The Business of Trends
IN CLEAR FOCUS this week: consumer trends. Bigeye’s Senior Strategist, Dana Cassell, examines the business of identifying, analyzing, and predicting trends in consumer culture. We discuss Data Abundance and Ungendering – two trends identified in Rohit Bhargava’s new book, “Non-Obvious Megatrends,” and assess how marketers can benefit from successfully identifying and tapping into what’s trending.
Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, a unique perspective on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host Adrian Tennant, VP of insights at Bigeye. An audience-focused, creative-driven, full-service advertising agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, but serve clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. It’s the first month of the new year and the new decade, the perfect time to put consumer trends IN CLEAR FOCUS. Identifying trends in consumer behavior – and more broadly, their cultural context – is a part of the work that advertising agencies, marketing-oriented management consultancies, research groups and design firms undertake regularly for clients. But there are also many standalone trend agencies with a focus on helping organizations imagine, plan for, and navigate the future. One of the first examples of this kind of forecasting was a study commissioned by president Herbert Hoover. Published in 1933, the study was entitled, “Recent Social Trends,” and Hoover wrote the foreword, which noted, “the task was to inquire into changing trends, resulting in emphasis on elements of instability rather than stability in the social structure.” Today, trends are an accepted part of consumer culture, so much so that we use the word, “trending,” to acknowledge a rapid rise in popularity and often an equally fast fade. Consumer trend forecasting as we know it got its start in the 1970s, a particularly turbulent decade in the West, which saw major political, social and economic changes including feminism, environmentalism, civil rights, war and economic instability caused in part by the energy crisis. It was in this context that futurology – the study of the future and science of forecasting – first developed and motivated various government initiatives, think tanks, and policy groups. The bestselling book, “Future Shock,” by Alvin Toffler was published in 1970 and accurately predicted the Internet, the sharing economy and telecommuting. Fast-forward to today and there are now many trend forecasting firms. For example, Sparks & Honey describes itself as a “cultural consultancy.” Four days a week, its consultants livestream video of a 60-minute discussion on the latest trends from its New York studios. Other companies in this space include PSFK, Trend Watching and Cool Hunting. The Canadian Trendhunter.com uses a crowdsourced model leveraging a global network of almost 250,000 trend spotters, artificial intelligence, and its own team of researchers and futurists. It scores trends across multiple dimensions including popularity and “freshness.” And the largest research groups including Nielsen and Euromonitor also regularly offer commentaries on consumer trends. To talk about trend analysis and its practical application to marketing communication and brand strategy, I’m joined here in the studio today by Dana Cassell, Bigeye’s Senior Strategist. Welcome back to IN CLEAR FOCUS, Dana.
Dana Cassell: Thanks Adrian. Let’s talk about strategy.
Adrian Tennant: So what’s your definition of a consumer trend?
Dana Cassell: I think a consumer trend is the direction of change or development and when we talk about it in marketing we mean change or development in consumer behavior, preferences or attitudes. Do you have a different take on that?
Adrian Tennant: There’s a couple that I found that I do like. So one – which is a bit wordy – is: “a trend collapses the distance between the past, present and future, by showcasing how the world of tomorrow exists today.”
Dana Cassell: Do you have that stitched on a pillow at home?
Adrian Tennant: Sounds like it could be something we could put on a wall.
Dana Cassell: Christmas gift!
Adrian Tennant: Hmmm. Or as William Gibson may or may not have written, “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.”
Dana Cassell: Hmm.
Adrian Tennant: So what’s the difference between a consumer trend and a fad?
Dana Cassell: I’ve spent some time on this one and I think it comes down to lifespan. I think a fad is in and out and has a less long-term influence. And I think trends are generally longer-standing behaviors or changes and have a higher potential to influence culture in the long-term.
Adrian Tennant: Now, to what extent have you identified and labeled cultural dynamics in your work with clients?
Dana Cassell: Well, cultural dynamics are always at play, whether it’s why a client has approached us or not. So they’re always around and I think, two different questions: to what extent have I identified them and labeled them. Identifying them? Always. This always is happening, as the foundational elements of understanding a brand or a client. So omnipresent, always should be understood. To what extent are they labeled, I think, is a more nuanced question. I don’t think cultural dynamics are always a top three priority in campaigns. Sometimes they are though and sometimes they’re the root of the reason a client has come to an agency. There might be some divergence of opinion on how important a cultural trend is for that organization internally. And we’re here to find some data to settle that score. So I would say always identified, sometimes labeled.
