Waters, Robyn

Waters_Robyn.jpgRobyn Waters is the former vice president of trend, design, and product development at Target, where she worked with hot designers like Michael Graves, Philippe Starck, and Todd Oldham. She now has a consulting firm, RW Trend, which advises companies on how to track and translate trends into sales and profit and how to stay ahead of the curve. The author of The Trendmaster's Guide, Robyn lectures around the world. We speak with Robyn about her new book, The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape.

The Hummer and the Mini book cover

tompeters.com asks …

Robyn, when you say “trend,” what do you mean?

RW: I look at trends as signposts and indicators pointing to what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of the consumer. Most people, I think, look at trends as market indicators—things that are happening out there in the marketplace. I take what I call an inside-out approach. Trends are things that happen for a reason. I try to work within a very simple framework when it comes to trends.

Do you make trends personal rather than having to do with a group?

RW: Yes. I go inside, into the hearts and the minds—not just outside. In other words, I don’t just look at numbers, statistics, and data, and try to draw conclusions from them. I do look at numbers and statistics, which I utilize as a baseline. I believe that if you try to analyze trends by just looking at numbers, you won’t be very successful. After all, a number is a measurement that tells you what has already happened. Trends should point to where things are going and what’s going to happen next.

The main philosophy of the trend/countertrend premise in The Hummer and the Mini is this. In “the old days,” a trend was something that everybody wanted at pretty much the same time. But the market and consumers have changed drastically. We now have what I call the “contradictory consumer.” Michael Silverstein, in Trading Up, refers to the “schizophrenic consumer.” It refers to the idea that we don’t just fall into these neat little demographic or psychographic groups anymore. We’re all unique. We all have very individual tastes. In today’s market, it’s a lot harder to figure out what everyone is going to want next.

My philosophy is that instead of trying to figure out what’s next—(this Holy Grail search for the next big thing, i.e., what’s the next color or silhouette?—we should instead look inside and try to figure out what’s important to the customer. One of the ways we can do that is through ethnographic research. That’s basically observation. If you observe carefully, you can very clearly see the contradictory nature of the consumer.

Well, I was going to ask you—I would, in a way, call you a retail anthropologist. But maybe you’re more of an omniscient observer. How exactly do you work?

RW: I work very simply. My main tool is observation, as you say. I try to analyze things not from the point of view of the marketplace, but from the point of view of the consumer. I often quote Yogi Berra: “You can observe a lot, just by watching.”

To observe, you have to be out there in the real world; you have to talk to people. I read voraciously and subscribe to numerous trend services. I speak at and attend a lot of conferences where I get to hear experts speak on the state of their businesses. At Target, I had hundreds of thousands of dollars of “trend research data” available to me, but I don’t work in that way anymore. I’ve worked hard to really simplify things.

Are there some online sources that you can tell us about?

RW: Sure. I subscribe to MorningNewsBeat—Kevin Coupe is the Content Guy—it’s about the food industry. I subscribe to Innovation Weekly, an online service that keeps you abreast of what’s going on in the field of innovation and technology.

I have a subscription to WorthGlobalStyleNetwork, also called WGSN. I think it’s one of the best in the world. It provides overviews of what’s happening at all the major trade shows—from fabric shows, to sporting goods, to the automobile trade shows. I also get newsflashes from Retail News that pull together headlines from newspapers across the country. I scan them daily … my antennae are always out. My radar is always on. I have certain subjects and categories that I’m really interested in.

That’s how the book The Hummer and the Mini evolved. Things that I felt really tapped into the psyche of the consumer—like everything old is new again, or the idea of extreme relaxation—I honed in on things that I thought, as a result of my constant scanning, reading, observations, and talking to people, were things that touched a deep nerve in people’s hearts.

And when you’re looking at things out there, do you have to discount your own personal preferences? Is your personal set of preferences for things narrower than your retail anthropologist set of preferences?

RW: Absolutely. I can observe a major trend towards things that I personally can’t understand or don’t relate to at all. A good example is the rise of NASCAR racing. I know it’s happening. I have an idea who’s interested and involved. I know the kinds of companies that are tapping into that for marketing purposes, and it all makes sense. But NASCAR is something I personally just don’t get.

So, no, I definitely do not use a personal filter in my general reporting, particularly with client work. But on the other hand, I choose to write about things that resonate very strongly with me. In The Trendmaster’s Guide, I use the term “magic button.” When our “magic buttons” are pushed, we light up, and we become interested. My point of view is also rounded out by the fact that I also speak often, in cities all around the country, as well as internationally. My travels give me a great opportunity to “check in” with many people. It is a very personal and informal approach.

