what people like and why, but also that what they like is soon going to be liked by others -- many others."

It's harder to warm up to "Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace," by Noah Kerner and Gene Pressman. The authors are, respectively, a former disc jockey who runs a youth-marketing firm and a former co-CEO of Barneys New York, a high-end clothing retailer. A generation apart in age, these men may seem like an odd couple; they certainly read like one. The book is written mostly in the third person -- possibly by Andrew Essex, a "cowriter" credited inside the jacket but not on the cover -- but it is punctuated throughout by first-person commentary from Mr. Kerner (bold italics) and Mr. Pressman (just plain bold). One of them drops music name-bombs like Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, the other favors misty-eyed reminiscences of Gianni Versace and the Studio 54 crowd. Guess who's who.

Messrs. Kerner and Pressman are champions of what one could call The Bonnie Fuller Theory of Cool. As they conduct interviews with fashion-and-media players such as Tom Ford, Clive Davis and Ms. Fuller, the former editor of US Weekly, it becomes clear that true cool is, for the authors, the passionate brainchild of "a tasteful visionary" with a "point of view."

Like Messrs. Gloor and Cooper, the "Chasing Cool" crew is enthusiastic about "authenticity," but here the resemblance ends. Messrs. Kerner and Pressman have no time for bloodless analyses of the marketplace effect of so-called influencers. "Where is it written," they sneer, "that these Influencers actually discuss anything with anyone?" Answer: "Coolhunting."