Adrian Tennant: Okay. Well, identifying trends can reveal of course, deeper insights about how future scenarios might impact consumer culture and of course consumption. In your view, are brands maximizing the potential of consumer trends?
Dana Cassell: Yeah, some of them. Some of them do, some of them don’t. But also some trends are easier to maximize. Like for instance, we’re in the middle of a shift to a consumer-centric model of customization and delivery, like all of our monthly subscriptions and our boxes and try on the clothes, send back the pieces you don’t want, and get your very unique box of crafted local produce delivered to your doorstep. This kind of very consumer-centric customization and delivery trend is easier to maximize for lots of brands than some other trends that are happening. Like the shift away from terrestrial shopping is much harder for some industries to maximize. Small boutiques have had a much harder time moving online into an e-commerce model. So some trends are nearly impossible to maximize for certain types of industry. Others seem more ubiquitous in their possibility.
Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways might a client translate a newly emerging trend into a market opportunity?
Dana Cassell: I was thinking about the banking industry and video. So if the trend is brands using beautifully-told, compelling video to tell their brand story and then slicing that video into various parts of a content library. So some for TV, some for over-the-top, some digital, some in app, maybe some email, account-based strategy. So the trend being using beautiful video to create a generous video content library. How can a client maximize this trend? I think of our banking clients and our work in the financial industry, that’s not an industry that has typically spent a ton of money in high-produced, quality video. And we’re seeing some of our brands who are more interested in moving forward into a more modern phase of banking, adopt that and find ways of telling their brand story well through video and not just using maybe some old tropes that have been used in TV advertising for a long time in that industry, but really thinking about high production value in storytelling through video.
Adrian Tennant: Mmm. I think that’s a great example. Also, I know I often mention the UK, but there are some parallels in the industry. Over there, a direct-to-consumer bank brand has launched a campaign that’s really built around the insight that one of the main stressors for young people is their financial health.
Dana Cassell: Sure.
Adrian Tennant: So the advertising campaign plays on that idea of health and wellness and particularly mental health, with some quite thought-provoking creative. So there’s a trend towards health and wellness with a particular demographic applied to finance.
Dana Cassell: Brilliant. So they’re bringing financial health into the health and wellness trend we’re seeing?
Adrian Tennant: Absolutely.
Dana Cassell: That’s great.
Adrian Tennant: Yeah. So that’s an example of how it can work.
Dana Cassell: I love that one.
Adrian Tennant: Have you found a framework or an approach that has helped you become more attuned to trends?
Dana Cassell: I think this is a really interesting question and I was trying to figure out what it is. I know I have a framework and approach for identifying them because I have a pattern of being able to look back and see trends and how we use them in strategy. So I know that we have found ways to identify them well, but I didn’t know exactly how so I appreciate that you asked this question. The only solid answer I can come up with, it seems to be real over time is when something becomes disruptive enough that I have to sort of put something aside and go figure out what this thing is. Like one example I’ve thought of is when filters started becoming really popular for people to use on photos and I was seeing enough weird cat ears, bunny noses, whiskers on people like, “okay, what is happening?” I need to, I’m seeing this enough that I need to go figure it out. I feel behind in something. And then I can go and absorb what’s going on and where it started and how it’s impacting people. And then extrapolating that from the just the consumer piece up into our brands, which I think is how I see trends happening a lot. I start to understand them as a consumer, and then as a strategist I start to think, “okay, if this is how people are relating one-on-one to this trend, what does that mean for the brands that serve those people?”
Adrian Tennant: Dana, in your world, what’s trending right now?
