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Big change comes in small sizes
[November 05, 2007]

Big change comes in small sizes

(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Book Review: A provocative new study argues that the era of huge cultural and business changes is over, and that the power has shifted to niche groups, writes Senator Paschal Donohoe

The big changes get the attention of historians and commentators. The focus is on the large patterns profoundly changing how we behave and think about issues. These patterns are also distinctive as they affect large numbers of people, creating a constituency for the support or the challenge of this change. For example, we are aware of the increase in the number of people working in our economy and the consequent importance of issues such as commuting and childcare.

These are the big developments which reorientate how many of us behave and create groups with huge interest in how such change unfolds. Microtrends by Mark Penn takes an innovative and different approach to change in business and society. He is highly qualified to write on such matters as a chief executive and president of two public relations and consumer research companies.

His most famous current client is US senator Hillary Clinton. Great use is made in the book of polling strategies and consumer research, no doubt much of which has delivered business and political success for his clients. He advocates the thesis that the period of huge cultural and business changes is coming to an end. Instead we will have "small, under the radar forces that can involve as little as 1% of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society".

The title, Microtrends, refers to these atomised changes which by their vary nature are small, but which generate a disproportionate amount of loyalty among these small groups. His book analyses 75 examples of such mini-change in small essays which make use of intensive consumer polling and research to understand them.

The author reviews groups such as "Archery Mums", "New Luddites", "Young Knitters" and "Ardent Amazons". My favourites were "Long Attention Spanners", individuals who have a passion for deeper understanding and research of current affairs (I am a member of this micro group) and "Shy Millionaires". He argues that businesses must be more aware of these niche markets. Such awareness and research will deliver enhanced success because these micro groups will highly reward any service or product which appears to recognise and reward them. "The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalisation," he notes, "but it is occupied by six billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard. No matter how offbeat their choices, they can find 100,000 people or more who share their taste for deep fried yak on a stick".

The author draws a number of interesting and provocative conclusions. Firstly, he argues that the dividing lines in society will be around personal choice rather than circumstance. This optimistic thesis is advanced on the grounds that greater confidence and purchasing power will make it easier for these small groups to do what they want and that the business world will have no choice but to respond to this. He offers the Starbucks business model as an example of this, with its 42 brands of coffee, five brands of milk, 16 different enhancers and nine types of sweetener. Secondly, the increased splintering of society is a good thing. He contends that this disaggregation will make it for more difficult for autocracies to flourish. This is because informed micro-groups will not settle for anything less than the full expression of their rights and views.

This appears to be one of the two weaknesses in the overall thesis. As the author acknowledges, "the weakness of a world driven by personal choice is that mass collective action can become more difficult to organise and sustain because intense groups who oppose action can become more powerful". The ability of these microgroups to harm what a society wants or, at the most extreme level, its safety, makes it hard to draw such a positive conclusion from the author's thesis. The availability and influence of technology and globalisation can enhance the power of these groups to an extent that it is not good for the rest of us -- an example of this would be the influence that al-Qaeda have had.

Secondly, the business potential of this approach is dependent on globalisation. Local or national micro markets are unlikely to deliver enough scale or critical mass for a business to profitably serve them. As a former commercial director of a consumer goods company I saw countless examples of where a niche market was simply not big enough to sustain the turnover need to finance the product. This, in turn, would lead to a weakening and loss of scale in the brand or business model sustaining the niche product.

However, this is a very well written and provocative book. A reader is unlikely to put it down without feeling more aware of what makes up our identity and how this can be used to further a business or a cause.

Microtrends: The small forces behind today's big changes by Mark Penn with E. Kinney ZalesnePenguin Allen Lane. 19.70

Senator Paschal Donohoe was previously sales and marketing director with Proctor & Gamble. He was a Fine Gael candidate for Dublin Central in the general election.

Copyright 2007 Irish Times Ltd. , Source: The Financial Times Limited

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