Finding big meaning in small trends

Cover of "Microtrends"

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: We do business here, mostly. Not politics. But sometimes, the line that divides them is pretty thin.

Back in the '96 presidential campaign, a Clinton pollster named Mark Penn highlighted what he thought was an important Democratic constituency: soccer Moms. One key to the Clinton win that year.

With another election looming, Mark Penn is out with his first book, along sort of the same lines. It's called "Microtrends." Mr. Penn, good to have you here.

Mark Penn: Thank you.

Ryssdal: Why microtrends, and not the really big mega ones, that are gonna change the planet?

Penn: Well, I think the point is that the microtrends are becoming the megatrends of tomorrow, that things no longer have to become big to be important. That a small trend can have a very influential impact on what happens in society, and that increasingly, people are going their own ways in many different directions but bonded together by common choices they're making.

Ryssdal: How small, though, is big enough to make a difference, if you take my meaning?

Penn: Well, 1 percent of the population today that does anything -- that buys this book, that goes to see a movie, that, you know, creates a movement, a church . . . in the book, we said God forbid, suppose 1 percent became terrorists. Society as we know it would be over.

Ryssdal: Just to quantify here, 1 percent of the American population's about 3 million people. So it's not really small at all, is it.

Penn: Well, that's right. We're such a big society that 1 percent is 3 million, and that 3 million can have a huge impact on the outcome. You know, in the last presidential election, for example, that would have turned the difference.

Ryssdal: Let's down to

brass tax here. I mean, somebody listening to you and me talk, what are they gonna take away from this book? How can they apply it in their small business or in their stock portfolio?

Penn: Well, I think they're gonna look for new marketplaces. You know, let's take a look at something like middle-class second home buyers. Well, I think as interest rates went down, real-estate speculation and interest went up. Five million people who were in the middle class bought second homes. They needed gardeners, they needed bill-paying services, they needed all sorts of new stuff. I think if you tap into the desire for people to make things, maybe you'll come up with other things that, you know, use people's hands. Maybe, you know, you'll come up with interesting new activities for people who want to continue to work past the normal retirement age.

Ryssdal: You're a numbers guy, so I'm sure you've had at some point in your life somebody say to you, "Ah, you know, numbers -- lies, damn lies and statistics." I mean, you can read too much into numbers, can't you?

Penn: I think that people can interpret numbers and statistics in many different ways. Part of what I do is hopefully, you know, have a higher degree of accuracy in predicting what's important, what's not important, things that we should follow. But I think that the bigger danger is not really opening yourself up to a country of well over 300 million people changing in so many different ways, opening up so many new, unexpected marketplaces.

Part of what we try to teach people is how to see the counterintuitive of what everybody is talking about. It's counterintuitive that teenagers today are flocking to knitting. Everybody knows they're flocking to cell phones, but at the same time, I think there's a desire by people, "Hey, I want to make something." And so the entrepreneur who can fill that marketplace that's opened up by the dominant trend to technology, then looks for the countertrend, or the microtrend, to try to fill that in a way that's significant and meaningful.

Ryssdal: Are they really flocking to knitting?

Penn: Yeah. There's been a huge growth in knitting.

Ryssdal: See now, there you go. There's a microtrend that I never would have known about.

Penn: Look, I think people will find some they know, some they don't know, some they think they know, some they're glad to find out. A lot of people eventually find themselves in the book.

Ryssdal: The book by Mark Penn is called "Microtrends." He's the CEO of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller. He's also the chief advisor and pollster for the presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Clinton. Mr. Penn, thanks a lot for your time.

Penn: Thank you very much.

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About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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