Carlos Centeno, 21, had been enrolled at the University of Kansas for just one semester. He was born in Lawrence (his dad was an international student at KU), but he'd grown up in his family's native Venezuela and transferred from a private business school in Caracas in the fall of 2001. He was a tall kid with green eyes and short-cropped hair who generally wore thrift-store clothes. He spoke English impeccably, except for curling his vowels in a Spanish drawl.
When he arrived in Lawrence, Centeno faced the same social purgatory a kid from Dodge City or Goodland might have. He knew no one.
Centeno lived in Jefferson Commons at 31st and Iowa and rode the bus to school. After class on most days, he would walk down the hill to Massachusetts Street. He'd listen to music in record shops and read magazines at the back of bookstores so he wouldn't have to buy them. A journalism major, Centeno had written a few music articles for a newspaper back home. He considered himself a budding critic.
For the most part, the questions on the test seemed straightforward:
Did he have a computer? What kind? Did he have Internet access? What form?
What equipment do you own, the questionnaire asked, listing the relevant possibilities: minidisc player, digital camcorder, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation 2, Game Boy, DVD player, MP3 player.
His interrogators sounded like members of a junior high clique, wanting to know his favorite video games, magazines and Web sites; his favorite three recording artists; his favorite movies, clothing brands, sneaker brands.
Then they quizzed him on his knowledge of Lawrence: What record stores were in town? Music venues? Clothing stores? Skate- and snowboarding shops? Movie theaters?
Then they gave the command that comes standard on entrance exams everywhere: Tell us a little bit about yourself (hobbies, interests, etc.).
Now, Centeno is vague about how he filled out the test. He tells the Pitch that he reads small but well-known hip-hop magazines. That his three favorite music groups are Latin and Afro-Cuban acts. And that the Beatles' Revolver always anchors any list of his favorite albums. His favorite movie: Fight Club, in part because he'd read the book by Chuck Palahniuk. His favorite place to shop: Urban Outfitters.
He won't say anything more because he later learned that the test is like a sifter, separating people who are too mainstream or square from people who are cool.
The test had been on a job application for Cornerstone Promotions, a New York company that promotes musical acts, trendy gear and various other consumer products. The company had apparently divined an empirical way to measure hipness.
Seven months after he'd taken the test, Cornerstone executives called Centeno to offer him a position with their Field Activation and Research Marketing (FARM) team.
Though Centeno's new employers had never met him in person, his test results must have confirmed that he was, in the industry lingo, a "trendsetter." Centeno had applied for the position because he was interested in hip-hop culture, and the company put out a hip-hop magazine. Cornerstone managers responded in kind: They were interested in him, and their offer was the hip-hop equivalent of a shoe logo on a Little League coach's cap. Draped in industry gear and backed up by insider information, he would be transformed from anonymous college kid to campus hip-hop expert.
In a fitting introduction to the United States of consumer-obsessed America, Centeno earned his first-ever paycheck in this country by selling his unique style. He would proceed to take on the persona of corporate-codified cool.
Traditionally, the definition of cool is that it just is. It's like obscenity -- you know it when you see it. It's a look, a feeling, an intrinsic quality, a state of mind.
But it's also an economic buzzword, the element that determines which products the public will buy and which will bomb; it's a coveted special ingredient that dictates a product's shelf life. Find that x-factor before a competitor, and profits -- especially those reaped from easily influenced and highly influential young people -- could be unlimited.
