Predicting consumer behaviour can lead to phenomenal business success - so an entire industry has grown up, dedicated to predicting trends effectively. In the past, forecasters relied on gut instinct and brainpower. Today, futurologists draw on reams of data, armies of researchers and social media networks from around the world, as they try to determine what consumers are likely to spend their money on and how they will want to lead their lives. But do these highly paid trend-spotters really deliver the goods and how can companies distinguish between the bright sparks and the charlatans?​

CONSUMER

 

CONSUMER

Future 

perfect

The digital revolution has transformed trend forecasting. In the past, trends used to be dictated by small, secretive groups of designers who would consult their creative muses for inspiration before deciding what everyone would be wearing, doing or buying next season.

Designers still wield enormous power but, in the age of the internet, influence is shifting towards bloggers, social media and street fashion. Now there’s not just one trend, but scores, all available to anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.

So how can a business tell whether the social media buzz around the next big thing will die away in a few days or change the way we live forever?

Author William Higham, in his book The Next Big Thing: Spotting and Forecasting Consumer Trends for Profit, defines a trend as “a long-term change in consumer attitudes and behaviours that offers marketing opportunities.” To identify a new trend, he says, “we need to look for any signs of change among consumers, in either behaviour or attitude.”

The first futurologists in the 1950s and ’60s were completely intuition-led. 

Now, however, vast amounts of information are sifted through in the quest to tap into the future, with armies of researchers poring over academic papers, company accounts, analysts’ notes, public records and academic and business publications. They monitor lifestyle and specialist magazines, websites and social media and keep on top of the latest books, films and television shows.  

Power of instinct

It’s not all about numbers, though: “It’s also about having an instinct that something is going on there,” says Andrew Curry of The Futures Company.

American trendspotter Faith Popcorn exemplifies the power of instinct. Dubbed the Nostradamus of Marketing by Fortune magazine, she claims credit for having invented the notion of cocooning in 1981. The desire to escape reality by retreating into a fantasy world, whether it be holing up for the weekend and binge-watching the latest Netflix series or living in an armoured community, will continue to be one of the big trends, she believes.

Popcorn, who was Faith Plotkin before she got into the trend forecasting game, has had several notable successes. In 2008, for example, she predicted the rise of food truck chefs. “Part psychologist, past sociologist, these individuals will emerge as part of the solution in the struggle to control obesity,” she says. The explanation may sound fanciful but sure enough, food trucks have become a growing feature of the urban landscape.

The Futures Company takes a rather different approach to forecasting. Its trendspotting tools include a network of “culturally connected individuals,” who gather and distil local intelligence. This network extends to 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world and is made up of some 300 on-the-ground cultural trendspotters – a diverse mix of academics, screenwriters, bloggers, journalists and freelance marketing professionals.

According to style bible Vogue, for example, one of the hot looks for winter 2016 will be the humble cagoule. It dubs the rainwear normally sported by mountain walkers the It Anorak”​

When Airbnb was created in 2008, its founders had no idea it would become a global phenomenon – they were simply roommates in San Francisco renting out airbeds in their apartment to help pay the rent”​

The digital revolution has transformed trend forecasting. In the past, trends used to be dictated by small, secretive groups of designers who would consult their creative muses for inspiration before deciding what everyone would be wearing, doing or buying next season.

Designers still wield enormous power but, in the age of the internet, influence is shifting towards bloggers, social media and street fashion. Now there’s not just one trend, but scores, all available to anyone with a Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.

So how can a business tell whether the social media buzz around the next big thing will die away in a few days or change the way we live forever?

Author William Higham, in his book The Next Big Thing: Spotting and Forecasting Consumer Trends for Profit, defines a trend as “a long-term change in consumer attitudes and behaviours that offers marketing opportunities.” To identify a new trend, he says, “we need to look for any signs of change among consumers, in either behaviour or attitude.”

The first futurologists in the 1950s and ’60s were completely intuition-led. 

Now, however, vast amounts of information are sifted through in the quest to tap into the future, with armies of researchers poring over academic papers, company accounts, analysts’ notes, public records and academic and business publications. They monitor lifestyle and specialist magazines, websites and social media and keep on top of the latest books, films and television shows.  

