Instrumented Interconnecteds Intelligent

Dr. Trevor Davis, Consumer Products Expert, IBM Global Business Services

By Dr. Trevor Davis

Today, smart retailers are using sentiment analysis and social listening to keep one step ahead of trends as they develop – identifying which trends have staying power, when to act on them, and how to use them to their best advantage.

Some social media trends come and go in a day.  Some can remain unnoticed for years until they spring into public consciousness and everyone realises that the trend had been there all along – suddenly, like the exclusive model of automobile you just bought, ‘it’ is everywhere.

Some trends, like ‘steampunk,’ take decades to build momentum and make the break into the mainstream. Perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. What is steampunk and why should you care?

Steampunk is usually defined as a sub-genre of science fiction that concentrates on alterative world stories inspired by the technology, clothing and social mores of Victorian society. The stories of Jules Verne and H G Wells are often cited as inspirations. If you are a film fan you may have had a taste in the Will Smith movie “Wild, Wild, West” with steam-powered machines set in the Old West. Maybe you were in New York at Christmas 2011 and saw Macy’s holiday window dressed by designer Paul Olszewski in steampunk style.

Click the image to view an infographic of the Birth of a Trend.

The aesthetics of steampunk are broad and diverse – goggles, intricate jewelry based on clockwork, exquisite frock coats, corsets, top hats, brass and leather.  Steampunk isn’t just about fiction any more, and it isn’t just for fans. Interesting to note, 33 percent of the chatter about fashion can be found on gaming sites.

Gaining Momentum

The trajectory for steampunk as a popular social and cultural trend is on the rise. From 2009 to 2012 the amount of social media chatter about steampunk rose by an astonishing 11 times. Recently, the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony put the global spotlight on steampunk when singer Rihanna made her entrance on a steam sailing-ship to a world television audience of 3.4 billion. In addition, Lady Gaga has been photographed in neo-Victorian garb. Now a US television network is writing a steampunk-inspired TV show for the fall 2013 season.

As this trend gains momentum, the business opportunity around steampunk is being capitalized on by forward-looking retailers.  Perhaps most notably is the current Prada Fall/Winter collection for men – elegant, stripped-back steampunk fashion modelled by Gary Oldman, Garrett Hedlund, Jamie Bell, and Willem Dafoe.  Where high fashion leads, everyday fashion follows quickly in a season or two.

The Science of Trend Spotting

Unlike my previous work on Cycle Chic (where the trend moved geographically over time) steampunk has become a style influence on mainstream clothing, accessories and home furnishings after several cultural leaps. In social media it is possible to analyse the move from fiction to fandom and music-making. Then to low-volume craft-makers to costuming. Next, promotion by cool-hunters and the attention of a few leading retailers. Now celebrities, high fashion and interior design.

For steampunk, the tipping point came in October 2010, when NYC ComicCon and a NYC Haunted House Halloween event both featured steampunk themes. Two months after that exposure, the level of social chatter more than doubled. Shortly thereafter, US department stores and specialty retail shops began to feature steampunk-inspired window displays and steampunk-inspired clothing and accessories as ways to increase footfall.

We’re used to seeing trends develop geographically and chronologically. But thanks to advanced IBM analytics we can now measure trends in a third dimension: across cultural domains. For retailers and manufacturers, the beauty of seeing trends in “three dimensions” is being able to identify enduring trends before they’re big on Facebook and Twitter (and note that Twitter has six times the steampunk chatter as Facebook). This enables the smart money to get in front of the trend before it saturates the mainstream.

For steampunk, the next two years will witness the shift from low production, high cost “craft” manufacturing to mass production. Mainstream fashion labels, accessories and jewelry will all begin adopting a steampunk aesthetic. For retailers, this is the moment to start laying the groundwork to capitalize on this emerging trend.

Follow the conversation at #IBMPopData or #NRF13.

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