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Trying to put some pop into Baltimore's image

THE BALTIMORE SUN

During the early 1980s, in an effort to jump-start her fledgling business, trend forecaster Faith Popcorn persuaded the management of the private New York Lotos Club to lease her a few rooms.

She installed desks, typewriters, drawing tables and dummy telephones. She called in a few friends to pose as employees, and she had herself an instant office to parade prospective clients through.

Classic Popcorn.

Above all, the 50-something New Yorker is a marketer - at home in the world of spin and gloss, talented at turning a phrase. Even her last name is the result of a story she fabricated and let stand because she was getting good mileage out of it.

Her strategy worked. Today, Popcorn is internationally known, and, through the company she founded in 1974, BrainReserve, she has plied her marketing ideas with a long list of Fortune 500 companies - from IBM to RJR Nabisco Holdings to American Express. Along the way, she has made millions advising executives on how to pave the way into the future based on what consumers want.

Now, for the first time, Popcorn has taken on a city as a client - Baltimore. The Greater Baltimore Alliance will pay her $275,000 - a fraction of her usual $1 million fee - to help create a brand identity and to assess the best businesses for Baltimore to cultivate during the next decade.

"Cities need to be positioned just as much as any other consumer product in order to grow and flourish," Popcorn said. "It was very compelling to be approached by GBA. It indicated right away that this is a group who is really thinking and very future-focused."

For its part, the GBA was attracted as much by Popcorn's high profile as by her success.

"She has a lot of image value for us, because she is well-known," said Ioanna T. Morfessis, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Alliance. "To pay a spokesperson like that, with that kind of reach, would cost millions of dollars."

Among the trends Popcorn takes credit for predicting are home shopping, the popularity of four-wheel drive vehicles and the demand for fresh foods. BrainReserve was instrumental in the creation of Bacardi Breezers, which quickly became the third-largest liquor brand when it launched. She coined the phrase "cocooning," referring to the trend of people retreating to their homes or to "homelike" environments.

Popcorn says she arrives at her conclusions by poring through thousands of consumer and expert interviews conducted by BrainReserve, and by reading, watching television, going to movies, listening to music, scanning the Internet and watching what's new in restaurants - a process she calls "brailling the culture."

"We continually analyze all this data and try to connect the dots into a larger picture that may lead us to a new cultural trend," Popcorn said.

Some of Popcorn's critics have challenged those techniques, the quality of her research and the newness of some of those trends. At least one describes her as more entertainer than forecaster.

Others question whether the image Popcorn will bring to Baltimore is one the region should be projecting. Still others wonder whether Popcorn will be able to transfer her proven talent at marketing corporations to branding and positioning a city.

Just where is the line between fact and fiction when it comes to Popcorn? Charlatan or marketing genius? Does she sell stardust or sock value into company stock?

Foresight for sale

Ask Popcorn why huge corporations have paid her millions of dollars over the years, and she'll tell you it's because she sells them foresight.

"I tell them where the consumer is going, how they can shape their strategy for the future," she said. "I think I'm a friend to a lot of them. Many of them go from company to company, and they rehire me."

In the mid-1990s, Popcorn helped Nabisco launch SnackWell's, one of its cookie brands.

Popcorn was a partner during "some of the best years for the company," said Douglas R. Conant, president of Nabisco Foods Co., in Madison, N.J., referring to the years 1993 to 1995. "We couldn't make enough of [the cookies] for two years. There were people literally fighting over them in grocery stores.

"We worked with Faith to frame out what trends SnackWell's was tapping into," he said. Nabisco recently brought Popcorn back to reinvent the brand, he added.

Conant estimated that one out of three of Popcorn's ideas is a success - a good average, as nine out of 10 new products fail.

"Partnering with her, we've grown sales, market share and earnings," Conant said. "But even when we don't hit a home run, it's worthwhile, because we get terrific consumer insight and fresh thinking."

Not everyone's review of Popcorn is so generous.

Peter Francese, who founded American Demographics magazine in 1978 and is now a private consultant, finds her work more entertainment than substance.

Her style so rankled Francese that in the mid-'90s he declined an $8,000 speaker's fee when he learned that Popcorn would be the keynote speaker.

"I felt at that time she was saying things about demographic trends that I knew to be patently false," Francese said. "But she said them in such an entertaining way that I knew if I said so in a speech, I'd be in a position of rolling my eyes and cleaning up after her. I do not begrudge her celebrity or fame or the money she makes from this. But make no mistake, she's an entertainer. She plays fast and lose with the facts."

Bruce Meyers, retired from BBDO Worldwide in New York, an advertising firm where he was head of strategy and new business, said he has been amazed for years at Popcorn's ability to create an industry around herself.

