Trying to put some pop into Baltimore's image

Consultant: Faith Popcorn has made millions helping companies "position" themselves. Can she work the same magic for Charm City?

July 09, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

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.

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