Mark Penn is the author of Microtrends, a seminal book for business leaders and strategists in analyzing the small communities of consumers—a mere 1% of the U.S. population will suffice—that increasingly drive major changes in the ways we approach life. Penn is the worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm, and CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, an influential polling firm.

Penn was also advisor to President Bill Clinton and chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and his global list of clients includes such heavyweights as Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Ford, Merck, Verizon and McDonald’s. Penn’s insights have helped to elect more than 25 leaders in the United States, Asia, Latin America and Europe. Penn spoke with NBJ from his offices in Washington, DC.

NBJ: In Microtrends, you cover two areas of particular interest to our audience: health & wellness and food, diet & lifestyle. Any new news on those fronts?

Mark Penn:
We recently updated the book for a paperback edition, and the updates deal mostly with trends that surfaced as a result of the financial crisis. A lot of people speculated that microtrends would be fads, but to me, very few look outdated. In health & wellness, two points come to mind: do-it-yourself doctors (DIYDs) and surgery lovers. Both underscore that once people get involved in the healthcare system, the amount of time they spend online getting information is really quite large. Fewer people go to the doctor without having first learned from the Internet what a likely diagnosis could be, what potential courses of treatment could be, what the likely pharmaceutical prescriptions could be—and I think the desire for this kind of information is only going to grow.

NBJ: Does passage of the Affordable Care Act change the game?

I think that speaks directly to the idea that people are looking for alternative choices. At the bedrock of Microtrends is this idea: Whether it’s religion, coffee or healthcare, we’re seeing these intense, small movements that can create incredibly strong businesses. Are people on the lookout for more alternatives? I think they are. We observe in the book that a new religion is being founded every day. Look at the growth in vegan lifestyles, particularly for children. There are almost two million children who are not eating meat, and that is going to have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. They might grow up to become big meat eaters, but more likely, a growing percentage of the population will never eat meat. Youth veganism will have a significant, long-term effect.

NBJ: What about the archetypes of the supplement industry—fish oil and probiotics. Any trends there?

I do think that the probiotic notion is going to become strongly appealing to consumers. The basic underlying trends are these: people seeking lower-calorie diets, less meat, more exercise, more self-care, fewer doctor visits, and less reliance on conventional medicine. In that context, more people will take probiotics because they think probiotics are good for them. It’s that simple. I’m not going to say that this rises to its own microtrend, because microtrends tend to be larger than specific products.

NBJ: Supplements are such a big world now. Will microtrends surface down the line within that world?

To really analyze the supplement marketplace for trends, you need to ask: “What is it that people are trying to achieve?” Well, people are trying to be smarter, live longer lives, find some kind of specific health benefit. I’d also note that for every trend, there’s a countertrend. So for every percent of patients going to see a doctor, there’s a room full of people trying to self-medicate and take supplements that they think will be more helpful for them in the long run. It will be an interesting space. We did a microtrend on surgery lovers, but I suppose there are also supplement lovers out there. It’s a very significant marketplace that didn’t exist before.

NBJ: Let’s talk about food. Is there anything in the organic world that strikes you as noteworthy?

The trends here are larger scale toward natural, organic and local, and there is a pretty signifi cant segment of the population now willing to pay higher prices for these products, particularly in urban areas where they’re most difficult to obtain. I don’t think we’re seeing any significant debasement of that trend. In terms of the financial crisis—whether the economy would cause people to scale back on these purchases—I don’t see that happening at all. I think the trends tend to overpower belt-tightening by virtue of the cause. We’re not seeing any kind of retrenchment in the growth of these phenomena.

NBJ: We look at Whole Foods’ recent performance and see the same thing. Many analysts suggest to us that you can call natural & organic a trend, but it’s really moved beyond that. People consider healthy food to be an invaluable part of their lifestyle now.

I agree. I think you saw a lot of backtracking in the fashion space. The Saks Fifth Avenues of the world struggled while Walmart benefited. We saw this same phenomenon of greater selectiveness, which could have had Whole Foods on the ropes during the financial crisis. People have decided that natural & organic food is an indispensible part of life. You see the trend toward selectiveness even in fast food now, as companies have had to significantly upgrade the ingredients they use and how they describe those ingredients in terms of flavor and taste. The competition for food has never been more intense.

NBJ: What about the American consumer extending the organic food proposition to other aisles of the grocery store, like personal care and cleaners?

We look at the American consumer as maybe not on the vanguard of organic adoption, but they have certainly come a long way. We also look at consumers in developing markets who have the opportunity to just skip over 50 years of bad stuff and bad decisions. They can skip right over 50 years of conventional choices and lifestyles. Those consumers traditionally did not have the money to make healthy and sustainable choices. As they enter the middle class, we’ll see that these elements of natural, organic, fresh and sustainable are going to become endemic. This is most germane to the BRIC countries, because that’s where economic development is happening. So a lot of the trends that took a long time to develop here in the United States will develop much more quickly in these countries.

The education of these new middle classes tends to be pro-environmental and tends to favor these healthier elements. That’s not an education that was commonplace 50 years ago. Fifty years ago in the United States, we needed advertising to tell us to stop throwing garbage out of moving cars. As these BRIC countries go through their transformation, I think they’re going to leap into these trends much faster, which means that the companies involved have a burgeoning international market that could really become astronomical.