I also like to point out that I am what the demographers refer to as “the pig and the python.” Because I was born in 1953, I fall right in the middle of the baby boom generation. I think that helped me become very attuned to the general nature of the consumer. I have a strong pair of antennae. I am just naturally aware, intrigued, and curious. As a result, I’m always observing, questioning, and I’m very open to learning. I’m not the kind of person who looks at something, makes a pronouncement, and says, “That’s that.” I’m always analyzing, checking my instincts, looking at other options, and constantly revising my point of view. That’s how you stay up to speed in today’s marketplace.

Is that the most important trait of a trend observer?

RW: To be eternally curious and have an insatiable appetite for knowledge. I try very hard not to make pronouncements. I’m always asking myself: “I wonder what that is? I wonder why that’s happening? I wonder why people are acting the way they are? I wonder how that came to be so popular?”

You mentioned speaking internationally. And I had a question—early on in the book, you mention Angkor Wat, which provides you with sort of a metaphor throughout the book—this churning of the milk to keep the fresh milk on top or to keep it from going sour. And later, you talk about visiting a spa, Chiva-Som, in Hua Hin.

RW: In Thailand, yes.

In Thailand. Now, were those places both visited as part of the same trip? And can you tell me about that trip?

RW: Sure, but they were two different trips.

They were different?

RW: Yes. I love to travel. And I love ancient history. Isn’t that a paradox? Considering that as a Trendmaster, I’m supposed to be able to help you figure out what the future holds. Although I am very interested in what’s going to happen next, I’m just as fascinated by ancient history and cultures. My personal travels have taken me to India, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Angkor Wat, China, and Mexico. I love to go anyplace where there’s an ancient ruin.

I’m a huge fan of Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth. He always talks about “the hero’s journey.” I think there are many great business analogies that fit that concept. Most of the innovative businesses I write about had leaders that took their own “hero’s journey.” There is so much wisdom and learning that can come from the ancient cultures.

As a big fan of Tom Peters, I often quote his philosophy about “stories, heroes, and demos” as being a great way to teach. I use those very tools to help clients figure out what’s important.

I find that people are fascinated and amazed by analogies to ancient cultures. Storytelling allows you to take them on a journey, where you can appeal to their interests and intrigue them enough to help them look at things differently. That’s like unlocking a door. Then, when they’re curious, their antennae are going to be more open to picking up all the little signals that are out there for everyone to see, but most people miss.

When you say talking to people, I guess that means clients or that it’s at a conference. But when clients call you in, what do you generally do with them?

RW: I have am informal consulting style. The majority of my work is speaking and presenting, but more and more I’m doing what I call “hired-gun visionary” work. It’s a day spent with a client: talking, analyzing, reviewing, and meeting with senior management. I’ve worked with start-up companies as well as with major Fortune 500 companies. I also offer trend workshops.

What makes me different—and I tell my clients this right up front—is that most consultants come in and infer that they are “going to find you answers.” They do a lot of research and analysis, process that information, and come back to the client with a book, a binder, a PowerPoint, and then they say, “Here. Here are your answers.” I don’t do that. I am probably the first consultant who will stand up and say, “I don’t have answers for you.”

What I offer instead are insights, ideas, and possibilities. I used to be embarrassed to tell people that, but it’s really pretty magical, because ultimately that’s what everybody is looking for. That’s where innovation begins. Innovation starts with a new idea, an interesting possibility. What I’m best at is helping people reframe and look at things differently.

Companies that I work with are pretty much experts in their business category. What I do is help reframe their perspective. I bring them new ways to look at their business. I encourage them to look at both ends of the trend spectrum. When the blinders are removed, it opens up a new world of ideas and possibilities. Then I remind them that they are the “experts,” and that they should apply that expertise to leverage that fresh perspective. If they want more research or hard data, I recommend they work with a great design strategy company like Jump or IDEO, or an ethnographic researcher when they want more quantification.

So you, in effect, help them reframe their problem or just challenge them to look at it differently, and give them a little guidance in that direction.

RW: Yes, exactly. It’s a lot like what Tom’s first summit in Vermont did for me. And this is kind of a fun thing to share because that’s how I met you.


RW: I remember, at the end of the summit we were asked” “Where are you? What have you learned? What’s next?” I was still at Target at that point, but I knew that I wanted to make some changes in my life.

