You already know this man. He was the one who decided, right around six months ago, not to renew his iPhone contract because the apps simply weren't worth all the dropped calls. He started watching 30 Rock with Season 3 (while catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 on Hulu) but cleared out the DVR the instant Salma Hayek's character squealed in Spanglish. He sported a lumberjack beard for a while—just like countless woodsmen roaming the hamlets of Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn still do—but by the time Joaquin Phoenix did his pantomime of disillusionment on Letterman, he'd already reached for his razor. And then one recent evening, having discovered somewhat late—but not embarrassingly so—the pleasures of nursing a small-batch bourbon in the dimly lit confines of a neo-speakeasy, he recognized the hollowness at the core of the conversation going on between the mustached mixologist behind the bar and the vest-clad patron sitting at the end of it. So without any undue ceremony, he closed his tab and walked out the unmarked door, never to return to that bar—or any other neo-speakeasy.
You know this man, right? It's just that you've never been properly introduced. He's a lone cowboy by the name of First Dropper, and while we tire climbing the hilly switchbacks of compulsive trend hunting, his straight and level trail is the one we'd all do well to follow. Unlike most consumers, the First Dropper seems to be immune to peer pressure and the sway of marketing gurus; he's propelled instead by an instinctual feel for when a trend has become overvalued. Think of him as a slyly influential arbiter of taste—one who operates as a covert counterweight to his better-known cousin, the Early Adopter.
As the first to cuff his skinny jeans, the first to tout the glories of grass-fed beef, and the first to deem Grizzly Bear the new Arcade Fire, the Early Adopter has long been considered the driveshaft powering the cultural marketplace. But in this era of the Long Tail, when the enormous profusion of ever-nichier trends has brought diminishing returns on each new act of adoption, that perpetually with-it friend of yours is starting to seem less like a maverick than a cool-hunting technocrat—a guy who's willing to do the yeoman's work of keeping track of all the tips being fed through his RSS reader and patient (or is it self-regarding?) enough to select which ones merit tweeting to his "followers." Sure, we're interested in hearing about a new special-edition pair of Wayfarers, but what we really need—at a time when we're beset by a veritable plague of trend spotters—is the guy who can tell us when to let our popped collars lie flat. And our weariness has not gone unnoticed. For marketers, advertisers, Internet-start-up heads, and fashion designers have recently begun the difficult work of identifying and targeting the First Dropper—with the hope of placating him before it's too late or at least knowing if their time is running out.
"The First Dropper is sexy because he's a rugged individualist and scary because he's always upending what others consider hip," says Greg Behr, who coined the term with Billy Warden, his partner at GBW Strategies, a marketing firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. "When the First Dropper finds that things he's been sold don't fully work," adds Warden, "he has the guts to go against the tide and stand up and make a decision on his own. Jesus is the ultimate First Dropper, Ben Franklin and the founders of America were First Droppers, Martin Scorsese and all those rebels in the seventies who pushed the boundaries of film were First Droppers. These are the guys you want to emulate, not the dude who's simply willing to wait in line for two days to be the first to own an iPad."
Now, it bears noting that the Dropper should not be mistaken for that other naysaying social archetype, the Hater. The Hater simply hates. And the reasons why he hates—by never throwing his chips on the table, he guarantees he'll never lose—are so clearly understood that the Hater fails to intimidate. He hates hybrids because everyone in Hollywood is driving them. He hates the new Franzen novel because he hates Franzen the man, not the novel. And he hates the latest hot organic restaurant because it has the gall to serve its incredibly tasty food on small plates. The Hater, in short, has no credibility, whereas the First Dropper, for all his willingness to join a trend before he drops it, is so impervious to influence that he becomes the most credible person you know.
"The person who decides that something is no longer relevant can be just as impactful, even more impactful, than the one who anointed it," says Noah Kerner, the author, along with Gene Pressman, of Chasing Cool: Standing Out in Today's Cluttered Marketplace. "The guy who says no is compelling and mysterious, and he kind of makes you wonder why you're still saying yes. Actually, the guy who says no is always cooler—that is, unless you're talking about sex."