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Forecasting the Future

February 25, 2010

With product lead times so long, reacting to current trends isn't enough. Stacey Sheppard talks to the 'professional trend forecasters' and finds out how designers can look ahead to future developments in order to maximise the success and profitability of their products.


At the first mention of 'trend forecasting', it is inevitable that many of us will immediately think of fashion and what the next big trend to hit the catwalk will be.
However trend forecasting is a far more complex undertaking than merely discerning whether we should be dressing like 80s rejects straight off the set of Dynasty, toting outlandish feathered headdresses or indulging in the latest trend for 'homeless chic' - and no this is not just some bizarre fashion trend I've just made up, there really is an (oxy)moronic trend for looking like a dapper tramp.
Trends are of course not limited to fashion - they affect all sectors of business and society. Contrary to the general perception, trend forecasting is also not something that can be done by merely gazing into a crystal ball, rather it takes in depth research, observation and application and when done correctly it can prove invaluable to business success. Numerous companies have made it their business to predict the consumer trends of the future and filter this information back to those that produce consumer goods.
Kjaer Global is one such company and its passionate and enthusiastic CEO is Anne Lise Kjaer, a leading global futurist and trend forecaster. For Kjaer, trend tracking is an integral business tool that can help give companies that all important insight into the demands and needs of their consumers. "Tracking trends is a crucial way to be informed about society and understand people, their behaviour, needs and mindset, and how that could impact the future," Kjaer explains.
"There are Macro trends (long term drivers 5-10 years) and Micro trends (short term drivers 1-3 years). These trends ideally should inspire and inform companies' future vision from the board, brand and marketing to innovation strategies for developing products, services and experiences that will fulfil and meet the needs of tomorrow's people."
And she should know. Having been in the trend forecasting business for over 20 years, Kjaer has built up an impressive portfolio of clients who come to her for advice and guidance. From BMW, Nike and Disney to Sony, Herman Miller and Ikea, the list of big name brands investing in her trend forecasting services is pretty extensive. And it's easy to see why they seek external help - predicting the future isn't exactly an easy task.
As we are now living in the knowledge age, Kjaer believes that we are often overwhelmed by the amount of information we have available to us and she sees the biggest challenge for businesses today in understanding how to take advantage of all this information and distil it into a meaningful future strategy.
"I don't know many executives who can deliver a ' to the point' answer about where the future is going," she says. "Even less who are capable of explaining the main ten, five, or even three key drivers shaping not only their industry but the entire business arena. And how many CEOs can comfortably create a 'kick-ass strategy' based on their understanding of today's society? Therefore investing in trend intelligence and ultimately taking time out to actively think about the future makes sound business sense."
However, trend forecasting is not the sole domain of specialised companies such as Kjaer Global. In recent years, trend forecasting has become somewhat of a trend in itself as we have seen the proliferation of so-called 'cool hunters' and 'trend hunters' emerging onto the scene. Whilst most successful companies do tend to collaborate with international trend agencies, the sheer amount of information that can sometimes be involved means that some companies have now opted to set up their own internal trend forecasting teams.
This is something that Reinier Evers, founder of trendwatching.com, believes is crucial to the success of a company. " Every company should have its own trend group, even if that 'group' is just one person," he says. "The trend group is not some multi-million dollar/euro/pound affair. It doesn't have to employ a dozen staff - though of course that would be nice. It's more a state of mind. It can be low-cost, unauthorised and grass roots if need be."
Evers feels so strongly about this that he believes you shouldn't even wait for permission to make the trend group a fait accompli within your business, but that you should just do it and then tackle the support issue. "Without backing from at least one senior member of the management team, the trend group may steadily grow, but results - innovations, that is - won't make it off the drawing board," he explains.
James Woudhuysen, Professor of Innovation and Forecasting at De Montfort University, Leicester, agrees that the most successful strategy is to employ the services of both external experts and an internal team of forecasters. "That's what makes the most sense. If you did it all externally then you probably wouldn't be able to discern the wheat from the chaff. By doing it all internally you are probably not getting the benefit from the outside experience of other sectors but rather just the one that you are in," explains Woudhuysen, who has also worked as head of research at international designers Fitch and as director at London product designers SeymourPowell.
However, implementing an internal trend group is probably easier said than done and, whatever scale on which it is done, requires a huge amount of diligent research. For designers and R&D teams whose job it is to come up with innovative new products, this means having to look outside their sphere of expertise at the wider picture. As Woudhuysen puts it: "Designers and R&D teams have to do something that isn't their strong suit and that is to read more widely. They need to read whole books and read from a number of different disciplines."
For Evers though, books are just one of many resources that we can turn to when attempting to track trends. "There is now an incredible wealth of trend resources at our fingertips, many of them free or dirt cheap. Changes in consumer behaviour, new trendsetting products or just super-smart thinking on where our societies are headed at large can be found everywhere from papers, websites, mags, blogs, books, news, and newsletters, to seminars, fairs, and trade shows and from customers, clients, colleagues, friends, and family to consultants, researchers, and experts," he says.
