Even though we're happy to provide you with more trends than you can shake a stick at, it's equally important to hone one's trend watching skills. So here are our 15 tips on how to best track and apply trends. Today. Good luck!
Let's face it, the only thing that separates you—passionate CEO, marketer, entrepreneur—from being in the know, is the time that must be devoted to tracking and applying trend content.
And yet, when we ask professionals if and how they spot and apply trends, we're told they're still having a hard time getting a handle on the basics.
So here are 15 trend watching tips, some practical, some more contextual, for you to run with today:
In business, everything begins and ends with consumers. Which means knowing, understanding, and applying consumer trends and insights will forever be a holy grail to business and marketing professionals.
In fact, with consumer behavior and preferences changing ever faster, and on a truly global scale, consumer insights (and resulting innovations) are higher on the corporate agenda than ever before.
Tracking consumer trends, then, is a crucial way to gain relevant inspiration, helping you dream up profitable new goods, services and experiences for (and with) your customers. In short, trend watching should ultimately lead to profitable innovation.
Before we carry on, here's our definition of what constitutes a (consumer) trend (we came up with this years ago and it still holds pretty well):
"A novel manifestation of something that has unlocked or serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need*, desire, want, or value."
At the core of this statement is the assumption that human beings, and thus consumers, don't change that much. Their deep needs remain the same, yet can be unlocked in new ways; these 'unlockers' can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity.
Just give it a try: apply the above definition to your daily spottings and observations of how consumers behave, and how that behavior is forever changing, and you will find that many seemingly unconnected business success stories will start to make sense. Successful innovations often satisfy existing, dormant needs in new and attractive ways.
* P.S. Need to brush up on your knowledge of human needs? Re-reading Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs never hurts.
Consumer trends do not equal 'black is the new white'
trendwatching.com has always focused on consumer trends, providing insight that can be instantly applied. However, this leaves two key trend categories that must be tracked to provide invaluable context. In general, switched-on companies and individuals track at least three trend levels: Macro Trends, Consumer Trends, and Industry Trends.
Macro Trends | Most management consulting firms will be able to help you with macro trends, while our 2011 Trend Report includes a brief 'Top 10 Macro Trends' as well.
For a DIY approach, check out the STEEP section on MindTools.
Industry Trends | Needless to say, all three levels of trends constantly converge, impacting each other, if not overlapping. Just remember that industry trends, which firms are so keen on understanding, are at the mercy of macro and consumer trends, not the other way round.
We could go on about this for another 300 pages but we won't. There's enough material to be found online for those of you who want to become macro or industry trend watchers.
Oh, and now that we're at it:
We still get asked about how to distinguish between consumer trends and fads. All we can say is this: whether pigs are the new cats, or pizza cones are (again) the new 'it' snack, these phenomena won't dramatically change the consumer arena. At most, they're yet another manifestation that consumers want to be unique or crave convenience and surprise. The latter are actually trends. The products are fads.
One massive mistake both trend watchers and brands make all the time, is to assume or pretend that a certain consumer trend will affect or be embraced by all consumers. No. Remember, in life and in trends: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The above HSBC ad illustrates it well. Whatever catches your fancy while spotting and tracking trends, please remember that not everything applies to everyone, and that virtually every trend has its anti-trend (and yes, this also means you need to look beyond your own interests: see Tip 5).
Furthermore, the new doesn't always kill the old. E-commerce may be booming, but real world retail is far from dead. Has retail changed in response to e-commerce? Sure. But take one look at excited shoppers spending hours in Apple stores from New York to Shanghai, and it becomes clear that both online and offline retail have many years of innovation and opportunity ahead of them. In trends, always try to figure out what the 'and' is, not just the 'or', and your trend (and opportunity) spotting skills will improve immensely.
Those who track trends have to possess some rare kind of intuition. Not true. It's actually quite easy to do. Observing the world around you, with an open mind, is something many professionals have unlearned, but it's something that we're all born with. Basically, if you want to spot and understand trends, you can.
So be curious and be open minded: while we're all set in our own ways, and we have our strict beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, closely observing instead of judging the world around you is tantamount to success. Ask yourself 'why' whenever you notice something new, instead of immediately looking for shortcomings.
