What is Trend-Driven Innovation?

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Business success is ultimately about answering one simple question correctly:

What are your customers going to want next?

Business leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, and marketers obsess over this question. The problem? The received wisdom on how to answer it is wrong.

One traditional approach to finding answers focuses on getting ever closer to customers (or potential customers). Spend more time with them, create ever more detailed personas, drill down into their unique socio-cultural context and you’ll be able to reveal what they want. And yes, it’s undeniable that these kinds of ethnographic fieldwork can yield deep insights. But obtaining these insights is hard, not to mention time-consuming and expensive.

An alternative is to simply ask people what they’d like (aka traditional market research). Yet everyone knows there is often a huge gap between what consumers say and what they do. Plus explicit questioning often struggles to capture newly emerging expectations and points of tension that people might not even recognize yet. As Steve Jobs famously said:

Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. . .  People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

A further approach is to analyze what people actually do. The last decade has seen vast amounts of attention (and money) flow to these quantitative data-driven solutions. The promise is clear: collect ever bigger/better/faster data and you’ll uncover previously invisible or inaccessible insights about customers’ behavior.

Of course, data is incredibly valuable. It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. But often data-driven innovation is incremental in nature. Data is fantastic at validation and optimization, but less successful at generating the radical and unconventional connections that underpin many truly novel and disruptive innovations.

Enter, a radical new way to answer to the ultimate business question…

Talking about ‘trends’ often confuses people (are we talking about fashion? new technologies? what’s #trending?) but simply put, our entire business is based around a powerful, counterintuitive truth: in a business arena characterized by relentless change and hyper-competition to anticipate what people will want next, stop looking at customers and start to look at businesses. Specifically look at the brands, startups or innovations that are setting customer expectations around what is possible, desirable or simply ‘normal’ and use these — and the insights you can draw from them — to anticipate what your customers will want next.

This innovation-led approach generates compelling new answers to the ultimate business question by tapping into three often-overlooked perspectives.

First, customers’ future needs and wants are shaped by what they experience — and what’s delighting them — now. Consumers use Apple devices and enjoy the seamlessness of them ‘just working’. They walk into an H&M store to find racks of ‘good enough’ quality clothing at rock bottom prices. They travel economy class on Singapore Airlines and receive first-class service.

But these experiences don’t then simply sit neatly within customers’ mobile/fashion/retail/travel mental silos (as they do in the minds of many business professionals). Instead, someone riding in a car will wish the in-car entertainment system is as intuitive to use as their iPhone. Someone browsing beauty products will expect to find that sweet spot of price and quality. Someone stopping for a coffee will bristle at anything less than first-class customer service. Indeed, once people have experienced Apple’s design, H&M’s affordability, or Singapore Airlines’ level of service, it’s hard to tolerate ‘normal’ (i.e. lower) standards.

The scariest part of this whole scenario (for businesses) is that with information traveling more freely than ever, there is an almost instant and universal familiarity with the standards set by the best-in-class. Customer expectations are often raised without someone even needing to personally experience ‘the best’, but merely through knowing what the ‘best’ represents.

Second, innovation-led trend spotting is a powerful way to tap the collective intelligence of the business crowd.

Every new business venture is a bet on the future. Anyone launching a new brand, product or service is looking to cater to both current and anticipatedfuture customer needs and wants. And in today’s world of perpetual disruption and exponential change, there are more bets being placed than ever before. But find multiple actors (preferably in a variety of sectors and/or markets) that are placing similar bets, and you can start to move from mere insight towards actionable foresight as to where customers are headed.

That means being alert as to how the redefinition of customers’ experience of access and ownership illustrated by Airbnb and Spotify will apply to other businesses; how the convenient, transparent, on-demand economy represented by Uber and Amazon will impact expectations in every industry; how messaging apps like WeChat and Line have shifted from tools for communication into essential lifestyle platforms; or indeed how any of the recent innovations featured in our 5 Trends for 2016 will (re)define customer expectations of what businesses offer and how they should behave.

Third, novel, niche or ‘ridiculous’ real-world innovations are often weak signals of future mainstream behaviors. From Facebook to Snapchat, Netflix to Zipcar, Seventh Generation to Tesla, the business world is full of examples of new entrants that ‘senior’ (in both senses of the word!) executives initially dismissed as frivolous or uninteresting.

Successful trend-driven innovation is about isolating and decoding the underlying behaviors — even those that feel irrelevant, extreme or a little ‘out there’ — and understanding which have potential to be applied more widely. And then launching brands, products and services that reflect these new expectations.

Think back to that Steve Jobs quote:

Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. . . People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Looking at disruptive, expectation-setting innovations helps you to read what’s not yet on the pages for your customers. Look at what other business are showing people. Read what’s on those pages. And then write your own.

Henry Mason is the co-author of Trend-Driven Innovation, a deep dive into the core of our methodology here at TrendWatching, as well as an acclaimed keynote speaker.

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