In the mid-'90s, this search gave rise to a new breed of professionals: "Coolhunters," sleuths trained to spot the next hot thing. In 1997, New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell followed Baysie Wightman, a general-merchandise manager who worked for Reebok, and DeeDee Gordon, who worked for a Los Angeles advertising firm, as they searched for kids who could spot coolness. Historically, Gladwell wrote, the idea of what was cool had been based on a trickle-down philosophy, with highbrow clothiers dictating style to the masses. But within the last few decades, he argued, the flow became a trickle-up phenomenon as kids with independent ideas started bucking trends. Gladwell couched his theory in diffusion research: the strategy of tracking how ideas spread (the best-known example was a study that traced how farmers in Greene County, Iowa, in 1928, decided to plant a new type of corn seed). Diffusion research revealed that most lifestyle changes follow patterns, spreading from a few "innovators" and expanding exponentially among other groups of people -- the "early adopters," the "early majority," the "late majority" and "laggards" -- mostly by word of mouth.
Today, coolhunting has become a multimillion-dollar industry. Coolhunters deploy en masse, chasing kids and developing flowcharts organized by age, sex and geographical location, mapping interests, styles and product choices. At Youth Intelligence, a New York-based coolhunting clearinghouse, executives travel the country three times a year, handpicking trendsetters for a 2,000-person stable of Internet-connected tastemakers. And similar companies on both coasts use these über-hip advisers -- a coolocracy -- to help develop trend reports used by Fortune 500 companies for their marketing strategies.
But the proliferation of cool has made coolness harder to find. As everyone knows, once something goes mainstream, it loses its coolness. In the Internet age, new cool can be identified and disseminated in a matter of seconds.
"Something is cool for five minutes, and then it's over," says Clare Ramsey, a consultant with Youth Intelligence. Ramsey's company last visited Kansas City more than three years ago, she says, recruiting 32 coolhunters from places like Streetside Records, Hollister, Dave's Stagecoach Inn, Torre's Pizza, the Gap, Coach, Midwest Cyclery, Winstead's and the Shawnee pool. At the Pitch's request, Ramsey tried to reach her insiders by e-mail. She got no response. "The people I had on e-mail clearly were not active participants, so I threw the file away," she says. Most companies focus on the coasts, Ramsey adds, ignoring Midwest outposts like our town.
"We're tying to go places where you'll find some trendsetters," Youth Intelligence founder Jane Rinzler Buckingham told Time magazine last September. "We want to go to Kansas City. But it's hard to find 100 trendsetters in Kansas City."
Don't worry. That statement was so last fall.
After all, Kansas City is just 30 miles from Lawrence. In late March, the New York Times published an article about Cornerstone Promotions' young tastemakers, a squad of kids, like Carlos Centeno, building hoopla for major company products. The company had been plugged into Lawrence since it began in 2000.
"The school itself attracts a lot of kids around the area and has a great word of mouth that helps spread to the targeted region," Cornerstone marketing director John Staub tells the Pitch. "Kids there have their ears to the ground, which to us is more the issue of trendsetting."
Cornerstone operates on a build-it-yourself model for trendmaking. "Cornerstone doesn't have to hunt for cool. We help create it," co-president Jon Cohen writes in the company brochure. Company strategists use an "under the radar, nontraditional, viral marketing approach to influence the influencer."
That would be its employees, such as Centeno.
Contracting with companies such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Diesel, Disney, Microsoft, Nike, Nokia, Sony, Tommy Hilfiger and once-small musical acts like the Vines, the firm uses cool kids on campuses nationwide to pimp its clients. Within each market, the company also distributes Fader, a glossy hip-hop GQ knockoff with a circulation of just 85,000 nationwide, stacked with articles about up-and-coming acts, some of which Cornerstone represents.
The marketing theory is that with the right packaging and salesperson, college kids will buy into anything. Working for Cornerstone, Centeno would get a chance to meet people while he worked the clubs and streets, giving out samples -- Sprite bottles, Coldplay CDs, Outkast vinyl -- to his peers to create demand. Centeno would hobnob with students, retailers and concert promoters to raise brand awareness for Cornerstone's clients. He would become a "lifestyle influencer."
Before Centeno, Cornerstone's "lifestyle influencer" had been a shaggy-haired, self-described party kid named Justin Montag, who had worked at campus radio station KJHK 90.7.
