This article was prompted by a conversation with a senior global marketer at a large (and European headquartered) multinational, who maintained that "at the end of the day, all consumer trends originate in the US".
Which led me, along with a good many of my colleagues from across the Flamingo universe, to consider where this kind of worldview might be coming from, and how widespread it might be. It seems it is not an isolated opinion, but reflects a still pervasive cultural bias among some high-ranking and influential opinion-formers guiding strategy in large companies.
The scale of US cultural influence
In a couple of respects this view is not entirely wrong: viewed in terms of scale/noise/sheer numbers of people exhibiting a certain consumer behaviour, there is truth in the observation that large-scale consumer trends (behaviours) are indeed often to be seen first in the US. This is partly due to the sheer economic power behind them, and because of the continuing reach of the US media machine.
And also, there are some categories (alcohol being one, tech and digital media certainly being others, as well as entertainment—movies, music, increasingly TV in our post-HBO world) where US cultural influence still over-indexes versus other parts of the world.
But, and this is a giant 'but', do even these examples demonstrate that the US is the originator of so many (let alone all) consumer trends?
So many counter-examples
The most straightforward point to make is that we can identify lots of trends that started outside the US.
- Beauty: US consumers may still contribute significantly to the roughly $400 billion global beauty market, but Korea is the really big originator of trends. Take the worldwide phenomenon that is BB cream.
- Fashion: Note the extensive influence from Scandinavia (Acne, Cos) and vibrant cities like Seoul, Tokyo, increasingly Lagos, as well as the continued relevance, London/Paris/Milan etc.
- Food: Again, look at Scandinavia (see Noma, and its offshoots), Spain (look at tapasification as a trend now cutting across categories), Japan (ditto with sushi), Vietnam, Lebanon, Mexico, and on and on.
- Design: And again, Scandinavia, Japan, Berlin
Music is a really interesting one. The sheer strength of the domestic market makes it seem as is the US music-industry machine is still a powerful driver. But look at the influence, even in the US, of UK retro-inspired acts like Amy Winehouse and Adele. And even more interesting from a UK-US perspective, look at UK grime. It definitely riffs off certain parts of the US hip-hop continuum, but it avoids the luxury brands associated with that scene for a more high-street consumer mentality: JD Sports and McDonalds, not Gucci and Moet. It’s not about US notions of rags to riches success. It’s in fact somehow more socialist. And now Kanye and Drake are fighting to be the act that brings the scene to the US. And this is a scene that’s truly British in values. (Also, remember that the Beatles were kind of doing this 50 years ago.)
And then there's alcohol. As we know, a lot of vibrancy in alcohol has been driven by the US:
- The resurgence of whisky, led by bourbons and ryes
- Powered by a certain tranche of cocktail culture, which owes no small debt to Mad Men, the movement we now call craft, which has changed the game in beer, and increasingly spirits (gin, etc.).
- Cocktail culture and the cult of the mixologist as a whole.
Those are the obvious examples, but what about:
- Japanese whisky: An emerging force to be reckoned with across Europe (minimal design aesthetic, pure product focus, multiple awards)
- Absinthe: Nothing American about that: it channels a very romantic/bohemian continental European-ness
- Ever-resilient Italy: Look at what Aperol has managed to achieve, and the prosecco revolution.
The multipolar world we now live in
The point is, trends are coming from an ever-broader range of sources. And it’s increasingly hard to point to their exact places of origin.
On one hand, the notion of a trend ‘coming from somewhere’ increasingly suggests a rather outmoded diffusion model in the hyper-connected world we now inhabit. Where does an Internet meme ‘come’ from?
But on the other, we see influence emanating from the hyper-local. It’s less and less helpful to think in terms of countries when cities (or more likely parts of cities) are the origins or, more commonly, the vivid manifestations of trends. So LA, Brooklyn, Portland, rather than the US as a whole.
In fact, there's currently a particular energy around West Coast cities: not just Portland/Seattle but LA and San Francisco are more influential again. But then there are also masses of energy in more and more cities around the world, all of whom have decent access to the tools needed to propagate their scene, and an increasingly open-minded audience for what they have to offer.
High Snobiety recently published a list (one among hundreds no doubt available on the web) of the 15 supposedly most influential cities for fashion right now. Only two are in the US. The rest did include many usual suspects (Melbourne, Amsterdam, Berlin, Seoul, London) but also Antwerp, and it probably should have made room for Lagos, or Mumbai. Other such lists will cite Bangkok, Mexico City, even Pyongyang. So US cities really are competing on a bigger and bigger playing field.
So why might it still seem to some that America is still so dominantly influential?
The US is a better ‘amplifier’ than an ‘originator'
This gets to the heart of the whole conversation, which accounts for the fact that lots of trends might feel like they come from the US, even if they actually originated elsewhere. The US is an extremely good amplifier and broadcaster of trends. America is very good at systemising, promoting, getting behind things...so that niche or diverse influences that might come from other cultures seem to finally go 'mainstream' once America adopts them.
The much celebrated (and now increasingly derided) thing we call 'hipster' culture is a good lens through which to look at this. Its 21st century incarnation has roots in Melbourne, where Ksubi got skinny jeans going in the early '90s; London, which gave us the Libertines and indie-punk; Paris, through Hedi Slimane and Dior Homme; Berlin, Copenhagen, Tokyo and etc.
But almost everything written about hipster culture these days pins it on Brooklyn or Portland. And, although the US obviously played a big part in shaping the movement—white t–shirts, plaid shirts, beaten up jeans, leather boots, Ralph Lauren, craft alcohol, fixies—it didn’t all start there. The Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg didn’t start hipster culture or the craft trend, but it crystallised them, mainstreamed them, and projected an off-the-shelf hipster narrative to the world.
American culture is a master at Americanising (packaging and marketing) trends coming from elsewhere.
Cultural history is littered with examples of the US adapting trends to meet local market tastes, and often claiming them in a way that obscures their origin. Look at fitness trends like American Ninja Warrior (of Japanese origin). And of course everybody knows it’s really Indian, but the particular brand of yoga most of the world now knows as yoga, as practised by Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, somehow seems as if it actually comes from Malibu.
Outside of fitness, the whole immersive theatre movement (like New York’s Sleep No More) originated in London as Punch Drunk.
So coming back to the original assertion, it might be worth rewinding for a minute about what we mean by trends. If we’re talking about origins of behaviour, these are clearly not all in the US.
But if we think in terms of seeing a groundswell of behaviour on a graph, America is such a big consumer market that in many ways we do see things becoming big consumer behaviours in the States, even if they originate elsewhere, and then they often do get seen and picked up by the rest of the world.
So let’s not entirely downplay America’s continuing powerful cultural and economic influence (particularly in Western Europe, where the cultural channels of communication obviously have the deepest roots, stretching back centuries). Also, it’s worth remembering we’re still talking about the world’s largest economy, and home to 40 percent of the planet's high-net-worth individuals (versus 3 percent in China).
But there’s just so much going on now, in so many parts of the world. The US is just one, albeit influential, player in a cacophony of cultural forces and consumer trends coming from more and more places, and spreading further and wider across the globe.
David Burrows is board director with Flamingo Group