Leveraging Consumer Trends to Maximize Brand Opportunities
By Sonali Sharma
“Trends” is a buzzword that has permeated the collective branding and marketing lexicon. Literally hundreds of books and articles have been written on the subject by industry leaders and management gurus from Target to Tom Peters.
In recent years, trend watching has become an industry in and of itself, and trends related to every consumer segment, global region and industry pop up daily as “cutting edge” and “ripe with opportunity” for the smart marketer. Yet, brand managers, product developers and design managers often find the vague, fuzzy and immeasurable world of trends to be uncomfortable and overwhelming. Fortunately, a logical approach to applying trends to business objectives and processes can lead to unexpected—and successful—outcomes.
What are trends?
The dictionary defines a trend as a direction of movement; a course of flow; a general inclination or tendency. A qualified trend is rooted in consumer values and delivers insight into lifestyle and life-stage behavior. A trend can be a person, an idea, a place, a product, a phenomenon or a backlash that is gaining relevance with a critical mass of consumers.
Trend types include:
Shifts: These are strongly manifested, deeply penetrated trends that have permanently changed what consumers value, how they think and what they do. A shift also can be defined as an irreversible trend, or a trend that is here to stay. An example of a shift is the natural/organic foods movement or the rise of the virtual community.
Macro trends: These trends run deep and wide with a critical mass of current and emerging observations, as well as trends that share common market motivators and consumer values. Macro trends embody major cultural shifts in how consumers live and what they want. An example of a macro trend is “Mainstream Luxury.” Luxury is no longer restricted to premium product categories or exclusive to people. Retailers such as Target, Ikea and H&M are bridging the gap between affordable and desirable luxury goods.
Micro trends: Shifts in consumer behavior or tactical marketing executions taking hold on a small scale, with the potential to manifest into a lasting and permanent paradigm, are called micro trends. A perfect example is “Brand Spaces,” defined by trendwatching.com as temporary retail outlets—whether brick or mortar, virtual, or even on wheels—that appear almost unannounced, quickly draw in the crowds, and then disappear or morph into something else, thus giving retail a fresh, exclusive and “happening” brand experience.
Emerging trends: Cutting-edge happenings taking shape with early adopters and innovators of new products, services, models and behavior are called emerging trends. While more difficult to spot, emerging trends are great predictors of future widespread behavior. The growth of boundary-less or virtual offices, for example, is an emerging trend that ultimately may lead to a new form of work, workplace and work hours. In this environment, people can access anything in real time, anytime and all of the time.
Fads: Also known as a craze, a fad refers to a trend that becomes popular in a culture relatively quickly, but then loses popularity dramatically. Fads are more prominent in industries such as fashion and décor, which are constantly moving in a definite direction. A fad and a trend may resemble each other at first, but there is almost always a definite beginning and end to a fad. For example, the use of hot pink wall paint may be a fad, but the idea of using exotic colors could be a design trend.
Why use trends?
Trend watching is not about spotting the next color, fashion or designer. Sure, grey maybe the new black and bell-bottoms may conquer the catwalks again, but predicting consumer behavior is infinitely more complicated than that.
Trend watching also isn’t about predicting or forecasting the future. Rather, trend watching is about observing and understanding what’s already occurring and what’s on the verge of happening; mainstream, fringe or emerging. It is also a powerful tool that can help companies maximize brand opportunities and achieve creative breakthroughs that result in greater impact at shelf and increased sales. To do this, however, you must be able to catch the next wave of trends before it catches you.
Why should brand managers, product developers and design managers apply trends to their business objectives and processes? First, trends forecast consumer behavior through movement and shifts in cultures, so tracking them is a crucial way to understand what consumers are doing now and may be doing next. This can help inspire and guide design and innovation teams in their efforts to create new, consumer-focused products, services and experiences as well as identify levers that can create future connections with an audience. Trends also can add robustness, context, and a global market perspective to a company’s consumer insights, and help to identify new consumers or segments to target. In addition, trends often can provide a glimpse of a brand’s future competitive positioning and help influence its communication strategy as well as tactics.
From a design standpoint, trends can help a company understand how to best communicate with consumers through important touch points such as packaging. Keeping track of consumer trends can help designers to create new and innovative, “consumer inspired” packaging and to anticipate and meet consumers’ needs—even before they’ve fully materialized.
How to use trends
Companies can leverage trends and make them actionable by identifying opportunity areas that emerge from the synthesis of brand context, category and consumer landscape (see “Trend Application Model” diagram). Typical steps to maximize brand opportunities include the following:
Clarify the brand challenge. Are you positioning a new product? This might prompt you to look at macro trends that have yet to find their way into your product category. Identifying a breakthrough package design? Micro trends in the larger design world might be more applicable. Establishing an innovation pipeline? Having a sense of emerging trends could lead to some breakthrough, long-term ideas. Developing a short-term campaign idea? You might want to look at recent shifts or emerging trends that are most relevant to your target consumer today.
Define your consumer, customer or audience. What are their drivers, triggers or pulse points? Understanding your target will ensure the trends you use for inspiration are relevant. For example, is your brand more appropriate for a target consumer who is a late adopter? If so, taking your inspiration from established shifts and macro trends will likely make more sense than trying to be on the cutting edge.
Consider brand context. Layer an understanding of the brand or company history onto your brand challenge and project objective. What’s right for one brand may not be right for another. For example, is your brand healthy, extremely well established, with clear and ownable equities? Then be sure that any trends you are leveraging do not take the brand completely off-course, stretching it too far from its core.
Synthesize the category and competitive environment. What are your brand’s strengths, weaknesses, threats? Why do you have a right to win? As with any aspect of business, think about how your competitors might act and leverage trends in a way that’s right for your brand and not easily imitated by others. You should take into account external factors that influence the world of your brand, such as technological, economic, environment and political macro trends.
Define the trend landscape. Trends do not operate in isolation. A relevant opportunity for your brand could originate from multiple trends, as well as how these trends interact. It is important, therefore, to define and understand the entire trend landscape, which can include:
Design trends: These trends can be inspired from the world of architecture, art, nature, fashion, décor/design and history.
Lifestyle trends: These trends manifest through patterns in consumer segments, life-stages, attitudinals, habits and practices.
Cultural shifts: These trends take into account long-term and deep-rooted consumer behavior changes influenced by regions and cultures.
Savvy marketers can leverage trends to maximize brand opportunities across every consumer segment, global region and industry. By logically and creatively applying trends to business objectives, product innovation and design processes, companies can ride this wave to increased sales and bottom-line success.
Where to Find Trends
Where can you find trends? Everywhere! Virtually every industry offers a plethora of published trends information. Sources include white papers, blogs/chat rooms, newsletters, seminars/trade shows and seasonal forecasts. And don’t overlook resources such as consultants and trend firms, marketing/advertising/design agencies, philosophers/sociologists, scientific researchers, industry experts, friends, colleagues and family. Trends can be observed in everyday life and locations such as shops, universities, museums, hotels, airports, movie theaters or at home. Also watch for trends on television and radio, and in general advertising.
In addition, “trendy” web sites abound. The following are among the most popular: