Many of us are not cool. I am not cool. Chances are fairly good, statistically speaking, that you are not cool either. Don't feel bad about it. Cool is an elusive thing. If it weren't, well, we'd all be cool, wouldn't we? And then who would get snubbed in the hallways and made fun of in gym class?
Cool may be our country's most precious natural resource: an invisible, impalpable substance that can make a particular brand of an otherwise interchangeable product--a sneaker, a pair of jeans, an action movie--fantastically valuable. And cool can be used to predict the future. The theory goes as follows: when cool people--a group known to marketers as alpha consumers--start talking or eating or dressing or shopping a certain way, noncool people (a group that most marketers belong to, by the way) will follow them. Watch the cool kids, the alpha consumers, today, and you can see what everybody else will be doing a year from now.
As you can imagine, that kind of information is worth a lot of money to a lot of people, and there is a small but vigorous industry entirely devoted to harvesting it: trend watchers, who figure out what is and isn't cool and sell the information. Most of the people in the small, selective cool industry aren't cool. They just pay cool people to figure it out for them.
And you thought your job was tough.
Irma Zandl wakes up at 5:30 every morning and watches MTV. She reads five newspapers a day. She carries a videocamera wherever she goes, and she goes everywhere--bars, raves, concerts, trade shows. "Car shows are great!" she gushes. "Young people come on Saturday with their dates, and you see what cars they want to have their pictures taken in." She travels four months out of the year. She talks to strangers.
Zandl invented the term alpha consumer, and she's the closest thing the trend business has to a founder. She's been doing it since 1986, back when we thought leg warmers were cool. She has streaky blond hair, oblong glasses and a sunny, irresistible smile. She looks like the fun, cool mom you never had. Zandl doesn't give out her exact age (fortysomething is the most she'll cop to), but she is almost certainly the oldest person in America who regularly uses "holla back" at the end of her e-mails.
Zandl is president of the Zandl Group, a small, boutiquey trend-analysis shop based in Manhattan's beyond-hip SoHo. She speaks with an elusive, unplaceable accent. She was born in Germany and raised in Australia, the world's least and most cool countries, respectively. After Zandl's family moved to Australia, she learned English before her parents did, and she grew up having to interpret for them, teaching them how to fit in, underlining articles in the newspaper for them to read so they could stay au courant. It was good preparation for her unconventional career. "There's that sense of being an outsider and having to be incredibly observant," she muses. "I feel like in some respects I was destined to do this."