Also realize that you are not necessarily your customer: your professional interests should be broader than your personal interests. You may not be excited by something new, but others are. Ask yourself why they are excited and which existing need has apparently been unlocked.
In other words, think and act like an entrepreneurial journalist. How?
Look cross-industry | Yes, yes, we know, what you really want to hear about is trends affecting your industry or sector. Be it wind energy, goat’s milk, alarm clocks or holiday resorts. The thing is, innovative / ground-breaking / bar-raising customer experiences may well be happening in industries other than your own. Sticking with your own industry will thus not only severely limit your sources of inspiration, but will also make you miss important changes in consumer expectations.
Last but not least, if you're obsessed with what your competition is doing, you will always end up copying them. To become a trend setter, you need to look where your competition is not:
Increased curiosity paves the way for acquiring a point of view about the world around you, for comprehension.
The more trends you spot and track, and the more skilled you are at putting these trends into context, the more guidance you'll have. When you have a broad point of view, even tiny observations start to make sense.
Surprisingly, for such an essential part of one's business skills, a point of view is still rare in the business world. How many marketers do you know who could give you an articulate answer if asked about, let's say, the Future of Marketing?
How many business execs do you know who are capable of eloquently explaining the main ten, or five, or even three major consumer trends shaping not only their own industry but the entire business arena?
And how many CEOs can comfortably lay out a kick-ass plan of attack based on their understanding of the New Consumer? (No, Steve Jobs doesn't count! ;-)
To stick with consumer trends: the point of view you want to develop could be summed up by a succinct answer to the question: “What is the (short-term) future of consumerism?” To blow your colleagues away with your answer a few weeks from now, practice these 15 Trend Watching Tips, and re-read our STATUSPHERE Trend Briefing ;-)
Establish your 'virtual trend research centre'
Surely there's never been a more exciting time for eager trend watchers to be in business, soaking up the insights, the spottings, the reports, the live dispatches from the global consumer arena. In a world that's now fully connected, where countless smart professionals and amateurs are not only spotting, observing, thinking and innovating, but also putting their findings and insights online, for all to see, deliciously valuable resources are up for grabs, many of them free or dirt cheap.
So stop bitching about information overload and instead celebrate the incredible wealth of (real-time) trend resources at your fingertips.
Here's our checklist of where to spot changes in consumer behavior, new trendsetting products or just super-smart thinking on where our societies are headed at large.
1. Eventually, we'll add a full blown 'resource center' to these pages (Q2 2011), with titles and links to every magazine and blog we regularly track. To really get going, get Google Reader and amass feeds from every source you want to track.
2. There's a wealth of tools designed to take the global pulse, from Google Alerts to Twitter; enter search phrases or track hashtags like 'consumer trends' or 'world's first' or a specific trend name.
Then dive into trending topics from a range of online sources. Starting with the obvious, see a snapshot of search queries with Google Trends, then explore tweetmeme, monitter, Trendsmap, Trendistic, Yahoo! Buzz, and Bing Social.
3. As consumers around the world pro-actively post, stream if not lead parts of their lives online, you (and your trend team) can now vicariously live amongst them, at home, at work, out on the streets.
From reading minute-by-minute online diaries on Twitter and Facebook to diving into tens of millions of tagged vids and pictures uploaded by Flickr and YouTube-fueled members of GENERATION C(ONTENT) in Sweden, Singapore, Sri Lanka and dozens of other countries. More on that in our Virtual Anthropology Trend Briefing, which by now is ancient (2005!), but still holds.
Oh, and just one fun phenomenon illustrating how widespread life streaming has become: haul vids. They're short product review videos where consumers show off their purchases from a recent shopping trip. By January 2010, YouTube featured nearly 271,000 haul videos, with one teen, juicystar07, racking up nearly 112 million views of her hauls...watch one here.
Last one about resources: please don't just stuff yourself with the insights and knowledge from the 'crowds', contribute to the collective wisdom, too. If not for altruistic reasons, then for creativity's sake: "If you give away everything you have, you are left with nothing. This forces you to look, to be aware, to replenish." (Paul Arden)
One more recommendation: we've collected more than 500 articles about our trends, as featured in publications like the Guardian, NYT and Korea Times. The articles are a great source for gleaning additional insights and examples found by trend-savvy journalists.
