Trends: what’s next, and why should businesses care?

Henry Mason, managing director of TrendWatching, talks to John Machin about how businesses can apply emerging trends to drive business insights

We caught up with Henry Mason, managing director of TrendWatching and author of Trend-Driven Innovation, to find out how businesses can apply emerging trends to drive business insights and delight their customers.

Let’s start with an obvious question: where do trends come from?

We believe that trends emerge as innovators address people’s basic needs and wants in novel ways. The concept of ‘trends’ often confuses people (are we talking about fashion? new technologies? what’s #trending?), but if you think of trends as potential future business opportunities, then looking at brands, startups or innovations that are setting customer expectations will allow you to anticipate what your customers will want next.

On a practical level, at TrendWatching we have a global network of “trendspotters” who report on interesting things they’re seeing. When trends go truly global, that’s most interesting for us. If a trend is only happening in New York, San Francisco and London, that’s not nearly as valuable as something which is also happening in Bogota or Mumbai.

Trend watching as an area is relatively new. So how did companies try to get this insight in the past?

Largely either by using qualitative market research or ethnographic research to get closer to their customers, and look for profound insights into their desires as consumers. That does work, but it’s slow, difficult and expensive. Big data is another option which can help determine consumer behaviour we didn’t even know about. The risk here is that there are questions about the sample, bias and what you’re measuring.

That’s not to discount the value of data at all because it does an amazing job of optimisation and validation. Companies can innovate more quickly and cheaply than in the past, then look at the data to see if they’ve got it right. From there, they can put more resources into winning products and strategies.

How does a company actually benefit from knowing about an emerging consumer trend?

This is the killer question which is central to everything we do. We discover these trends, but then what do we do with them? What do they mean? We need to do more than just say “we see these trends coming” – we have to explain how businesses can use those trends to deliver innovation or boost the bottom line.

How does your approach differ from traditional market research?

We see ourselves as a third option – a new way. We say one of best ways to see what your customers want next is to look at new products, services, and brands that are exciting customers. From there, you can try to draw a line back to your business and look at what you can learn from that.

I know everyone uses Uber as an example for all sorts of things now, but if you’re Marriott Hotels, then clearly the level of transparency and service quality that Uber offers will have an impact on your business – and the hotel industry as a whole. So how do you change your business to capitalise on that? As another example, think back ten years and ask yourself how Itsu or Pret a Manger has changed customer expectations around fast food for workers at lunchtime, and how much that whole scene has changed since as a result. That’s our contribution to the debate.

Right then, why do these shifts in customer expectations occur? What’s driving them?

It’s a great time to be asking these questions of your business because customer expectations are increasingly liquid. When you spend your life on your smartphone, your expectations around how you interact with businesses are totally revolutionised. There are other factors at play too, such as urbanisation and bigger macro shifts. How we’re leading our lives is changing in myriad ways, and as humans we’re much more experience-led now – which shouldn’t be news to anyone anymore, but it’s still relevant.

Secondly, there’s so much disruption and a state of what I call hyper-competition. That’s because it’s cheaper to start a company now than ever before, and so we have more startups now than at any time in history. Because of these factors, trend watching as a field is becoming even more valid and more relevant to companies.

How has this new, trend-led way of gathering insights changed how businesses operate?

Ten or fifteen years ago, if a business was planning a new innovation it might spend two years gathering data so it could have confidence in its decisions and minimise any risk. Back then, that was the right decision because the finished product might last five to ten years off the back of that investment. Now that lifespan is exponentially shorter: you can’t spend three years building a business plan when the business in its current form might not even be around in three years…

Author bio:

John Machin is part of the team at Hotwire PR, an integrated PR and communications agency.  This article was originally published on Hotwire PR’s blog and to read more, visit here.

Leave a Reply