Montag often hosted informal gatherings in his second-story loft on Massachusetts Street to show off the newest Xbox game or play newly dubbed remixes. He also passed out goodies during parties he'd throw at the Replay Lounge. "I was doing it more for the fact of just getting free shit," Montag tells the Pitch.
But Montag later bought into the system. By the time he graduated in December 2001 and moved to New York City to take a full-time job at Cornerstone, working for the same bosses who'd been feeding him free shit, he had developed a small network of shops to work with, retail stores like 7th Heaven, Arizona Trading Company and The Love Garden.
Centeno didn't have a hip base of operations. He lived with a graduate student in an apartment complex out by Kansas Highway 10. But Cornerstone endowed him with everything he needed to be cool, just as it had done with Montag. Every week Centeno received six boxes filled with stacks of Fader, and posters, stickers, CDs and vinyl.
"I was overwhelmed when I saw all the boxes," he says. "Getting a box of sixty CD singles is overwhelming, and then the next day getting a hundred more. And then you start seeing how to work it, and you see that in a week and a half you need more boxes."
Centeno was embedded, and he was ambitious. Independent of his Cornerstone gig, he earned a DJ slot on a Saturday-afternoon show on KJHK. There, he met an eclectic group of DJs and musicians. He also joined a prejournalism club and began writing freelance articles for the University Daily Kansan.
By August 2003, Centeno had found an identity on campus.
He killed his off-hours at Henry's Café -- a space filled with political paintings and clocks set for different time zones -- where kids gathered to drink coffee and write and draw. Decked in a T-shirt and trousers and his dad's 1960s brown leather jacket, he sometimes carried fliers for his friends' dance shows in his back pocket. On Fridays, Centeno and his friends went to underground dance parties at places like the Pool Room, a dark, smoke-filled dive with low-slung ceilings off 9th and Iowa, where more than 150 kids -- among them late-night DJs, radio personalities and major promoters -- gathered to watch MCs wage spit-boxing battles and B-boys engage in breakdancing contests. He spent Saturdays in a foam-lined studio amid voluminous CD stacks, co-hosting "Latin Lab" on KJHK with fellow DJ Joe McGuire. On Saturday nights, he would hit the Bottleneck or a house party.
At first, he tried passing out fliers between classes at Wescoe Beach, a concrete quad with large planters, where students went to study, smoke cigarettes and get face time. But the scene had too many other barkers -- kids passing out handbills -- and no one paid much attention. Instead, he started stopping by a kiosk near Bailey Hall. Kids slowed down to take his fliers, jamming traffic flow and drawing more attention. He'd pass out music info during the Tunes at Noon concerts outside the Kansas Union, or reduce his workload by combining forces with safe-sex promoters passing out condoms.
Centeno's target: "Hipsters with money," he says. And while schlepping corporate schlock might sound like selling out, Centeno says no one gave him a hard time.
Not when he handed out coasters to kids bustling between classes, not when he interrupted a dancer at the Mars Volta show at The Granada to put a magazine in his hand, not when he stood up onstage at the School of Rock preview in Kansas Union's Woodruff Auditorium to ask inane trivia questions about Jack Black and the scene devolved into something resembling a '70s game show.
"I was nervous because I didn't know how people were going to react to a ton of free stuff, and then I realized everyone wants free stuff," Centeno says.
Centeno says no one questioned his motives as a corporate courier; after all, he had enough goodies to share with everyone. For some kids, the fact that Centeno not only gave hook-ups but also made money doing it proved that he was actually using the system. Any idea that corporate equals bad seemed to have been replaced by a use-use theory: Big business is onmipresent, so how can you manipulate it?
"You feel a little, like maybe 10 percent, like a capitalist bitch. But 90 percent of you is telling you that this is free, they like it, so you might as well give it to them, you know?"
