Visions of the Future: Understanding Trends


Back to that time of the year again, I’m busy collaborating with people across the company and externally to pull together insights and inspire a new bout of business development for next year. It’s a fascinating subject, mapping the competitive landscape around any company, because some things you can control and knowing about them in advance will really help and other things, well, they just happen and sooner or later some of it or all of it will have an impact on you too, whether you like it or not.

For my own sanity’s sake I keep following a 3-pronged approach when it comes to understanding trends, an approach I originally came across courtesy of Unilever and having chewed on it for quite some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a very powerful way to understand the difference between cause and effect in the arena of trends.

The word ‘Trends’ in itself has become somewhat of an overused term and tons of institutions now deliver trend reports of various calibres, sometimes causing more confusion than clarity and this because everything is muddled together: Macroeconomic drivers meeting consumer anxieties in some niche expression through one single on-line service provider isn’t exactly a trend, it is an expression, which may be the correct expression to capitalise on a nascent consumer trend, but it’s longevity as a business is dependent on other factors in addition than the survival of the potential trend that spawned it. Thus it has to be evaluated as an expression, not as the mother trend – if that makes sense?

Back to the 3-pronged approach: Firstly we must seek to understand

  1. Drivers
    • External drivers – these are out of the control of individual
      consumers, but somewhere along the line they may have an impact on your
      life. Examples are the global economy, climate change, political risk
      and so on.
    • Internal drivers – These are value, aspiration, needs and demands
      driven and influence the life of consumers.
  2. Trends – trends are really about how consumers respond to the above drivers through their behaviour. It’s not about whether black is in our out, it’s more about understanding that fundamentally our needs don’t change that quickly, but external and internal drivers will create new opportunities for those needs to be met, which conveniently leads us onto the third point:
  3. Expressions – These are ways in which the trends are expressed in consumers’ day to day lives, examples illustrating how businesses for instance are exploiting the trends today.

So bearing this distinction in mind, it is easier when you come across anything labelled a ‘trend’ to understand whether this is in fact an external or internal driver, a consumer response to the former in the form of behaviour or indeed an expression of the trend in the form of a business.

By keeping a keen eye out for the drivers, both internal and external over time it becomes possible to stay ahead of the curve so to speak, to anticipate trends and expressions, rather than merely notice more and more obscure new businesses cropping up. This is hard and of course it helps constantly being on the look-out for many different kinds of information, sources and so on, but also consciously engaging in monitoring something will gradually make you more sensitive to small changes and being able to identify the crucial indicators in a field that tell you when something is about to change.

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