Comm Research students
team with Iconoculture


You may think that "beehiving" relates to buzzing insects, that "fingerprinting" is something police do to criminals and that "merit badges" are earned by industrious Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Students in Lee Bush's fall-semester Communications Research class learned that these terms are also used to describe consumer "macrotrends," and they are just a few of the behaviors being identified, tracked and analyzed by Iconoculture, a leading consumer-trend research and advisory services firm.

Iconoculture stepped into the academic world to partner with students in a university course for the first time this semester, thanks to a connection made by Bush. "We've been considering ways to take our database of consumer trends into college campuses," said Kirk Olson, senior consumer analyst for Iconoculture. "When Professor Bush contacted us, we were thrilled to partner with Elon to see how our research could augment the traditional methods being taught in college classrooms."

Bush previously worked as a senior vice president in the Chicago offices of Ketchum and Ogilvy, two of the world's leading public relations firms. "As mass media becomes more and more fragmented, and the consumer becomes more difficult to reach via traditional techniques, well-known consumer-brand companies like Coke, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble are turning to ethnographic research to help them get closer to their consumer," she said. "Many large advertising and public relations firms subscribe to Iconoculture's database of trend research to better understand the underlying values that are driving consumer behavior today."

So what is "beehiving?" Iconoculture identifies it as "the growth of tight-knit, alternative communities, countering the fragmentation we feel in other areas of social and national life." Examples of this trend include the cyberspace link-up; the popularity of the over-50 women's groups known as "Red Hat" societies; and lesser-known trends such as the Moxie Festival in Lisbon Falls, Maine - a celebration of a soda drink that popped up 120 years ago; and the growing "Racers for Christ" group that can be seen at motorsports events throughout the South.

The leadership group at Iconoculture identified 40 emerging cultural trends several years ago in a book titled, "The Future Ain't What it Used to Be." They track these trends through a field network of hundreds of cultural reporters and writers as well as consumer analysts assigned to identify current and emerging trends across 14 lifestyle categories and seven demographics. The database went live in early 2003, when the research firm launched its Web site for Iconoculture subscribers. Each day, subscribers receive updated articles on the latest trends to be identified, along with ideas for how the trends can be applied to the clients' particular businesses. In addition, Iconoculture analysts utilize the data to work with clients on hundreds of research, marketing and advertising projects each year.

Students in Bush's class were given access to this database to help them identify trends and develop solutions in the process of completing an ongoing research assignment. Students were divided into groups at the beginning of the semester. Each group was given a hypothetical client situation. One group researched the potential for a well-known mass merchandiser to open a cool, new "store-within-a-store" targeted to Millennials (young people ages 13-26). Another group researched a strategy for marketing a tissue brand to the Latino population, and another identified commonalities in three different age segments of the Mature market that could then be turned into content for an AARP television program.

Using traditional exploratory research techniques, the students gathered information about their client situation, identified the target audience, researched the market and client competitors and then quantified the information by designing a survey. Next, to dig deeper into the values of their target audience, students acted as Iconoculture reporters and conducted observational research on consumers in their target audience.

For example, while home on fall break, the members of the mass-merchandising team visited retail stores across the country to observe store layouts and the different clothing lines available. They also paid close attention to Millennial shoppers to determine if they shopped with friends or parents, if they lingered in the clothing section and how they interacted with store employees. In addition, each person in the group tagged along with one Millennial for a day to gather more information on their attitudes, likes and dislikes, etc. They hung out in malls, attended Millennial sporting events, noted what Millennials were reading, wearing, eating, watching and how they interacted with their friends.

After fall break, each group was assigned to work with an Iconoculture analyst to help them navigate the database and make sense of what they had observed in their research. Each group identified trends, macrotrends and underlying consumer values that fit with their target audience. The analyst then helped them brainstorm ways to apply those values to the client situation.

The team marketing the tissue brand for the Latino market found a renewed awareness for Latino beauty. At the same time, the team found that because Latinos have an aversion to wasting thing, they often use handkerchiefs instead of tissues. They developed an idea for a durable, reusable tissue for removing make-up. They then built in ideas for sponsoring "Mi Belleza," a campaign involving a televised Latino beauty pageant and giveaways for free Latina make-up samples.

"The biggest advantage of using Iconoculture data is in being able to turn the data into actionable business opportunities," Bush said. "By the end of the semester, I think the students found that research is only useful if you can apply it to the situation at hand. By working with Iconoculture, they were exposed to the same cutting-edge techniques that large-brand companies are using to understand their consumer."

Bush expects to integrate consumer-trend data into future Communications Research classes, and she is working with Iconoculture to help make that possible. "This has been a great learning experience for us," Olson said. "It gave us a glimpse into how we can help universities use our data to augment their traditional research techniques, and prepare students for the use of observational research in their professional communication careers."

Just in case you were wondering, "merit badge" identifies a shift in values from collecting "things" to collecting "experiences," - or the recasting of social status from what one has to what one does. And "fingerprinting" is a brand's ability to take the "mass" out of the mass market by making a product part of a consumer's unique identity - if you ever find yourself buying customized shower gel, you'll know you've been "fingerprinted."



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Last Modified:  12/21/04
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