Everyone knows an Alpha -- someone with a unique sensibility and unusual interests. We probably made fun of them in elementary school. Teased them for being oddballs. Now, as adults, they make our lives interesting. But they are still special, still standouts, because once an Alpha, Irma Zandl says, always an Alpha.
"All of us sort of know that first person who, when CDs came out and they were really expensive, they bought them. And we thought, 'What a waste of money,' " says Ms. Zandl, founder of Xtreme Inc., a New York forecasting company specializing in youth trends.
Think of Alphas as the people who are always first to wear it, own it or espouse it. They were the first to discover rap and the first to embrace hip hop. Now they're probably fascinated with '40s- and '50s-style jazz. They were probably the first to drive compact cars, the first to car pool. Maybe they're walking or bicycling to work now.
And even when a trend seems to emerge spontaneously from the masses (buying American, perhaps) there's someone (Lee Iacocca, maybe) who puts the bug in everyone's ear.
Those are Alphas. Ms. Zandl and colleague Richard Leonard say these are the folks who portend what will be bought and what will be sold. The rest of us follow their lead.
Trend forecasters have known for years that people like Alphas existed. Research on them dates at least to the '60s. But what Ms. Zandl and Mr. Leonard have done in their book, "Targeting the Trendsetting Consumer" (Business One Irwin, $27.50), is give them a new name, tell the mainstream who they are and explain why they matter.
Alphas first appeared to Ms. Zandl as an aberration on her nationwide youth panel of people ages 8-24. A sample question: Who would you most like to meet? Typical answer: Michael Jordan. Alpha response: My inner child.
As Ms. Zandl looked back on predictions her company had been making since 1986, she discovered this minority of odd respondents leading the pack. What they said in '86 became mainstream by '87 or '88.
She and Mr. Leonard, an independent marketing consultant in New York, decided to collaborate on the book. They conducted extensive interviews with about 100 people they had identified as or suspected were trendsetters: friends, acquaintances and recommended eccentrics.
"They were people who had prophetic track records," Mr. Leonard says.
The duo analyzed these people's purchase behaviors both independently and collectively. They came up with a detailed profile of Alphas -- approximately one in 20 consumers nationwide but concentrated in New York and California.
More importantly, they had a list of names.
The theory of a minority of consumers influencing the mainstream comes from an unlikely source: epidemiology.
"It's an infection of a population," says Brian J. Gibbs, assistant professor of marketing and behavioral science at Stanford University.
"And the more people who adopt an idea at an early stage, the faster it will spread."
What Mr. Leonard and Ms. Zandl propose is quite simple: If businesses will tap into what Alphas want and what attracts them to certain items, the companies can anticipate mainstream consumer demand.
It works most directly with image-driven products such as fashion, perfume or liquor. (Alphas were the first to embrace the Gap's slick image.) But other manufacturers should take heed, too, say Mr. Leonard and Ms. Zandl. For instance, although Alphas are unlikely to visit fast-food restaurants, they still influence consumers who do. Alphas were the first to adopt low-fat, low-cholesterol diets. They started the healthy-eating bandwagon. The rest of us followed their lead and showed up at McDonald's looking for a leaner burger.
The possible flaws in that theory, Mr. Gibbs says, are that Leonard and Zandl are using hindsight to find a cause-and-effect link.
"It's not just being able to pick out people who are weird, but looking at how other people pick up on what they do," says Mr. Gibbs, who teaches a course on understanding and influencing consumer behavior. "There's not necessarily a reason why that segment should predict what is going to happen in the future. You could just be looking at an extreme."
"Do I believe in the possibility of opinion leadership?" Mr. Gibbs asks. "The answer is yes. Whether you can track it after the fact is questionable."
Ms. Zandl and Mr. Leonard say the profile of trendsetting consumers begins with a look at how they shop.
"I think today consumers have become so sophisticated and savvy thatthey don't believe most advertising. They're not manipulated by traditional techniques. Word-of-mouth is really driving sales," Mr. Leonard says. "Celebrity endorsements don't work unless it's a historically documented user."
Alphas shop by instinct. That's the theory.
, Alphas trust their instincts
Ms. Zandl and Mr. Leonard say Alphas may trust their instincts because they are well-informed -- and not just because of the publications they read, from Rolling Stone to the Utne Reader. Alphas also tend to have an information network. They know "the girl who danced with a boy who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales," the authors explain in their book.
Alphas are cosmopolitan. They value communication -- from verbal to visual -- and they notice details. They are more likely to believe a positive news story about a product than any advertising.
Alphas appreciate authenticity -- think Levi's and Harley-Davidson -- and they applaud innovation. They are involved consumers. When a product serves them well, they are loyal customers who share their satisfaction with their friends. But they are just as vocal with complaints. If a new car doesn't meet their expectations, they not only tell everyone they know but also are likely to tell the salesperson, the dealer and the company's CEO.
Because they have a singular vision, they are drawn to companies and products with unflappable images: Nike, Absolut vodka, Coca-Cola. Sometimes a product's exclusivity attracts them. Other times it's heritage and tradition.
If a company can cover those bases, Alpha consumers will come.
If that's true, automakers should look not only at each other for design clues, but also at the furniture industry. "We're seeing a real shift from streamline, Bauhaus aesthetics to more user-friendly shapes," Mr. Leonard says. And department stores should be dismantling themselves and turning into specialty retailers, which Alphas favor.
Alphas aren't only trendies
But others in the trend business say Mr. Leonard and Ms. Zandl have focused on only one tool for predicting trends.
"Yes, it is true that there are leading-edge groups that are in fact trendsetters. And yes, that does apply in many instances to how trends will evolve," says trend predictor Gerald Celente, author of "Trend Tracking" (Warner Books, $12.95). He also heads New York's Socio-Economic Research Institute, which translate trends into profitable products for Fortune 100 companies.
"No, it's not universal. Current events form future trends more than anything else. Yes, it's true what they're saying, but it's only part of the picture."
Department stores are not gasping for life simply because Alpha consumers are more attracted to boutiques, Mr. Celente says. People won't be turning to generic seltzer water or club soda just because Alphas find them satisfying and are attracted to their simple heritage.
Influences come from sources as diverse as politics, economics and even religion, Mr. Celente says. Department stores, nurtured by the industrial age and targeted at the middle class, are failing because that age is ending and the middle class is shrinking. Inexpensive seltzer water may become popular because money keeps getting tighter.
He says trends don't just come from the coasts, either.