"My personal opinion is that a lot of what she says is unreliable," said Meyers, who now works as a consultant in advertising and marketing. "This can be a business with a great deal of smoke and mirrors and hype and charlatanism and people trying to differentiate themselves. You have to be very measured in what you do about predicting the future."

Doubts about research

Meyers also raises doubts about the depth of Popcorn's research - going so far as to voice suspicions about the existence of the thousands of questionnaires and interviews she touts.

"In my peer group, we discuss them sometimes, and people question it," he said.

Popcorn's answer is that people might doubt the existence of the questionnaires and interviews because BrainReserve is not a research house and doesn't publish its results.

Despite doubters such as Meyers, Popcorn has her believers.

Arthur Shapiro, who holds a national sales position with Seagram North America, was a subscriber to Popcorn's now-discontinued TrendPaks - bimonthly boxes of unusual items that arrived packed, appropriately, in popcorn - at a cost of about $15,000 annually.

Shapiro talks with Popcorn periodically.

"I do think she's one of the top trend forecasters," he said. "She is very gifted in naming and bringing to life complex social change. ... There's a value in someone who can clearly crystallize what's going on."

John McManus, associate publisher of American Demographics, agreed that articulating trends is Popcorn's strong suit.

"She can describe a trend as well as anyone in the business," he said. "She would have gone away a long time ago, if she had not proven that you can go to the bank with some of her so-called predictions."

Steeped in analysis

If she weren't a futurist, Popcorn says, she'd be a private detective. "Popcorn PI," she'd call her agency.

As the daughter of two lawyers, Popcorn grew up steeped in analysis and debate.

"I learned how to look into things and discover things," she said. "We are cultural detectives."

From her mother, she learned a brand of daring that helped shape her into a woman poised enough to flaunt a fuchsia stripe in her hair, confident enough to presume to advise billion-dollar corporations.

"My mother told me women could do anything and should," Popcorn said. "The rules were not for her."

Popcorn was born in New York City sometime in the 1940s - she is admittedly secretive, even untruthful, about her age. She spent her early years in China, where her father previously had been stationed as an Army captain and had taken a job as a lawyer for the Criminal Investigation Division, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency.

While there, Popcorn learned to speak three dialects of Chinese. She came to love the people and culture in a way that would draw her back halfway around the world years later when she decided to adopt a child.

Popcorn and her family returned to New York's Lower East Side in 1950. With both her mother and father at work, Popcorn and her sister were largely raised by grandparents. Popcorn studied Method acting at the High School for the Performing Arts and in college.

She graduated from New York University in 1964, according to university records, although she claims 1967.

She was married briefly to a doctor during the '60s and worked at four advertising jobs before launching BrainReserve in 1974, with then-partner Stuart Pittman.

BrainReserve operates from an Upper East Side brownstone, two blocks from Central Park.

There, Popcorn and 22 employees plot the future - recently adopting the line "Objects in the future are closer than they appear."

Women in black

The uniform in the mostly female office is black. For Popcorn, the clothes are typically Armani or Issey Miyake. That's Miyake, like Sissey Miyake, the name of her Japanese Chin, a mop of a dog that roams the office and spends as much time as possible in Popcorn's lap.

The townhouse is both home and office to Popcorn, who reserves the fourth, fifth and sixth floors as living quarters for her and her 2-year-old daughter g.g, and the house staff.

BrainReserve is at once serious and lighthearted, prone, say employees, to impromptu songfests interspersed in workweeks that stretch from 70 to 90 hours.

Those sessions recently helped launch Popcorn's line of women's office furniture through the Hooker Furniture Corp., which features felt-lined jewelry trays, glass vases for flowers and matching children's desk-step stools.

The staff also just celebrated another new venture - the release last month of "EVEolution," a book co-written by Popcorn that advises corporations on how to market to women.

Soft spot for animals

Weekends, Popcorn retreats to a rose-covered cottage on a swan pond in East Hampton.

It's a town where Popcorn is personally acquainted with the dog warden, having brought him so many suspected strays that he told her not to show up again.

Popcorn, it turns out, has a soft spot for animals. She is even a stickler about freeing trapped moths.

Her employees know Popcorn's idiosyncrasies. They also know they will be the target of her makeovers. Hair. Clothes. Accessories. It's all fair game.

Popcorn's self-appointed mission is to lead people into their best future.

In the months to come, she'll try to do that for metropolitan Baltimore, where the city has a dwindling population, 300 murders a year and troubled schools.

She will try to do what she has done for hundreds of corporations - pave the way into the future.

Popcorn will do that, she says, by helping the region understand and anticipate consumer and corporate behavior, by showing how to leverage that insight through new products, services and workspace designed to meet the needs of future customers.