He says Cornerstone paid him a pittance. But he knew he was learning skills that would serve him well later, out on his own. He crisscrossed the city, tacking fliers to major billboards on campus and then going door-to-door at retail shops downtown. He set up Xbox gaming demonstrations in video and comics stores, previewing the Doom-style game Serious Sam months before its release date. Kids lined up to see if the game justified its hype. Each month, the company sent him a new Xbox game to preview.
"All he had to do was fine-tune it and let it generate," says 7th Heaven employee CJ Wilford, who also works as a DJ.
In June, he worked the Sprite Remix tour with Prince Paul at the Pool Room, giving away bottles of soda. In September, he worked the Outkast CD-release blitz, giving early copies of Speakerboxxx/The Love Below to record stores and the DJs at KJHK, plastering posters around town and doling out a limited number of records to local backers.
"He probably sold 150 of those records himself," says Edwin Morales, a local music promoter.
He tracked the local radio play of Coldplay, Outkast, the Vines and Jurassic 5 to tell executives when their stars had faded. He filed Internet reports five times a week, each coded categorically (lifestyle, music, campus media or street) to detail the strategy, nature, locations, attendance and impact of his effort. Using a digital camera, he chronicled his progress for his bosses, sending them e-mails with snapshot evidence of his scene penetration -- women holding copies of Fader, him throwing soda bottles to a crowd. He also suggested new ways that they could break into the market -- such as revamping some outdated posters or sending more stickers to hand out.
After just two weeks on the team, Centeno was named rep of the week. He got an autographed Coldplay poster and a bonus.
Centeno needed to complete an internship for his journalism class, so in January 2004 he lined up a one-month unpaid gig with a firm's magazine office in New York City. By then, though, the flow of gratis products had nearly evaporated. He spent his winter break watching as reps in the firm's home office ran guerrilla ops through the streets of the city. But none of the strategists at Cornerstone seemed interested in his plans to fine-tune the sales blitz in Lawrence.
In the two years since he'd taken the test, Centeno had met hip-hop legends like Domino from the Hieroglyphics and Jurrassic 5. He'd tuned in to monthly conference calls with Outkast's Andre 3000 and Serj Tankian from System of a Down. He had been on the front lines for major entertainment events attended by students from all social circles. But he had no idea how his work boosted Cornerstone's bottom line. In reality, Centeno was just one of a national network of street-level grunts, executing orders.
In the use-use relationship between Centeno and Cornerstone, the company has always had the upper hand. By job definition, Centeno had a shelf life -- once he graduated, he would be out of the program and Cornerstone would need a new lifestyle influencer.
The firm has picked his successor, a junior economics student named Paulene Pechin, who works for the Student Film Association. Centeno met her last September while he was pushing School of Rock. She had screened the film on campus early, and he crashed the event, handing out posters, oversized pencils and T-shirts.
"She's got more of a professional feel, whereas I don't," Centeno says.
Pechin lives on campus in the Jayhawker Towers. She spends her Thursday and Friday nights showing movies for Student Union Activities (SUA); this year she doubled the attendance records from last year, she says, making the venture profitable for the first time in history. On Saturday nights, she's usually studying or watching independent films at Liberty Hall.
Pechin applied because she wants marketing experience and will approach the job from an all-business standpoint, she tells the Pitch. Her answers to Cornerstone's test were much more mainstream than Centeno's -- she listens to Sarah McLachlan, Dave Matthews and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, reads Newsweek and Vogue. When Web surfing, she visits the New York Times site. She had to look up the names of nearby concert venues and record stores.
"In general, I don't fulfill people's definition of cool, " Pechin says. "But I know people who do -- I know my gaps and how to fill them."
But during his time with Cornerstone, Centeno learned how to fill gaps of his own. He learned, for example, that if Lawrence can be considered its own coolocracy, then its annually revolving pool of targets can be divided into two camps. Centeno has spent the past two years studying their make-up, trying to figure out where to press his own message.
