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Lunch with the Tribeca Grill with: Faith Popcorn

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-01

When Faith Popcorn wants to forecast business and cultural trends, she doesn't turn to her crystal ball but to her Rolodex.

It is a laborious task flipping through more than 10,000 names, even if they are assiduously organized. The collection has been assembled over three decades by a futurologist who's consulted by many of the world's biggest companies. They almost always want to reposition a faltering brand or strengthen a successful one.

The names on her Rolodex aren't her clients, however, but people whose minds Ms. Popcorn taps. These are people that she's met during her extensive global travels. They reside in virtually every country of the world, and certainly in every state of America. Some volunteer to be her brain bank; others are referred to her.

"Whenever I call my contacts, I ask them, 'What's going? What have you been doing?'" Ms. Popcorn said. She takes detailed notes, reflects on her reporting, and gets her young New York and London-based staff of 60 to process her output.

Then comes a 20-step methodology through which she synthesizes the research.

And the result?

"My clients get a real understanding of what they need to do about their brand," Ms. Popcorn said. "It's a methodology that works. And I'm good at identifying language that companies need to hear."

She looked at the reporter, who was furiously scribbling notes.

"We've never had a failure," Ms. Popcorn said.

Never?

"Never," Ms. Popcorn said.

That sort of self assurance was instilled into her at an early age by her parents, George Plotkin and Clara Storper, both of whom were lawyers. Her father had also served in military intelligence, which gave the young Ms. Plotkin insights into human behavior.

She thought of going to law school, then she thought of going into the arts. She'd already been writing poetry, so she thought of becoming a poet.

She wound up in advertising.

The experience helped her hone her writing skills. Her operating mantra was that if a client's mission couldn't be written on the palm of a hand - in other words, if it couldn't tightly framed and pithy - then something was wrong. She also learned the value of brainstorming with colleagues.

And she learned that there was money to be made in advising corporations about their brands, about trends that would affect those brands, and about what they needed to do with sustain the brands.

"In order to turn a business around, or to reposition a brand, a company must be culturally relevant," Ms. Popcorn said.

Her own repositioning consisted of jettisoning Plotkin for Popcorn. It happened in an epiphany.

It was a canny choice, if an unusual one, for it got her notice from the media and from corporate muckamucks. It got her notice from reviewers of books with intriguing titles she'd penned such as "The Popcorn Report" and "Clicking."

And so it was that Ms. Popcorn came to be sought after by companies like Campbell Soup Company; American Airlines; Anheuser Busch; Nabisco; Bacardi; BMW; Kimberly-Clark; Gillette; Nike; General Electric; Coca-Cola; Kodak; MasterCard; Nestle; Procter & Gamble; Unilever; Whirlpool; and Olay.

Her consultancies with these companies typically last from 6 months to 3 years. It wouldn't be inaccurate to suggest that Ms. Popcorn has done very well financially.

And what's the experience like of dealing with CEOs of such top companies?

"A lot of CEOs have great vision, but often no machinery to make it happen," Ms. Popcorn said. "Often the information they get from within their system is sanitized by the time it reaches them. But I have an advantage, especially when it comes to dealing with CEOs who're male."

That being?

"CEOs are used to listening to women - they all have mothers and wives and sisters and daughters," Ms. Popcorn said.

But biology and chemistry isn't the only thing she brings to corporate boardrooms.

"We're like brand doctors, and I'm always direct and candid with my clients," Ms. Popcorn said. "A brand should be the symbol of a corporation's ethics. I also like to emphasis corporate transparency. Consumers are more comfortable with companies if they know what goes into the making of a product - including the management's style and reputation. A good CEO knows how to pick good horses to help run the team."

Working with such CEOs, Ms. Popcorn predicted the demand for "foodaceuticals," a word she coined in 1990 to capture the benefits-added craze seen in supermarket products today. She cites her early identification four-wheel drives. And she said that she the first to anticipate the explosive growth in home delivery, home businesses and home shopping - a phenomenon she calls "cocooning."

I tell my clients, 'The consumer is always waiting for a better version of a product,'" Ms. Popcorn said.

Any trend she'd care to specify?

Ms. Popcorn smiled, and then said: "Yes, that business will always be looking for ways to improve brands."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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