With such a vast web of resources it becomes even more important that trend tracking is done in a structured and diligent way so that the information gathered can then ultimately be translated into profitable innovations.
Kjaer's solution to this is the use of what she refers to as a 'Trend Atlas'. "Tracking trends and mapping them out is a short-cut to creating clarity out of complexity. Creating a Trend Atlas enables you to decode the broader social content of society and project a realistic holistic vision of the future," she explains.
"Your company Trend Atlas is your GPS to navigating complexity. Putting a multidimensional strategy in place means that you get a head-start to your journey into the future. By considering and carefully understanding what trends will impact society and therefore your business, you should be able to put a relevant innovation plan in place."
However, trend forecasting is a tricky process and presents numerous challenges. One of these challenges is of course how to determine whether what you are witnessing is a trend or a fad. Woudhuysen describes a trend as something more long-lasting and substantial than a fad. "It is usually deep-seated and the confluence of a number of factors including technology, economics, politics, and demography," he says.
The main challenge as far as Kjaer is concerned is making sure that the company is devoted to tracking trends from the outset. "There are no generic solutions - no 'one fits all' template. The future is very much about the individual company being ready for the journey ahead - or else it just won't work.
"Everyone has to be committed and ready for actively navigating the change ahead. It has to be instigated at board level and filter through the whole organisation to the end-user, the consumer - otherwise it's not worth starting the journey in the first place."
TRENDS according to trendwatcher Reinier Evers
Definition: A manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need, desire, want, or value.
Explanation: 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 or newly serviced. The 'unlockers' can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity
Anne Lise Kjaer's TOP 5 TREND PREDICTIONS for 2010
Doing-my-bit: The influential and informed individual practises sustainability by 'doing' and this is already starting to filter through every level of society. Take a lead as an ethical organisation and become the worthwhile choice, but never overplay your ethical credentials.
MyTribe: Sharing lifestyles and value sets across conventional borders we want to learn about ourselves and find greater meaning in life. Companies must create inspiring, informed, interactive and meaningful propositions for the purpose of empowering people and influencing their lives in a positive manner.
Staying@Home: Be it work, leisure, entertainment or even going to the movies - staying at home is the new going out. Whether it is our own private dinner club, the home-office, self-pampering or technology, we invest in our home to make it our ultimate destination. The average person in the UK spent £2K+ on technology in 2008.
EmpowermentBranding: People bond with brands that engage and empower them by providing inspiration, interaction and informed knowledge. This leads to a feeling of personal ownership. Unconventional thinking emotionally engages people and cements lasting relationships.
'Time-saving': In a fast society time-saving is a magic word. Fast, easy and empowering solutions that make us feel in control appeal to us all. Absolutely fab apps for iPhones are a huge success. There are now more than 65,000+ apps available, inspiring people by offering intelligent navigation and smart choices.
Reinier Evers' 5 crucial CONSUMER TRENDS for 2010
Business as Unusual: For the first time, there's a global understanding, if not a feeling of urgency that sustainability, in every possible meaning of the word, is the only way forward. Meanwhile, to truly prosper, companies will have to display greater transparency and honesty, have conversations as opposed to one-way advertising, and champion collaboration instead of an 'us and them' mentality. It's time to study and learn from those brands that you think are already mirroring today's more diverse, chaotic, networked society, and then outdo them.
Urbany: A forever-growing number of more sophisticated, more demanding, but also more try-out-prone, super-wired urban consumers are snapping up more 'daring' goods, services, experiences, campaigns and conversations. And thanks to near-total online transparency of the latest and greatest, those consumers opting to remain in rural areas will be tempted to act (and shop) online like urban consumers, too.
(F)Luxury:In 2010, luxury, and what it means to a bewildering number of 'consumer segments', will remain in flux. Luxury will be whatever you want it to be. After all, what constitutes luxury is closely related to what constitutes scarcity. And, beyond the basic needs, scarcity is in the eye of the beholder, especially those beholders who are desperately trying to be unique. Just declare that the end is nigh for anything that's getting a little too affordable, too accessible, too polluting, or just too well-known. Then introduce something very different (if not the opposite), appealing to the in-crowds who are ready to jump ship anyway.
Eco-Easy: While the current good intentions of corporations and consumers are helpful, serious eco-results will depend on making products and processes more sustainable without consumers even noticing it, and, if necessary, not leaving much room for consumers and companies to opt for less sustainable alternatives to begin with. This will often mean forceful, if not painful, government intervention, or some serious corporate guts, or brilliantly smart design and thinking, if not all of those combined.
Maturialism:Let's face it: 2010 will be rawer, more opinionated, more risqué, more in your face than ever before. Your audiences (who are by now thoroughly exposed to, well, anything, for which you can thank first and foremost the anything-goes online universe) can handle much more quirkiness, more daring innovations and more risqué communications and conversations than traditional marketers could have ever dreamed of.

 


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