Dana Cassell: So my world… I think it’s important to define my world a little bit for people who might not know me. So I am 38, I am a mother of two young girls. I’m married, I travel quite a bit, and in my world what’s trending right now, health tracking is all over the place. So this could be a middle life thing. Age stage and trend is a fascinating question. What is related to stage versus what is it a broader trend? I think they also might be the same thing, but anyway, health tracking is a big deal. The watches. I’m getting reports from some people in my life about how many minutes of REM sleep they’re getting at night. I care. I don’t know how much I care. I care. He’ll listen. I care. The concept of a gender reveal as people are having babies, this is a thing that’s happened in the world. It’s a new, a trend. It’s not so much new anymore. It’s not a fad anymore. I think it’s a trend. The concept of screen time as a parent, as a human, that health as you’re talking about a holistic approach at house screen time and related to that cutting cable,moving from a cable-oriented environment to a very consumer-customized streaming approach. There’s also a trend in tiny home downsizing, a shift from thinking about “what can we amass?” to, “what exactly are we amassing in our home?” I’m seeing that happen a lot. Clean eating. I’m also seeing a trend in the podcast catch-up, whether you are an early adopter or not. Podcasting – it’s disruptive enough that I think if you haven’t been a podcast listener at this point, you’re probably like, “okay, what does this whole podcast thing about?” So I’m enjoying being able to help people onboard into podcasts and find their little custom feed that’s a great fit for their lifestyle. So I think the trend of podcast catch-up and then the last thing I think – this is bigger than my life stage for sure – is the trend of product food, kind of household everything, having a focus on craft or maker local, locally-sourced. So that trend of local craft artisan lifestyle, I see as a pretty substantial trend at this point.
Adrian Tennant: Okay, so full disclosure, Dana and I received a pre-publication copy of a new book authored by Rohit Bhargava, entitled, “Non-Obvious Mega Trends: How to See What Others Miss and Predict the Future.” This is the tenth edition in an annual series and has already reached bestseller status on Amazon.com. There are 10 mega trends identified in the book, which in a tradition of trend consulting have suitably catchy labels applied including Amplified Identity, Ungendering, Attention Wealth, Purposeful Profit, and Data Abundance. So for our inaugural IN CLEAR FOCUS book club, let’s dive into a couple of the trends that the book identifies. Data is very much in the news these days, usually for the wrong reasons. Uh, we know from our own research that there’s growing anxiety among consumers about potential misuses of personal data. What then is data abundance?
Dana Cassell: Data abundance is – I think it’s the age we’re in, like the information age – I think we’re in the age of data abundance. The book notes that 90% of the data in the world has been collected in the last two years. 90% of the data in the world in the last two years. We’re just living in a time where we’re collecting data on everything all the time. And that’s a new idea. It’s only been about the last 15 years that collecting and using data has become important. So there are a few questions that come out of the age of data abundance, which is what’s the meaning of this data? How do we use it? Who owns it? And who’s entitled to profit from it?
Adrian Tennant: So Dana, in what ways does this perspective offer fresh insights into data environments?
Dana Cassell: Yeah, in the age of data abundance, we have to understand that more is not always better. When we began collecting data in marketing, it was just lovely to have data and to be able to use it. But now we have all of it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. However, everybody can and should be understanding the data that they are collecting and how we can maximize it. For our brands. We do have a responsibility with data in many different ways and transparency to our clients and our consumers. And also balancing the integrity of using data with profit. So just that general understanding that profit is never worth sacrificing and brand’s integrity and the data abundant environment calls that line to question often.
Adrian Tennant: And how does Bhargava differentiate good data from bad data?
Dana Cassell: Yeah, he talks about data pollution, and that being the point of differentiation between good and bad. And there are a few ways that data gets polluted. We can have an overflow of data, data manipulation, data sabotage, data contamination and data exploration. I feel with our clients, we see kind of two pieces of data pollution happening regularly and that in marketing we see more of these issues. Data overflow, which is really when too much data gets captured and our clients just don’t know what to focus on or data expiration: so when data is not updated as frequently as necessary and then loses its value because it’s not current.
Adrian Tennant: Okay. How practical were the book’s suggestions around making meaning out of data?
Dana Cassell: Again, it kind of depends on what kind of data you have about how practical his suggestions were. He told a case study about a car insurance company in China that uses images of damage to cars and images of car parts to analyze an accident and then analyze the price to have that fixed in order to make an estimate for repair. And obviously that’s a really meaningful way to use data. And they have a ton of data that’s informed that and so it’s saved the industry an insane amount of money. It has created an efficiency for clients as well. So I think that example is a great example of how to make meaning out of data. I’m always interested in how our clients can make meaning out of data. And I think that’s part of our role as strategists is to help our clients understand what is the most meaningful data that they’re collecting and how can we use that in a way that there’s high integrity and responsibility to consumers, but also interest for the brand.
