Trends — Why they matter, and how to spot them

This post isn’t about robots — but you often meet robots in trends decks!

One of the things I do in my job at Carat Global is to identify and write about trends, both for the annual trends report, but also for some individual categories, like retail. I thought it would be interesting for some of the people who have seen my presentations to give a bit of background on trends, what they are, why they are important, and how I ‘spot’ them.

First, What is a trend? In the early pages of her book On Trend (2019), Devon Powers looks at the history of the term, and explains that the modern usage started in the late 1800s:

“”Trends” […] became a way to refer to movement in data. For instance, the points on a graph could follow a “trend line.” Once rendered abstract, trends served a wide range of functions. Within the social sciences, trends became a way to comprehend wide-scale and long-term social changes both qualitatively and quantitatively.”

Second, How does identifying and studying these patterns help? Amy Webb, in The Signals are Talking (2016) makes these three points:

“The future is not predetermined, but rather woven together by numerous threads that are themselves being woven in the present.
We can observe probable future threads in the present, as they are being woven.
We can impact our possible and probable futures in the present.”

Third, Can we be accurate? Alvin Toffler in Future Shock (1970) makes the point that insight and imagination is more important than to be 100% right:

“The inability to speak with precision and certainty about the future however is no excuse for silence. Where hard data is available of course it ought to be taken into account but where it is lacking the responsible writer — even the scientist — has both a right and an obligation to rely on other kinds of evidence including impressionistic or anecdotal data and the opinions of well-informed people. I have done so throughout and offer no apology for it.
In dealing with the future, at least for the purposes at hand, it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be 100-percent ‘right’. Theories do not have to be ‘right’ to be enormously useful. Even error has its uses. The maps of the world drawn by the mediaeval cartographers were so hopelessly inaccurate, so filled with factual error, that they elicit condescending smiles today when almost the entire surface of the Earth has been chartered. Yet the great explorers could never have discovered the new world without them. Nor could the better, more accurate maps of today have been drawn until men, working with the limited evidence available to them, set down on paper their bold conceptions of world they had never seen.”

How I think about trends and how I identify them is based on looking at both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ side — what companies and organisations are doing, and what people are doing.

On the supply side I look at what new start-ups are doing (& getting funding for), what great companies like Google, Amazon, Snapchat and Nike are doing, what technologies are growing, and what is happening in big cities. For example 5G is now available in 150 UK cities through O2 alone, not as a result of huge consumer demand demand (quite the opposite, in some cases). Another example is that I went to New York on holiday a couple of years ago partly with the aim of going to an Amazon Go store, where they did not have cashiers. These all tell us about what the world will be like in a few years, if at least a few of these come to fruition and become widely adopted.

On the demand side I look at what certain audiences are doing, for example younger people (who are likely to be experimental, and don’t know the old ways of doing things), and more wealthy people (who have the money to experiment with new technologies). As the Alvin Toffler quote says, some of this can be anecdotal, or observed in small samples. As an example of this, teens were the ones who experimented with things like virtual watch parties, watching videos together on YouTube because it seemed completely natural, and you can see this behaviour spreading to older groups.

You can see lots of examples of how I have used these ways of thinking in our latest presentation and report.

Head of Media Futures for Carat Global, interested in all things media, digital and edible