The future is calling. Are you listening? It isn’t difficult to do. With a bit of awareness and focus, signals from the future can be found all around us. When it comes to brand innovation, renovation, and new product positioning, the thing to do is put your antennae in the air and sensitize your radar. These cultural signals can mean the difference between a brand that’s set for today and a brand prepared for tomorrow and beyond.
“FutureProofing” is a process of trend analysis specific to a product or category, highly tuned to specific timespans (e.g. 2 to 5 years, 5 to 10 years), consumer segments, cultural movements, and other sociological factors. The key aspect — the part that puts the “proof” in FutureProofing — is the brand integration that occurs at the end of (or in conjunction with) the analysis. There are any number of smart firms providing exceptional informatics on everything under the sun. But what do you do with the data once it’s collected?
Here are three elements of this integrative process. While hardly exhaustive, they provide starting points for a methodology to prepare your brand platform for future growth.
1. Dial-In: Everything is connected. Given a timeframe of 2 to 5 years, many of the factors that make up the future are already hard at work right now. And plenty of trend-hunters are reporting them. Whatever “channel” you want to view, whether the fields of fashion, art, music, science, or medicine, to name a few examples, we can know with a relatively high degree of certainty what creative developments are in process and what is coming down the pike. Trends move in a consistent way from the creators to the outliers (or early adopters) to the media to the mainstream. Depending on the field, these rates of motion are fairly consistent.
Processes to gather this information are all part of the channeling experience: moving headlong into search expeditions that discover what’s over the horizon. Some ideations to consider:
• Workshops with domain professionals and category experts (preferably after exhausting their social media outputs through dialogue)
• Industry reports and white papers from the trade
• Field excursions to a location uniquely relevant to the topic of enquiry
2. TrendMapping: As with any project, identifying the challenge correctly — salient details and relevant scope — is no small thing. Indeed it’s key to ensuring results meet objectives. Though that seems basic arithmetic, it’s to this day not given appropriate weight even by the smartest among us. (It’s a matter of focus, not intelligence.) The right brief gives us the opportunity to use TrendMapping: a one-to-one correspondence between cultural elements from our exploratory phases against relevant brand contexts. A generic example: given research that shows or confirms an “authenticity trend”, how far can we push a particularly novel product or ingredient or lifestyle before it goes beyond authentic toward the faddish? Or the other way: before its authenticity breaks the brand’s ability to support it? Such questions of context are useful in scoping brand futures.
The goal is to look for obvious and non-obvious signals “under the radar.” Accumulating enough detail yields broader themes to fit brand benefit spaces. For example, attempting to emphasize a “skin benefit” we would need bio-friendly visual, environmental, health, or other cues which ladder specifically and intuitively to skin. These cues can change or evolve based on the trend signal in question.
3. Culture Panels: No matter what you’re trying to track, the closer you get to the source the more confident you can be that the information has weight. Culture Panels are a way of zeroing in on sources directly relevant to your research. For example, a project requiring “quick read” response to design directions intended for a foreign market, or product formulations for an “extreme” demographic. These are not full-blown quantitative or even projectable qualitative results. Quickly assembling respondents (local or global) via grapevine or at-hand resources, polling based on written questionnaires, Skype interviews, or other communications yields swift turnaround. Notwithstanding what may seem off-the-cuff, these results can be invaluable, both for internal teams and your client too, in pointing to hidden elements (gotcha!) that couldn’t be found otherwise except through expensive and time-consuming research. Strong micro-cultures are often the source of the next macro-thing.
There are many roads to the future. (All of them, in fact! No one’s yet found one that goes to the past.) But just as with terrestrial traffic, some routes are faster than others, some more reliable, some hidden, some under construction. Getting to know the rules of these roads is important to your brand’s future. There may beslightlymore to it then learning red/yellow/green, but there are plenty of tools and techniques available if you turn up the sensitivity meter and start listening.
About the Author
Craig Swanson is Creative Director, Partner of Toniq LLC. Toniq is a brand strategy firm dedicated to creating "brand effervescence." Mr. Swanson and the Toniq staff bring life, energy and dimension to brands by blending marketing with anthropology, sociology, the psychology of symbolism and innovative consumer research techniques. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel:212-755-2929 x218Website: www.toniq.com