Adrian Tennant: Dana, did this trend feel mega or non-obvious to you?
Dana Cassell: Mega! Data’s never non-obvious, come on!
Adrian Tennant: [Laughing].
Dana Cassell: So Adrian, for our chat today, you focused on the Ungendering trend and chapter in the book. What’s that all about?
Adrian Tennant: Bhargava makes the case that traditional gender divisions and labels are kind of getting replaced now with more fluid understandings around gender identity. That in itself is forcing a reevaluation of how we see employees, employers, customers, brands, and of course one another.
Dana Cassell: So does the trend change the way we need to think about gender-based roles?
Adrian Tennant: So in the 1970s, he talks about the fact that the ideal of femininity was a woman who kind of has it all, in other words, a job and a family and a household to take care of. Then women were celebrated for being the jugglers in chief and expected to uphold kind of impossible standards – right? – in the workplace and at home. And then this facade he talks about is also breaking apart at breakneck speed. And you have a much fiercer model of femininity now where women can be strong and serious at the same time, you can still be a mother or you can have this thing that he calls “otherhood” which describes women who by choice or circumstantial infertility don’t have children.
Dana Cassell: Uh-huh. So what is the book’s take on Gender X – and what is Gender X?
Adrian Tennant: More than 10 US States have passed legislation allowing individuals to select a gender-neutral choice of X rather than the letter M or F when they apply for a driver’s license or an ID card. Um, and this has actually already been a thing for about a decade. Australia, Germany, Canada and India have also allowed for this third option on passports. So nonbinary gender identity is definitely gaining mainstream attention. So it’s a trend, not a fad.
Dana Cassell: And what does being ungendered mean for consumer behavior?
Adrian Tennant: Growing up, I knew what toys were designed for me because they would be blue.
Dana Cassell: Uh-huh
Adrian Tennant: And you probably grew up at a time when your toys were pink.
Dana Cassell: And purple. Yeah.
Adrian Tennant: A lot of parents are questioning that, that whole idea. So toy makers in particular are deliberately designing much more inclusive packaging and avoiding attachment of a gender to the product itself.
Dana Cassell: Mmm.
Adrian Tennant: A great example that I found, not mentioned in this book, but you may recall, towards the tail end of last year, Mattel…
Dana Cassell: Uh-huh.
Adrian Tennant: …brought out a range of gender-neutral dolls for boys, girls and as they said in the press release, “children in between.” So super interesting. I really liked Mattel‘s summation of this – they said, “in our world dolls are as limitless as the kids who play with them. Introducing Creatable World, a doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in.”
Dana Cassell: Brilliant line. Great line.
Adrian Tennant: I love that. I love that.
Dana Cassell: Does this trend of ungendering feel mega or non-obvious to you, Adrian?
Adrian Tennant: Mega? Yes. When Reema Elghossain, who’s the VP of Talent, Equity, and Inclusion at the 4A’s Foundation joined us on IN CLEAR FOCUS recently, we actually talked about this very topic in the context of the changing workplace. Bhargava makes the point that biases take time, sometimes generations, to change. And I think we’ve seen that to some extent with LGBTQ issues, but gender identity feels like a whole new frontier. As for non-obvious, maybe not so much but that’s because I have the privilege of working in the city of Orlando. Last year the city received a perfect 100 out of 100 score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index, which assesses discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – and gender identity.
Dana Cassell: Hmmm!
Adrian Tennant: Dana, thank you very much for joining us again today.
Dana Cassell: Thanks for having me. Anytime you want to talk about strategy and research, Adrian.
Adrian Tennant: So of course, my thanks to Dana Cassell, Senior Strategist at Bigeye. You can find links to the resources we discussed on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at bigeyeagency.com under “Insights.” And please consider subscribing to the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. And if you have an Amazon Echo device, you can use the IN CLEAR FOCUS skill to add the podcast to your Flash Briefing. Thank you again for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.