At the end of the summit, we were asked to share our vision about who we were and what we wanted to become. That’s where I was anointed “the ambassador of trend, champion of design, and cheerleader of possibilities.” I still use those words on my website. Interestingly, it’s the cheerleader of possibilities that most people really like.

That’s great.

RW: I remember sharing a merchandising story about when the Razor scooter was first introduced. One of my trend managers had come back from the sporting goods show in Germany with a sample that I took into my boss’s monthly managers meeting.

This was at Target?

RW: Yes. My boss was President of Target. At the end of his monthly meetings he had sort of a show-and-tell. The merchants would share their departments’ “hot items.” As VP of product development, a support function, I would always try to bring in a new idea, something to champion. When I brought this new scooter thing in to the meeting I placed it in front of me, folded up, on the table the whole meeting. Everybody else was wondering, “What’s that?” The Razor had barely been seen in the U.S. I opened it up, unfolded it, and rode it around the room. I think my boss kind of rolled his eyeballs like, “Oh, what in the world is she doing now?” He probably thought I was making a fool out of myself.

The merchants eventually did get excited about the possibilities of this fun new sporting goods item. They researched it, found the best factories, and got us in ahead of our competition. The scooter was a major success at retail. We got a lot of credit for bringing it in so fast. The merchants were the heroes. I can’t take credit for the success of the Razor. I was merely the cheerleader. You know, people laughed. They thought it was kind of silly when I rode it around the table at my boss’s meeting. But it struck a chord. It sparked interest. The merchants did their homework, and it was a huge success.

That experience taught me the power of motivating others and getting people excited, piquing their interests and their curiosities. I really believe that that’s where innovation starts.

You saw possibility where no one else did.

RW: My trend manager found the item. I merely championed it. The merchants made the magic happen.

Do you have any favorite—one or two favorite companies of the moment? Some place that really turns you on?

RW: I love to talk about Starbucks for so many reasons. They represent so many paradoxes. I like the premise that they were founded on: Howard Schultz said from the beginning: “I want to make a profit in a benevolent manner.” I’m a huge cheerleader for what I call “social capitalism,” doing good and making money.

People always ask me where I like to shop. There’s a small clothing store called J. McLaughlin on the East Coast. There are maybe 20 branches. I find really fresh fashion innovation there. And I love Costco. I love the treasure hunt. And again, I love Sinegal’s vision, the way he treats his employees and how he delivers value to his customers. I also love Whole Foods—I shop there a lot.

Almost all of those places, maybe except for J. McLaughlin, although I don’t know, they all have that whole experience around them. It’s not just the shopping experience. It’s knowing that the people who work there are treated well or that everybody there is having a good experience, not only the shopper.

RW: Yes. I think most of these companies started off with visionary leaders who were what I call “respectful rebels.” There is another paradox. They were people who looked at the way things were done and found a better way, often outside of the norm.

For example, when Schultz started Starbucks, the average price of a cup of coffee in the U.S. was $0.50, and every diner and café wanted to turn their tables as quickly as they possibly could. He had a unique vision, and people thought he was crazy. He bucked the odds. Today, Starbucks pours over 4 million cups of coffee a day. They charge a premium, and they encourage customers to linger.

I love those kinds of stories. John Mackey from Whole Foods followed his personal interests. He built a great community. Many of the companies that I write about have a really strong community within, and the leadership is as much bottom-up as top-down, meaning that it’s not a “command and control” style of leadership.

I have a Whole Foods, literally, a quarter-mile away from here. And I’m there almost every day shopping. I had this experience one day. I mean everybody is always friendly, but one day, I don’t know, something had gone wrong, and I was really in a foul mood. And I went through there. I had ten items, and there was the “Eight Items or Less” aisle. I was sort of standing there in this quandary about it. Then the woman at the “Eight Items or Less” register just waved me over with a big smile. I said, “Oh, you know, I don’t know.” And she said, “Oh, come on. I’ve got to stay busy,” or something like that.

But it was just—it was her smile. Everyone who works there smiles. I see comments like this at tompeters.com. I mean, that is so important, and yet, how many people actually hire for that? But now I want to tout Whole Foods as a place to go and get perked up.

RW: Absolutely. We all love an adventure. If you look at their environment, they’re about learning and sampling and trying, showing you what’s best. It’s not just the price or the product. It’s the whole package—it is absolutely about the experience.

It all relates back to my “trend from the inside-out philosophy.” I don’t know if you know this, but I was featured on Starbucks cups as Author #110 in their White Cup author’s quote series.

Oh, excellent.

