If you could choose one magic power, what would it be? For most CEOs, senior executives, innovators and marketers, the answer is surely easy: the power to see into the future. To know what’s coming next for business, technology, society and culture. The power to see the next wave before it crashes into you.
That’s always been a key business challenge. In a 21st-century environment of dizzyingly rapid change, it’s the central challenge. But generating meaningful answers to the question ‘what will people want next?’ can feel impossible.
We’re living at a moment of rapid change. But amid all that change, we’re still the same old humans with the same old human needs
But there is an approach to this question that can be embedded in any organisation. It’s low cost and simple. And it’s uniquely suited to the challenge posed by an environment of accelerated change.
I’m talking about trend-driven innovation: the practice of spotting and applying consumer trends. And it should be a part of the foresight and innovation toolkit for any business in the 21st-century.
GET OBSESSED WITH WHAT WON’T CHANGE
The practice of spotting new trends in consumer behaviour, mindset and expectation starts with one simple observation. Yes, we’re living at a moment of rapid change. But amid all that change, we’re still the same old humans with the same old human needs. To spot or predict new consumer trends, stop fixating over the next flashy technology and start obsessing with what won’t ever change: human nature.
Human beings are motivated by a set of basic needs and wants that are extremely stable over time: convenience, value, security, status, fun and so on. How does that core truth help us? Powerful new trends emerge when some change in the world – a new technology, a new economic moment, a new mindset, or something else – unlocks a different way of serving one of these age-old basic needs.
So how can you use that simple principle to start spotting new trends?
The fastest, easiest and most powerful way is simply to look out to the world of innovation – the new products, services, campaigns, brands and business models being launched now – in search of ones that serve a basic need in a new way.
When you spot a cluster of innovations that meet this criterion, that’s important for a couple of reasons. First, that cluster can signal that some change in the world is allowing a new way to serve an age-old human need. Second, those innovations will send the same signal to consumers who use them, or simply become aware of them. Over time, those innovations and others like them will change consumers, giving them new behaviours, new attitudes and, crucially, new expectations of the world around them. And that means new expectations of brands and businesses, including yours.
HOW ABOUT AN EXAMPLE?
Way back at the start of 2017 we spotted a cluster of innovations in the retail space. They included Finery, an AI-fuelled virtual assistant for online clothes shopping. And Freda, a UK startup that uses AI to understand a woman’s fertility cycle and deliver tampons accordingly. These innovations were all leveraging a recent change – the maturing of AI – to serve the basic human need that is convenience.
That prompted us to identify a trend we called a-commerce, all about how consumers are outsourcing key retail behaviours – hunting for the best product, negotiating the best price, sorting delivery – to AI and smart digital services. We’ve watched the a-commerce trend evolve for over 18 months now, and seen some huge players respond to this powerful emerging customer expectation. Walmart, for example, just launched its own AI-fuelled shopping concierge, Jet Black.
BECOME A TREND-DRIVEN ORGANISATION
If you’re looking to transform your business, here’s the transformation I think you should make: become a trend-driven organisation.
The people inside your business see a maelstrom of innovations every day – new products, services, campaigns and more. Becoming a trend-driven business is simply about teaching your people to see all that through a simple lens – change … basic needs … new customer expectations – that allows them to spot new directions of travel.
Do that, and each of your employees can be empowered to start generating meaningful thinking on where the expectations of consumers are heading next. You can become a business that runs not only on insight, but on foresight.
That’s a profound transformation. And once you start to see the next wave of customer expectations before it crashes into you, you can then ask the second set of powerful questions. What do these new expectations mean for us? And how should we respond?