Power of instinct

It’s not all about numbers, though: “It’s also about having an instinct that something is going on there,” says Andrew Curry of The Futures Company.

American trendspotter Faith Popcorn exemplifies the power of instinct. Dubbed the Nostradamus of Marketing by Fortune magazine, she claims credit for having invented the notion of cocooning in 1981. The desire to escape reality by retreating into a fantasy world, whether it be holing up for the weekend and binge-watching the latest Netflix series or living in an armoured community, will continue to be one of the big trends, she believes.

Popcorn, who was Faith Plotkin before she got into the trend forecasting game, has had several notable successes. In 2008, for example, she predicted the rise of food truck chefs. “Part psychologist, past sociologist, these individuals will emerge as part of the solution in the struggle to control obesity,” she says. The explanation may sound fanciful but sure enough, food trucks have become a growing feature of the urban landscape.

The Futures Company takes a rather different approach to forecasting. Its trendspotting tools include a network of “culturally connected individuals,” who gather and distil local intelligence. This network extends to 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world and is made up of some 300 on-the-ground cultural trendspotters – a diverse mix of academics, screenwriters, bloggers, journalists and freelance marketing professionals.

When Airbnb was created in 2008, its founders had no idea it would become a global phenomenon – they were simply roommates in San Francisco renting out airbeds in their apartment to help pay the rent”​​

According to style bible Vogue, for example, one of the hot looks for winter 2016 will be the humble cagoule. It dubs the rainwear normally sported by mountain walkers the It Anorak”​​

Stumbling across a trend

Understanding and exploiting shifts in consumer behaviour are behind the phenomenal success of Airbnb. Trends in the hospitality business had already been shifting for decades. But, with the emergence of the sharing economy in the early 2000s, and the desire of travellers to “live like a local,” the time was ripe for an online holiday home rental site.

Yet when Airbnb was created in 2008, its founders had no idea it would become a global phenomenon – they were simply roommates in San Francisco renting out airbeds in their apartment (hence the name) to help pay the rent. 

As co-founder Brian Chesky explains: “People signed up to rent the airbeds and we cooked them breakfast every morning and acted like tour guides. We didn’t mean to start a business. It just sort of happened. There was no flash of genius. In the beginning, we didn’t realise this would be the big idea. It was the thing that would pay the rent until we thought of the big idea. Gradually, it became obvious that this was the big idea.”

Tailored projections

Paul Flatters, head of the consumer futures consultancy Trajectory, says there is no one-size-fits-all approach to forecasting and, the longer the time frame, the harder it is to produce accurate predictions. Most commercial clients tend to look three to five years ahead, although the public sector often takes a longer-term view. 

The General Medical Council, for example, asked Trajectory to look at demand for doctors by 2040. This involved assessing everything from increased longevity to the possibility of a pandemic, as well as likely technical advances and the probable need for refresher GP training every five to 10 years.

The more information we have, the more detailed forecasting becomes, says Flatters. “Increasingly, we’re breaking the population down from segments to fragments.” 

According to style bible Vogue, for example, one of the hot looks for winter 2016 will be the humble cagoule. It dubs the rainwear normally sported by mountain walkers the It Anorak. “Forget the military bomber jacket,” Vogue says, “the only jacket to be seen in is the hooded, high-tech anorak, worn slightly oversized in a touristy bright shade.” Cagoules will doubtless be seen in stores and on catwalks across Europe. But only a few wearers will be able to carry off the latest look with aplomb. 

Outlandish predictions

Some forecasters are more outlandish than others. At the showbiz end of the industry, futurologists produce a steady stream of headline-grabbing predictions – recent pronouncements include human immortality by 2029 from Google’s chief futurist, Ray Kurzweil, and human-on-robot sex overtaking human-on-human sex by 2050, by Ian Pearson.

One high-profile media star in the futurologist firmament is AOL’s in-house expert David Shing, known as Shingy, an eccentric and controversial figure whose job title at the media group is digital prophet. AOL clearly rates Shingy’s services but some of his more sober-minded peers are less than convinced. 