RW: My quote was: “Trends are signposts and indicators pointing to what’s going on inside the hearts and minds of the consumer. These days, if you want to be on trend, it’s more important to figure out what’s important, not just what’s next.” It was signed “The Trendmaster.”

I connect that with the idea that it’s not just the food at Whole Foods that people love. It’s how it makes you feel when you’re there—that’s what’s important to the customers. Same thing with Starbucks. Yes, it’s a great cup of coffee. Yes, they do good things for the community. But it’s really about how you feel when you’re there. A cup of coffee turns into a five-minute vacation, a deep breath moment. It becomes a luxurious commodity; something really simple and basic is just so divine that you’re willing to pay a premium for it.

Now, did you put that on your website that you were on the Starbucks coffee cup?

RW: Yes. It’s there. It’s in the “Articles and Interviews” section under “About Robyn.” I have a letter there from Jim Donald, CEO, thanking me for my quote, along with a picture of my Starbucks cup.


Your most recent newsletter is called Roughing It in Comfort. You talk about going to a dude ranch resort, or maybe I’m giving away the punch line here.

But, it sounds like you went there on a vacation, and then the experience of being there sort of gave you more information about your business. Or were you going there to sort of search this place out?

RW: First I spent Christmas at the ranch, then I went back again for New Year’s. I learned about their history from a booklet I bought there called Fifty Years at the Sun C. The C is for Caballeros.

I wrote about Rancho de Los Caballeros because I find it a fascinating paradox. It’s a dude ranch that keeps the rustic authenticity from the past, but balances it successfully with modern-day conveniences. The whole idea of Roughing It in Comfort is really appealing to me. Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s my stage in life. But it was pretty magical.

I get great responses from some of my newsletters. Please encourage your readers to sign up at www.rwtrend.com. But I should warn you that if you’re hoping to find the next big thing from my newsletters, you’re probably going to be disappointed. But I promise that you will find something—interesting thoughts that make you rethink what’s important.

You mention riding a motorcycle through Wisconsin. Are you a motorcyclist? Or is your husband a motorcyclist?

RW: My husband is. He has a big road bike.

So you two are motoring around the back roads of the Midwest?

RW: We are, yes. We’ve taken some great rides. It’s a wonderful way to experience reality. You see things very differently from the back of a motorcycle than you do driving in your car with the radio on. You’re in the real world. You’re not in that virtual world. But yes, I really enjoy it.

This is a little off track, but I’m curious if you have thoughts about it. Can Saatchi & Saatchi turn JCPenney into a Lovemark?

RW: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I’m going to waffle there.

Have you had any thoughts about that, or no?

RW: You know, I think they probably can. I think that there is a core middle-America customer that wants great style at those middle market price points. It’s what turned Target into Tar-zhay. So why not turn JCPenney into JCPennet? So yes, I think they probably can.

Also, there’s stuff going on at tompeters.com about companies. A lot of people have been talking about Starbucks. So if you’re bored or whatever, feel free to go in there and add your comments. I like your take on why you like Starbucks.

RW: Okay. Yes, I will. That’s a good thought. And you know, they’re struggling with—I don’t want to put them in the same place as the Gap, but their paradox is they want to be jumbo shrimp. And who was it at CEORead who wrote the book Tribal Knowledge? John. John Moore.

Oh, John Moore. He’s one of our Cool Friends.

RW: John Moore, right.

Brand Autopsy.

RW: John talks about Jumbo Shrimp on his website. It’s really interesting. But you know what? Starbucks is aware of their paradox. They’re not sitting there saying, “Oh, we’re the greatest.” They’re always trying to improve.

Now I just saw a sign, their sandwiches—their breakfast sandwiches.

RW: Yes. They played with that a couple of times and didn’t get it quite right. And they went back and looked at it, and did research again. It’s that “ready, fire, aim” thing that Tom talks about.

That’s a good point.

RW: Get it ready. Put it out there. Try it. No. Doesn’t work. Go back. Try it again. I loved it when they came out with Chantico, that really rich, luxurious chocolate dessert drink. That was out for a short time, and then they pulled it from the market. Since then, Godiva has come out with Chocolixir, and Au Bon Pain has Choco Bon Loco. Starbucks is always trying something new, and I really admire that.

Excellent. I think that’s a good place for us to wrap up. This was great fun. It was great hearing that that summit was sort of a launch pad for you.

RW: It was a big turning point for me, and I mention Tom in my book. He’s been a constant source of inspiration, and I consider myself lucky to be counted as one of his Cool Friends.

Thanks Robyn, it’s been fun.

RW: Thank you.

Email: robynwaters (at) – rwtrend.com