"The power of branding a community is in the power to design a product that responds to the needs of citizens of the future," Popcorn said. "This is not about pretending Baltimore's problems don't exist. It's about creating a vision that millions can share and that becomes a magnet which allows the community to deal with its negative realities honestly and reverse them."

Baltimore as a brand

The Baltimore project, which initially met with some opposition from GBA board members, kicked off in March with an all-day session in which people from a range of industries, including retail, public policy, government, art and business, gathered to talk about Baltimore as a brand.

Popcorn told the group: "This is my first city, town, community that I've worked with. It's kind of thrilling. I would like my first assignment in this way really to have been successful.

"I'll do anything I can in my talking out there to make sure that people are noticing Greater Baltimore."

Walter D. Pinkard Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Colliers Pinkard commercial real estate agency and a GBA member, was skeptical about the Popcorn project early on. But he was converted after doing some research.

"I called some of her clients, and it was amazing the accolades they gave her," he said. "The biggest risk is that there's no track record for this for a region."

Popcorn will encourage those working on the Baltimore project to tap into the larger trends that she has predicted for the next decade, focusing on the ones that have the greatest chance of success in the region.

"What will emerge for us from a marketing standpoint are two or three areas that we want to use to brand Baltimore, ideas we'll stick with for five to seven years," Morfessis said.

Site-selection strategies

Daniel Malachuk, Arthur Andersen's worldwide director of Business Location Services, will try to use those ideas to develop site-selection strategies.

The idea is to equip the Baltimore region with the kinds of buildings that the businesses of the future will find appealing, surrounded by neighborhoods where people will want to live and play.

Popcorn's work will take about nine months, and Baltimore is expected to quickly chart a road map for its future.

But it might be years before that work produces results in terms of new business.

"I'm appalled," said Francese, the American Demographics founder. "Let's not confuse entertainment with solving the urban problems of America. If you're going to think about solving urban problems, whether it be in Baltimore or any other city, you ought to think about using someone with some experience."

Risk of looking silly

Marc A. Weiss, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, who was paid $60,000 to write a 115-page economic plan for Baltimore last year, doubts Popcorn's ability to translate what she's done for corporations into a strategy that helps Baltimore.

"I would be very skeptical, because branding a company or marketing a set of products is completely different from understanding the dynamics of a metropolitan region," he said. "On the up side, she may draw attention to Baltimore, but the danger is Baltimore may become a laughingstock."

He likened the use of Popcorn to presidential candidate Sen. Al Gore's hiring of feminist author Naomi Wolf as a consultant and the embarrassment that ensued.

"I question the image value," he said. "It may be the wrong image. You don't want to be seen as frivolous. There's some risk to that."

"They're spending a lot of money on someone who is an unproven commodity in this field," Weiss said. "She might be awesome. But it's kind of a big gamble."

Meyers, the former BBDO strategist, also has reservations. "I'd be skeptical of anyone undertaking a plan on what Baltimore should be 10 years from now, when you can't get rid of the systemic problems you have going on in cities now," he said. "It takes a lot of expertise across lots of disciplines."

But Nabisco's Conant thinks Popcorn's talents are suited to helping a region sell itself.

"She understands branding and marketing," he said. "Any organization is capable of operating in a narrow paradigm of thought. You bring Faith in to offer another paradigm."

Something missing

Despite her fame and success, Popcorn concluded last year that there was something missing from her life. In March 1999, she boarded a plane bound for the Anhui province outside Shanghai in China. Five days later, Popcorn was back in New York City with a 10-month-old daughter she named Georgica Swan Pond Rose Petal Qi Xin Popcorn. She calls her simply g.g.

Popcorn is surprisingly humbled in the face of motherhood. "No matter where you are, what you're doing, you're worrying," Popcorn said. "You worry about [your child's] friends, about schools, about ethics. ... I think the surprise is how much you can love someone."

Popcorn's world has changed in visible ways, too. Every landing on the spiral staircase of her brownstone has been fitted with a baby gate. A stroller is parked inside the entry way. A Mandarin teacher comes in to speak to g.g. only in Chinese. Two other nannies cover a patchwork of days, nights and weekends.

Even as Popcorn was making plans to go to China, she questioned her decision.

"I was terrified," she said. "I have a very good life. What am I doing? It wasn't like I yearned to have children all my life. I didn't. If I wanted something, I had it."

Popcorn's decision to adopt had much to do with the desire to leave a legacy, she said. "I realized I had no one to teach anything to," she said. "It made me sad."

The consummate marketer - the woman who has made millions based on her ability to spot an angle, weave a tale, spin an image - Popcorn noted enthusiastically that the adoption has a side benefit for her business as well.

"It repositions us," she said. "It makes us more human."

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