Looking for the next big thing in fashion and retailing? Here's what IBM says: steampunk.
Never heard of it? You will. Steampunk combines the fashion of Victorian England with retro technology to produce a genre of science fiction, clothing, jewelry, and even home decorations. Imagine Sherlock Holmes; the novels of Jules Verne; Charles Babbage's "analytical engine"; and homes filled with ferns, aspidistras, and palms. Imagine Victorian aviators in goggles piloting dirigibles full of brass gears and levers.
Lastly, add a dash of rebellious, non-conforming attitude and you've got the ingredients of steampunk. If IBM is correct, you'll soon be seeing a good deal more of this because, a company press release states, "steampunk will shift from low production, high cost 'craft' manufacturing to mass production."
IBM's prediction comes from its Social Sentiment Index, which uses analytics and natural language processing technologies to analyze volumes of social media posts. IBM calls social sentiment analysis a "new form of market research," although many companies around the world have been analyzing social network data and providing tools almost since these networks began.
To promote its wares, IBM has been issuing a stream of results based on its analysis: Americans last year were feeling more positive about traveling and shopping on Memorial Day, London taxi drivers didn't like traffic restrictions during the Olympics, and Serena Williams and Andy Murray were the most popular 2012 Wimbledon players. None of these is particularly surprising, of course, and one has to wonder how much technology is required to come up with such lightweight insights.
Indeed, how accurate are such analyses and predictions?
Jonathan Taplin, a former television and movie producer and now, director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, says in a video that they can be extremely useful when all that's needed is to distinguish between true opinions and sarcasm, or to sift through hundreds of emoticons (e.g., smiley faces) in Facebook posts. Sentiment analysis has been "extraordinarily predictive" about how well movies will do on opening weekends, he notes. (Not coincidentally, Taplin and the Lab have received grants from IBM.) Some companies are even trying to pick stocks based on mining Twitter feeds.
Not everyone is enthusiastic, though. Matt Rhodes, strategy director of social networking consultants Fresh Networks in London, wrote that while some software-based predictions might seem extremely accurate on the surface, human analysis often finds the conclusions quite inaccurate and unable to effectively distinguish the true emotions expressed on social networks.
Should CMOs begin marshalling plans for taking advantage of steampunk? Perhaps, but not just because IBM says so. You see, steampunk actually isn't so new. I've been reading steampunk fiction for years. Already, many online stores feature steampunk clothing, jewelry, computers, keyboards, and other brass-laden accoutrements. Cool apartments have been designed for steampunk aficionados and several conventions focus on the burgeoning scene.
Which is to say, I haven't noticed steampunk on the rise, but IBM says social networking posts about the fashion have increased eleven-fold since 2009. Interest increased dramatically in October 2010 when the New York Comic Con show chose steampunk as its theme and prompted New York department stores and specialty shops to feature related clothing and accessories.
Dr. Trevor Davis, consumer products expert for IBM Global Business Services, sees major evidence of the fashion's ascent in singer Rihanna's steampunk-inspired performance during the closing the of 2012 Paralympics in London, steampunk's influence on Prada's fall/winter collection, and a US TV network developing a steampunk series for later this year.
And all that, he says, points to a coming surge in steampunk-ish retail sales. Certainly, CMOs in relevant industries should at least be aware of the possibility. But if nothing comes of it, they'll know that IBM's crystal ball needs a good steam cleaning.