“He comes up with exciting forecasts. But would you use one to make a business decision?” asks Curry.
Curry suggests that companies have to make sure they use futurology correctly when they are doing trend work. 

“It’s to produce a business outcome. There’s no point having this foresight if you don’t use it to help your business. Some companies turn to trend forecasting because the business is under pressure and by then it is too late.”

In other words, it is important to be aware of what’s going on in the present before turning to the future. Yet even current trends can be hard to spot. 

Frustrated at the lack of hard data in her industry, fashion designer Julia Fowler joined forces with data analyst Geoff Watts in 2009 to set up EDITD (since renamed EDITED), a technology business that takes a big data approach to fashion trends, providing real-time information to retailers such as ASOS, Topshop, Target and Gap.

Fowler believes that understanding fashion trends should be less about intuition and more about actual numbers. EDITED crawls the web in the same way that Google does, collecting vast amounts of data on what’s selling in real time.

The firm does not just track hard sales; it takes in the “buzz” too, trawling blogs and social media to identify and quantify the latest trends, which it packages for clients into accessible charts, graphs and dashboards. 

The services of trend forecasters and analytical companies do not come cheap but they are considered increasingly useful for companies and business leaders. So much so that the European Commission is funding a project, Somatch, designed to provide data support to smaller companies in the textile, clothing and design sectors. 

The project could ultimately be extended to other areas, including interior design, architecture, footwear and the automotive industry.

No assumptions

One of the pitfalls of trend forecasting, however, is the temptation to come up with a hypothesis first, and then set out to prove it. 

“It’s a common approach to instruct researchers what to look for, but we actually go out there and see what’s happening, with no preconceived ideas,” says Kate Ancketill, head of GDR Creative Intelligence, a retail insight and trend consultancy.

“It’s a much more precarious approach – sometimes we get towards the end of the quarter and think, ‘There’s nothing out there! What will we tell the clients?’ The upside is we’re not making it up.”

Ancketill accepts that forecasting can be a very subject­ive business and is wary of the industry’s showmen. “A star forecaster gets up on 1 January and decides from his gut – and admittedly, it’s an advanced and experienced gut – that there will be six big trends this year. Researchers will then go and seek those trends, many of which might be valid. But it’s not the whole picture,” she says.

Like other trend forecasters, GDR trawls vast amounts of information in its quest to see into the future, layering on its own insight and analysis. But sometimes clients baulk at following advice and won’t take the risk until a trend becomes more mainstream.

“Some clients are more willing to take a leap of faith. Others want to see the beans first; they want to count them,” she says.

By then, however, it may be too late 

Back to articles

Stumbling across a trend

Understanding and exploiting shifts in consumer behaviour are behind the phenomenal success of Airbnb. Trends in the hospitality business had already been shifting for decades. But, with the emergence of the sharing economy in the early 2000s, and the desire of travellers to “live like a local,” the time was ripe for an online holiday home rental site.

Yet when Airbnb was created in 2008, its founders had no idea it would become a global phenomenon – they were simply roommates in San Francisco renting out airbeds in their apartment (hence the name) to help pay the rent. 

As co-founder Brian Chesky explains: “People signed up to rent the airbeds and we cooked them breakfast every morning and acted like tour guides. We didn’t mean to start a business. It just sort of happened. There was no flash of genius. In the beginning, we didn’t realise this would be the big idea. It was the thing that would pay the rent until we thought of the big idea. Gradually, it became obvious that this was the big idea.”

Tailored projections

Paul Flatters, head of the consumer futures consultancy Trajectory, says there is no one-size-fits-all approach to forecasting and, the longer the time frame, the harder it is to produce accurate predictions. Most commercial clients tend to look three to five years ahead, although the public sector often takes a longer-term view. 

The General Medical Council, for example, asked Trajectory to look at demand for doctors by 2040. This involved assessing everything from increased longevity to the possibility of a pandemic, as well as likely technical advances and the probable need for refresher GP training every five to 10 years.