The first camp -- let's call them the music intelligencia -- consists of the rastas, the metalheads, the punks, the indie rockers. "They're trying to make local hip. It's that interest to give back to the community and try to make it better," Centeno says. Most are all open to new ideas.
The second camp consists of the greeks, best-known for getting KU placed as Playboy's ninth-ranked party school in 2002. This group is insular by design. These are the people who ignore the independent coffee shops and thrift stores along Massachusetts Street, preferring such status quo staples as Starbucks, the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. These are the kids who started digging Outkast's "Hey Ya" two months after Centeno introduced the album to crowds at the Pool Room. Most are "late adopters."
So Centeno avoids these kids. They are the type who want free gear because it's free, not because they might learn something new about it, he says. On a recent day, Centeno stands in front of Stauffer-Flint Hall and points out the trendsetters: a young African-American woman in an all-yellow jumpsuit and rasta hat; a white woman with a pixie haircut and pink T-shirt. Centeno can talk with them about the newest wax, greet them with a flawless three-part handshake.
He says he learned his basic belief about coolness from Joe McGuire: Avoid complacency.
So he's onto a new project.
It's early Friday morning in late April, an hour before last call at EightOneFive, a nightclub on New Hampshire. The place is packed. Scenes from the subtitled Buena Vista Social Club flash on a 14-foot TV screen mounted to a brick wall. A percussion player at the corner of the dance floor is banging on three congas and two tom-toms. A disco ball spins, showering light across the room in silver slivers.
Wearing aviator shades, Centeno stands behind two turntables on a platform above the crush. Holding headphones to his ears, he bounces to a Jamaican funk beat. There's a book of CDs at his elbow, a record suitcase with a Cornerstone logo at his feet and a Venezuelan flag draped off the railing in front of him. Centeno flips a switch on the soundboard and two records on the turntables spin in unison, winding like cassette-tape reels. Funk beats dissolve to thumping techno.
"We're going to New York!" Centeno shouts. "It's all in the music, baby! We're in New York right now! Shake your culo!"
True to his nickname, Centeno's DJ partner, "Shirtless Joe" McGuire, is shirtless and bumping with a blond Paris Hilton knockoff. Using the strategies Centeno learned from Cornerstone, he and McGuire have built this scene.
To get the gig at EightOneFive, he and McGuire had to get endorsed by another DJ, Shauny P, who already played at the club. That was easy -- Shauny P worked at KJHK. They needed equipment, so Shauny donated his turntables. They printed handbills and retraced most of Centeno's old barker circuit, hitting everything from the mainsteam Free State Brewing Company to the tattoo crowd at Replay. They pimped themselves on their radio show. In the afternoon, Centeno and McGuire deejayed a set in the Kansas Union to promote tonight's gig.
Working for Cornerstone, Centeno had mastered the formula for creating a buzz. Now he's using it to push himself.
Over the past two months, their Thursday night turnout has doubled. In recent weeks, the crowd has swelled to more than 200 people. Now, just a week before finals, 100 or so students fill the club. It's a low turnout, which Centeno blames on his promotional efforts. Usually, he and McGuire hand out about 300 fliers near campus, but this week they handed out only 60.
But the girl-to-guy ratio is 2-to-1. A hippie holding a lighted incense stick between his lips spins in one corner of the room, while women dressed in spring-colored tops or handkerchief shirts dance across the tiled floor. Centeno's friends in the music intelligencia climb the carpeted staircase to the DJ booth to pay their respects to him and McGuire. Some of them have been showing up weekly not just to drink but also to listen, so the bartenders started charging a dollar for water.
Near the bar, a brunette Chi Omega sips her vodka and tonic. This reminds her of spring break in Acapulco, she says. "When they play certain songs, I get real riled up," she adds.
Before tonight, she didn't know Carlos' name, but she came last week and liked the vibe, and so she gathered a group of friends and returned. She, too, ascends the stairs to request a song. To meet him.