Image courtesy of The Onion
A quick thought on naming trends: we feel it's crucial to describe trends as imaginatively as possible. Sure, we regularly take flak about our names (TRYVERTISING anyone?), but here's why we do it:
Oh, and just how do we come up with our names? Early on, we were inspired by Faith Popcorn's approach: mix and match two or three words that define the trend, creating a new word that preferably hasn't been used by anyone else (a quick Google search will usually reveal just how unique a made-up word is).
When studying the trend of affordable luxury, key words that jumped out at us were 'masses' and 'exclusivity', which then led to MASSCLUSIVITY. And when looking at the trend of consumers making the most of price comparison and other consumers' product recommendations, we worked with keywords (and synonyms!) like transparency, power, nakedness, triumph (for consumers) and tyranny (for merchants), which resulted in TRANSPARENCY TYRANNY and TRANSPARENCY TRIUMPH. So don't be shy, and go all out when naming your own trends.
So, you're open minded, you have amassed your trend resources, and you're jotting down and naming as many trends and trend manifestations as you can. Now what? How to make sense of all your findings and thoughts and examples, and (especially) understand the impact and context of various trends? What works for us is to have a Trend Framework: basically a long list of all the trends we've spotted over the years, divided by main and sub trends, and how these trends interact with each other.
The easiest way to start building your own Trend Framework is to copy consumer trends from existing trend curators (see also Tip15). You can find our free trends at www.trendwatching.com/trends, and our not-free but not-breaking-the-bank-either Premium Service (including our full 2011 Trend Report and access to a Trend Database) at www.trendwatching.com/premium. Then add your own findings. Your framework will expand quickly, meaning fewer surprises every time you spot something of interest: the bigger the framework, the easier it is to categorize your findings.
Recurring question: how do all of the trends in your Trend Framework relate to one another? What's the context?
We normally find that consumer trends can be grouped by the core need they newly address or unlock (see our definition in Tip 1), but that won't show you how certain individual trends are connected. A hands-on, if time consuming, approach to finding the connections: construct a matrix featuring all the trends you track, both vertically and horizontally, and do a trend-by-trend 'relationship check'.
Last but not least, by keeping a complete-as-humanly-doable Trend Framework, the majority of your observations will easily fit with one of the existing trends. Which means that if a handful of them don't, you may be onto something genuinely new. So the more trends you track, the easier it will be to spot a truly new trend.
That's right: every company, big or small, should have its own Trend Group. Even if that 'group' is just you. The Trend Group is not some multi-million Dollar/Euro/Yen/Real/Pound affair. It doesn't have to employ a dozen staff (though that would be nice); it's more a state of mind. It can be low-cost, unauthorized and grass roots if need be. Just a (virtual) meeting point and resource centre for those in the organization who love and/or need trend content. Don't wait for permission, make the Trend Group a fait accompli by just announcing it.
Then tackle the support issue. Without backing from at least one senior member of the management team, your Trend Group may steadily grow, but results—innovations, that is— won't make it off the drawing board. See also Tip no. 11.
Our spotters are everywhere. Are yours?
Trend Network | Once senior support has been secured, it's time to move on to the fun stuff. Every self-respecting Trend Group will of course want to be able to tap into a network of contributors around the world, one's eyes and ears in the streets of Tokyo, lanes of London, avenues of New York and Paris, and avenidas of São Paulo.
Where to find these contributors? Easy. Just enlist your colleagues, your friends, your family, your fans, your lead users, your mainstream customers, your suppliers, and reward them with presents, your goods or services, credits on your website or something they can put on their resume. Oh, and don't you dare complain that the global part of this is complicated if you're with an international firm. Since you have offices and colleagues around the world, your network is already in place and you just need to start exploiting it more effectively.
Too expensive? Hey, if we can do it, so can any other small, mid-sized or big firm. Take a look at our Happy Spotting Network and our sister-site's Springspotters Network, which reward spotters with points that can be redeemed for gifts.