The more information we have, the more detailed forecasting becomes, says Flatters. “Increasingly, we’re breaking the population down from segments to fragments.” 

According to style bible Vogue, for example, one of the hot looks for winter 2016 will be the humble cagoule. It dubs the rainwear normally sported by mountain walkers the It Anorak. “Forget the military bomber jacket,” Vogue says, “the only jacket to be seen in is the hooded, high-tech anorak, worn slightly oversized in a touristy bright shade.” Cagoules will doubtless be seen in stores and on catwalks across Europe. But only a few wearers will be able to carry off the latest look with aplomb. 

Outlandish predictions

Some forecasters are more outlandish than others. At the showbiz end of the industry, futurologists produce a steady stream of headline-grabbing predictions – recent pronouncements include human immortality by 2029 from Google’s chief futurist, Ray Kurzweil, and human-on-robot sex overtaking human-on-human sex by 2050, by Ian Pearson.

One high-profile media star in the futurologist firmament is AOL’s in-house expert David Shing, known as Shingy, an eccentric and controversial figure whose job title at the media group is digital prophet. AOL clearly rates Shingy’s services but some of his more sober-minded peers are less than convinced. 

“He comes up with exciting forecasts. But would you use one to make a business decision?” asks Curry. Curry suggests that companies have to make sure they use futurology correctly when they are doing trend work. 

“It’s to produce a business outcome. There’s no point having this foresight if you don’t use it to help your business. Some companies turn to trend forecasting because the business is under pressure and by then it is too late.”

In other words, it is important to be aware of what’s going on in the present before turning to the future. Yet even current trends can be hard to spot. 

Frustrated at the lack of hard data in her industry, fashion designer Julia Fowler joined forces with data analyst Geoff Watts in 2009 to set up EDITD (since renamed EDITED), a technology business that takes a big data approach to fashion trends, providing real-time information to retailers such as ASOS, Topshop, Target and Gap.

Fowler believes that understanding fashion trends should be less about intuition and more about actual numbers. EDITED crawls the web in the same way that Google does, collecting vast amounts of data on what’s selling in real time.

The firm does not just track hard sales; it takes in the “buzz” too, trawling blogs and social media to identify and quantify the latest trends, which it packages for clients into accessible charts, graphs and dashboards. 

The services of trend forecasters and analytical companies do not come cheap but they are considered increasingly useful for companies and business leaders. So much so that the European Commission is funding a project, Somatch, designed to provide data support to smaller companies in the textile, clothing and design sectors. 

The project could ultimately be extended to other areas, including interior design, architecture, footwear and the automotive industry.

No assumptions

One of the pitfalls of trend forecasting, however, is the temptation to come up with a hypothesis first, and then set out to prove it. 

“It’s a common approach to instruct researchers what to look for, but we actually go out there and see what’s happening, with no preconceived ideas,” says Kate Ancketill, head of GDR Creative Intelligence, a retail insight and trend consultancy.

“It’s a much more precarious approach – sometimes we get towards the end of the quarter and think, ‘There’s nothing out there! What will we tell the clients?’ The upside is we’re not making it up.”

Ancketill accepts that forecasting can be a very subject­ive business and is wary of the industry’s showmen. “A star forecaster gets up on 1 January and decides from his gut – and admittedly, it’s an advanced and experienced gut – that there will be six big trends this year. Researchers will then go and seek those trends, many of which might be valid. But it’s not the whole picture,” she says.

Like other trend forecasters, GDR trawls vast amounts of information in its quest to see into the future, layering on its own insight and analysis. But sometimes clients baulk at following advice and won’t take the risk until a trend becomes more mainstream.

“Some clients are more willing to take a leap of faith. Others want to see the beans first; they want to count them,” she says.

By then, however, it may be too late 

Back to articles

Its trendspotting tools include a network of ‘culturally connected individuals’, who gather and distil local intelligence. This network extends to 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world”​​

Future perfect

Its trendspotting tools include a network of ‘culturally connected individuals’, who gather and distil local intelligence. This network extends to 140 cities in more than 50 countries around the world”​

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2016  |  Issue 30