Under the magnifying glass

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Mark Penn, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, argues his new book, Microtrends, that you have to look at and interpret data to know what’s going on, and that conventional wisdom is almost always wrong and outdated. Mr Penn suggests that the biggest trends are the Microtrends, the smaller trends that go unnoticed or ignored.

Mr Penn looks at seventy-five groups who, by virtue of their daily decisions, are forging the shape of America and the world both today and tomorrow. While some groups are larger than others, Mr Penn argues that “they are relatively unseen - either because their actual numbers are small or because conventional wisdom hides their potential in the shadows, sometimes even emphasising the exact opposite.”

Mr Penn, the man who identified ”Soccer Moms” as a crucial constituency in President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, is known for his ability to detect relatively small patterns of behaviour in our culture - microtrends that are wielding great influence on business, politics, and our personal lives.

Can microtrends transform a business enterprise, tip an election or spark a movement? How are microtrends in religion, leisure, politics, and family life changing the way we live?

Mr Penn answers your questions.

Book review: Microtrends

Read an extract from Mark Penn’s Microtrends.


What microtrends in health today will determine the shape of healthcare provision - cost, access, quality, coverage - in the next 10-15 years?
Shefaly Yogendra, London

Mark Penn: We document only a few in health and diet in the book. But there are surely others and would be good project to really delve into them. We thought DIYD - do it yourself doctors - is impacting how medicine is being delivered. We are seeing many people show up at the doctor with the diagnosis and a real growth in over the counter medications. We want on the one hand the relationship with our doctor, and yet on the other hand we tend to only trust ourselves to make these decisions and this will create new tensions in healthcare in the coming years as people gain access to their records.


Have microtrends always been a feature in history, or is it a modern phenomenon and if so, what are the contemporary drivers of microtrends? In particular, I’m wondering how the internet impacts their emergence?
Phil Mead, The Netherlands

Mark Penn: I think these are new in power and frequency because of the internet’s ability to collect and communicate with people across wide geographies like we are doing today - so a small trend can find and talk to its followers. But that is not the only reason - communications has been splitting up, the means of production have made personalisation easier, and the culture is now more tolerant for more choices and lifestyles.


At what point do microtrends become influential in your view? Is there any critical mass that needs to be achieved, and do they lose the ’micro’ element after that?
Dimitri, Australia

Mark Penn: Some microtrends may never become influential; others play a big role - maybe upscale tattooers will have a slight impact on jobs and tattoo parlours but not have the kind of impact that Christian Zionists could have on foreign policy and policy towards Israel. Others like Soccer Moms of 1996 and the new old dads in this book become important only when crystallised and brought together. Many people think they are alone and one of the benefits of microtrending is that people like knowing that there are several million of them that are living a similar lifestyle - like extreme commuters.

The general thesis is that when trends hit about 1 per cent they have the potential to be influential. This is generally true, but there are some like terrorism that obviously become powerful at even a fraction of that.


Why exactly do you believe that small groups have the biggest impact on our lives? Don’t larger groups with a louder voice that have more influence?
Sheila Crow, New York

Mark Penn: Not always. I think that these intense groups have new opportunities to have a big megaphone and make a difference. Certainly illegal immigrants have rather than remain in the shadows instead have really brought their issues front in centre and could now play a pivotal role in the votes of their relatives and people from their country who are citizens.


What key microtrends do you see currently in business, culture and politics respectively?
C Murphy

Mark Penn: That is really the topic of the whole book. The idea is that there are now lots of one per cent trends that are having a big influence. Some of those with the greatest impact on society today I think are the college drop outs, the tripling of felons getting out of prison, and the working retired which will have a big impact.


About the expert

Mark Penn was dubbed “the most powerful man in Washington you’ve never heard of” by The Washington Post. Mr Penn is CEO of Burson-Marsteller. He was pollster to President Clinton in his 1996 re-election campaign, and has been an adviser to Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates and numerous corporations.

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