They may not always be into ‘trends', even though they should…
You can spot and apply trends like there's no tomorrow, but if in the end the final decision makers don't share your sense of urgency or wild enthusiasm for a particular trend you are confident will make or break the company, you'll sadly be flogging a dead horse until retirement age. So here's what to keep in mind when you try to convince the CEO, the SVPs, the Board or anyone else too busy to know what MATURIALISM or STATUSPHERE means:
Now, if nothing of the above works, there's only one thing to do: RUN. Get the hell out, and start your own business, capitalizing on trends you know are going to change the industry if not the world.
Too late? Too early? Image courtesy of subway nut
When it comes to consumer trends, some business professionals seem inclined to first and foremost worry. Will I miss the train on a certain trend? Will I be too early? When will it die out? And will this trend apply to my market, my customers, my region, my country?
Now, our approach is one of looking for opportunities, not threats. But if it helps, here are a few reasons not to be freaked out by everything, all the time:
What if I'm too early/late? | The impact of major trends is often over-estimated in the short term, and underestimated in the long term. Major consumer trends are about deep social and cultural change, that challenges established economic and legal structures, meaning things won't typically completely change tomorrow. Likewise, consumer generations are often set in their ways, and will thus take a long time (if at all) adopting new ways of thinking, doing, and consuming, guaranteeing that the 'old ways' will dominate for a long time to come. And even if no longer dominant, some of these old ways will remain a substantial factor until members of older generations literally die out. So yes, observe younger, 'unformed' generations to see what new trends are potentially about to erupt, but realize that sometimes it will take years to go truly 'mass'. Newspapers, anyone?
What if I misread a trend? | Trend watching is about observing the 'now', so it's hard to go wrong there.
Will a certain trend apply to my country? | First of all, why limit yourself to one market or country? If you think your ‘own’ country isn’t ready for a trend, why not introduce it to another country that is ready? It's a global marketplace out there.
Secondly, you only have to dive into one of the many global youth tribe studies to find further proof that when it comes to brands, when it comes to consumption, the similarities worldwide far outnumber the differences. It's a total cliché, but yes, younger consumers are well-connected and well-informed, and treat the global marketplace as a smorgasbord of best-of-the-best delicacies. A taste of things to come if we've ever seen one.
Lastly, you won’t have to worry about readiness in a specific market if you instead carefully prepare for when it happens, while learning best practices from those already applying the trend elsewhere. Just keep your costs down while waiting and learning ;-)
As per Tip 1, applying trends is all about innovation. Marketers and entrepreneurs often tell us they use our trends as 'conversation starters'. And while that may sound wishy-washy, if that conversation includes:
...then we're more than happy to serve as a conversation starter! So without further ado, here are the four ways we like to apply trends:
Now, a few hands-on examples from the real world, using the above list:
So dive into your Trend Framework, check the trends you think deserve more attention, or are completely missing on your innovation radar, and get going.
Winning innovations do not necessarily start their life in a windowless conference room
Please, don't be too earnest about the quest at hand: trend watching is about coming up with exciting new products and services for your customers, nothing more and nothing less.
And, as we argued in our INNOVATION INSANITY Trend Briefing, the number of opportunities out there is staggering. Around the globe, billions of new, aspiring middle-class consumers, as well as hundreds of millions or prosperous, demanding consumers are looking for innovative brands to serve them. Even major challenges like environmental sustainability mean an insatiable need for solutions, for years to come. There is no reason for any smart business professional to be pessimistic. Hence our tip to have some fun, versus adopting the corporate earnestness and fretting that will kill virtually every non-mainstream initiative.
Now, if money is an issue (and it will probably always be), then realize that something new doesn't have to cost the world. Many of the innovations featured in our Trend Briefings thrive on nimbleness and creativity, not huge budgets.
Last but not least, if you happen to live in one of those countries where a double-dip still looms large, remember that recessions happen because of legacy systems, because of lack of innovation: if there ever was an opportunity to turn a negative in a positive...
Hey, we know. YOU DO NOT HAVE TIME TO DO ALL OF THE ABOVE YOURSELF. So to clarify: we're not saying you should spend 12 hours a day on trend watching. You just need to do more of it than you do now. Which brings us to our bonus tip: let trend professionals do part of the work for you, even if it's just to help you hit the ground running.
Happy spotting! We look forward to seeing your findings and innovations in the marketplace. And if you still have any burning questions, or feel we completely missed out on a tip you want to share with other trendwatching.com subscribers and clients, email us!