Tastemakers: The Companies That Tell Us What We Like and How They Do It

Heads or tails? There's something refreshing about that question. It's simple. Two possible choices. Unfortunately, most decisions are not that easy to make. We are fortunate and unfortunate to live in an era where we are confronted with not one, or two, but nearly infinite options.

This plethora of choices can be overwhelming. In a recent Vanity Fair article President Obama mentioned "research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one's ability to make further decisions. It's why shopping is so exhausting. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia."

Technology is one of the biggest bearers of choice. The Internet is endless. Even the curated Apple App Store has 700,000 different Apps to choose from. But I don't want a list of 50 different recipe apps, I just want to know which recipe app is the best! Hence, a new market has emerged and companies like The Fancy, Pandora and One Kings Lane are capitalizing off our demand to be told what we like. Taste is a definitively human attribute. The only successful way to build a business predicated on taste is to tap into the minds of the tastemakers themselves: the people.

Sourcing The Consumer Crowd: The Fancy

Drawing inspiration and pieces of Pinterest, Amazon and Tumblr, The Fancy harnesses the collective interest of the crowd to source stuff that's just plain "cool." What is hip? A simple question with no definitive or correct answer. Pop culture is an untamed beast which by nature rejects traditional thought or wisdom. Like many other great disruptors, Joe Einhorn, founder of The Fancy, questioned whether we were chasing a mythical creature in "taste" when the source of e-commerce success lies within the crowd. The answer or solution was to design a social network that reflected taste rather than predicted it. The result is 150 million objects collected and curated by The Fancy's very own collective of users. Massive sales and increased user activity has led The Fancy to become the "apple" of Apple's desire as a potential acquisition has been forecasted. Rebellious nature has become inherent in Generation Y as they reject the mere notion that taste can be predicted by an executive looming over endless charts, graphs and analytics of consumer data dedicated to the aggressively sought after 18-35 demographic. Recent studies reveal the evolution of the consumer decision making method has dramatically changed. Because of incessant and meritless advertising, consumers have grown distrusting of company driven marketing. TV commercials and radio jingles used to lure consumers and increase brand loyalty. Now, one of the greatest influencers in the consumer decision making method is recommendations from our peers. For The Fancy, "what is cool" is not a question for one man or woman to answer. Just like it was in high school, cool is determined by us (the collective 'we').

Sourcing The Experts and Big Data: Pandora

Pandora's "Music Genome Project" is a quintessential lesson in limitation. With 58.3 million monthly active users, Pandora accumulates a wealth of data within the time it takes to play one song. By the time you press the "skip" button, Pandora has determined thousands of unique data points about your personal preference. One could even make the argument that Pandora moonlights as a Big Data company, but Pandora understands machines and algorithms are limited when it comes to predicting human taste. Enter Pandora's "Music Genome Project," which is comprised of a team of professionally trained musicians given clear instructions and criteria by which to analyze the music. Utilizing strong backgrounds in musical theory and composition, Pandora's musical analysts explore questions like "How does the face melting saxophone solo featured on Katy Perry's '80s inspired "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" differ from the saxophone solo featured in Eddie Money's '80s hit "Take Me Home Tonight?" The result of Pandora's efforts is superior ability to predict their users' music taste. Every piece of machine generated data is coupled perfectly with data generated by human musical analysts to reveal what you prefer. Musically, Pandora knows you better than you know yourself.

Sourcing The Influencers: One Kings Lane

The formula for One Kings Lane has always been simple: provide previously unavailable access to the tastemakers. Taste, in most circumstances, is inherent. What makes a great interior designer? Can you develop a "great eye" for design? Two questions that are relatively straightforward, yet impossible to answer because they are very much theoretical. Personal style can evolve, be influenced by the people around you and largely determined by where you spend your youth. However, a strong or good sense of style remains a human attribute that appears to be inherent rather than something that can be manifested through education. With over $100 million in sales in 2011, 300 percent growth and well over 2,000 brand partners, it's clear that One Kings Lane's magical formula is working. The secret to their success? Access to the hand-curated home decor items previously unavailable to the average consumer. The opportunity to purchase many of the items on One Kings Lane was once reserved solely for the elite upper class. Similarly to the Living Social model, One Kings Lane is built on the demand for flash sales of luxury goods, experiences and deals in general. Through features like the Tastemaker Tag Sales, One Kings Lane has provided access to the average consumer that was once restricted by the wealthiest people on the globe. The world's greatest designers sell their personal collections and provide opportunities to purchase handpicked items reflective of their inherent taste. Susie Homemaker can benefit from the style choices of the world's foremost tastemakers. Perhaps taste is inherent and cannot be manifested or taught, but that doesn't mean you can't buy it. One Kings Lane lets you do exactly that.

In conclusion, lessons learned from The Fancy, Pandora and One Kings Lane can be summarized by one single point: simplify. In our on-demand society, it's easy to focus on providing a virtual rainbow of choices. We want access to everything, all at once, immediately. Yet, as our lives continue to complicate with thousands of choices made in a day, there is a potential goldmine awaiting any company that can simplify our lives. Tell me what I like, tell me what I should buy, tell me what to wear and tell me what's in good taste. How do you accomplish this? Give us access to the tastemakers: our peers, the experts and the influencers... humans, not machines.