August 10, 2012
As part of an ambitious tour taking them to some 13 cities worldwide, independent trend firm, trendwatching.com, will take over Shanghai's members-only club M1NT for a day-long seminar later this month. Ahead of the event, we caught up with the group's Global Head of Research, Henry Mason, as well as guest speaker, Rainer Wessler, Executive Creative Director at Frog Design.
First up, a bit of background, courtesy of UK-based Mason: "Trend watching is simply the art of watching what is happening around you - there is so much information out there, businesses have never had more opportunities to watch, and more importantly, learn from what is already happening". With a network of 'spotters' in more than 120 countries keeping an eye out for business innovation, they're certainly in the know.
"We use our Trend Framework to help us understand what we see", Mason continues. "We start with basic human needs and wants (think: status, generosity, community, personal development, experiences, fun etc), and then look at where these new product, services and campaign innovations fit into this".
Also presenting at the Shanghai seminar, Wessler confirms the value of such forecasting in branding and design. "They're a great source of inspiration. In our work, trends play an important role, they help us project where a certain market will be going. Trends provide a backdrop for our work: oftentimes our customers will approach us because they've seen or read about a certain trend that they want to incorporate into their brand".
As well as following groups like trendwatching.com, Frog also conduct their own design research, recruiting so-called 'outliers' who according to Wessler "act as a proxy for the way the mass market will go. Looking at a broader trend doesn't necessarily give you implications for a product. You need to look at people who live it, who actually do something that somehow falls within that bracket, then you can project how things could map out for a certain market or client".
Three years into his role at the helm of Frog's only East Asia studio, Wessler will discuss 'Innovation in China' at the event, a topic with which he is both familiar and clearly passionate.
"Designers in China are designing in a culture that has a very positive outlook on the future and on the world. Their design reflects that. China hasn't gone through the stresses that the Western market had to - the financial crisis, for example - that had a direct impact on visual design. China isn't so worried about that, and instead they're very enthusiastic in their work, very experimental - that's what I like about Chinese design and I'm happy to see more and more confidence in China, celebrating their own spin on design".
Comparing what we're seeing in China with the optimism of 1960s American design, Wessler describes some of the changes the scene has undergone, citing a welcome wave of patriotism as key in influencing both brands and consumers. "It's very encouraging. I think work is becoming more authentic - a couple of years back things were perhaps more generic, there was a sense that design in China should look a certain way, but things are becoming more individual, more Chinese in a very healthy way".
"There are some very deep differences between how Chinese designers work and how Western designers work. Western design education has always been very principle driven - simple, minimalist, reductionist beauty. There's a sense that every designer should strive for that, but it's not necessarily a principle that applies here. In Europe and in the US, consistency rules. You want to create things that belong together, working along the same set of ideas and paradigms. I feel that Asian designers, Chinese in particular, have a greater tolerance for contradiction. You see it even in society here: there are nuances and inconsistencies, and I feel that's interesting for a designer. As products grow, people start to inject more social qualities into them. Perhaps an inconsistent product is a more personal product - it reflects the people who made it, it creates a deeper connection than something completely predictable. It creates emotional responses that maybe super clean western design might never do... Personally I feel very rewarded to watch a lot of my own foundations be torn apart!"
That's all well and good, but what of consumers, drivers of innovation that they are, and the very group trendwatching's Shanghai event aims to analyze?
"If you read consumer research, there is an increasingly vocal part of the population who are becoming less and less happy with how generic the country has become. More and more people are missing the Chineseness in China, especially in first tier cities... you see a stronger and stronger need for people to find their identity. That goes hand in hand with designers' growing confidence in authenticity and I think that if you look at how that manifests itself in behavior and preferences, there's a strong appetite for a new breed of Chinese brands. Not a second-class, shanzai type, but one that really redefines what made in China means. There's a need for positive patriotic products, and a desire to see Chinese brands succeed. Western brands and products are strong in terms of aspirations, but I think very few have managed to build long lasting relationships with Chinese customers".
It's a key part of trendwatching's work, and Mason points to the group's recent MADE BETTER IN CHINA report, showcasing big Chinese brands "that are turning the 'Made in China' label into a mark of quality & innovation."
Technology, of course, is integral to all of this, and both men touch on the so-called post-digital age and its possible implications on brands. Mason explains, "A prominent global theme is the idea that brands need to become more 'human', as well as the spread of mobile technologies... Technology, especially social media, is amplifying and accelerating trends... Of course, consumption has always been social - people have always discussed which products and services to buy or use - but the scale and speed is greater than ever. Which means for brands, it's less about having a 'social media strategy', but simply making products that people not just 'Like', but genuinely love".
It's a prediction echoed by Wessler. "I definitely agree that there is a growing need for rehumanzing and reindividualising our lives".
"[Online is a] world that many people tell us is lacking in depth and is running the risk of lacking complexity. What we see in the digital world is a simplification. Our clients always want things to be really, really simple - but maybe things shouldn't be simpler than they actually are? Can the connected world give us the depth and diversity we need to evolve intellectually and to build relationships that go deeper than 'I accepted your friend request'? People are getting tired of that shallowness. We can't neglect what digital is and what it has to offer, but I hope we find a situation that can give us depth of experience that we need".
Like trends, commerce today travels every which way, and with that in mind, a portion of the August seminar will be dedicated to current Asia-Pacific trends. For Wessler, though, it's not just Chinese consumers that foreign brands can learn from.
"We've come to a point in the West where the inventor has had much more recognition than the maker, the actual craftsperson. I think that's simply not the case in Asia. Here, making something allows you as much appreciation as dreaming something up. To build is to design... materials tell you what's possible more than concepts, and in China, the head and the hand are much closer together".
"Something I admire about shanzai companies is their amazing capability to integrate fast and evolve in very different directions in almost no time at all. You can learn a lot from them - they're the ones who are least obsessed with intellectual property, they show us that you can't protect an idea. And in the connected world I feel it's really fundamentally wrong to try to do so. The more people talk, the more people are connected, the more creative ideas become".