How The Most Successful Brands Take A Peek Into The Future

It's true, you can't predict the future--but the best brands have some tricks up their sleeve for trend-anticipation.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

The quote above is from Alan Kay, the pioneering computer scientist who is credited with developing the graphical user interface and object-oriented programming. And after talking to a number of firms whose reason for existence revolves around helping companies understand the future, I've found they agree the best way to win the future is not to try and predict it. Instead, a firm's goal should be to understand the mix of long-term macro trends and today's hot "waves" and then develop products, services, and communications that will succeed in and form that future.

A great example of a company understanding a trend and then taking advantage of it is MasterCard and their iconic "Priceless" campaign. Using insights from a futures company that said consumers were moving from focusing on "material success" to wanting "intangible success," MasterCard's agency, McCann Erickson, realized the credit card firm could no longer just be in the business of helping people buy "stuff." So what to do? The answer was "sell the intangibles versus the material." This meant telling people that it wasn't the product or service they were buying that was really important. Instead, what was critical was the meaning behind the purchase and the experience it provided that were "priceless." The campaign started back in 1997 and is still going strong today, a testament to the power of identifying and then riding a long-term trend.

Taking Advantage of the Future
"But things are changing too fast today to predict the future!" you say. True. All the companies I spoke to said that if a person or firm comes to you saying they can predict the future you should turn and run as fast as you can. The 2008 financial meltdown and the Arab Spring are proof that is false. However, there are ways to take advantage of trends that are happening. Here's how:

1. Do Real-Time Marketing
Oreo performed real-time marketing by taking advantage of the Super Bowl blackout and tweeting "Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark." Within the hour the tweet had been RT'd over 10,000 times. Oreo was successful at executing their marketing virtually instantaneously because its social media trackers, agency creatives, and marketing execs were all co-located. Together they could see the opportunity, recognize it, create the communications, approve it, and execute it--all in real time. As Twitter and other social media become more important for finding and tracking events happening now, marketers who can find the opportunities and execute in real time will win the day.

Terry Young, CEO and founder of sparks & honey, has created a new model that facilitates real-time marketing. It does this by melding longer term trend-tracking with a data-driven newsroom. For example, sparks & honey holds daily "culture briefing" sessions in which Terry's team reviews and discusses a proprietary brief they've curated. The "daily spark" sheet contains snippets about what's happening around the world that day; news articles, insightful videos, trending topics on Twitter and BuzzFeed, and other hot political or notable "sparks." Observing one of these team sessions via Skype, I found it an eclectic and engaging conversation about the latest trends and topics that spawned new ideas, insights, and ways for their clients to think about the zeitgeist.

Young, whose experience includes digital agency startups in the U.S. and a stint as a volunteer working in micro-credit financing in Kazakhstan, says these conversations give a company the ability to do what he calls "wave branding." That is, catching small waves as they appear and riding them to success as they get bigger. It involves connecting the right opportunities to the right brand messages at the right time... real-time. For example, sparks & honey worked with a major cosmetics brand to its increase social media engagement 100% by tapping into news events coming out of the Olympics, the selection of pregnant Marissa Mayer as Yahoo's new CEO, and broader cultural conversations around what it means for women to “have it all.”

2. Get the Jump On Newly Emerging Business Models

One way to get ahead of the competition is to see what companies outside your industry are doing, understand how that model may apply in your industry, and then be the first to apply it to your marketplace. A firm that helps companies do this is trendwatching.com.

Henry Mason, trendwatching.com's Global head of research, believes his firm "differs from competitors because we see biggest sources of inspiration being what’s already happening out there. We find out what’s happening in different locales around the world, see it as a germ of an idea, and then show how it can be used by other companies in their own space."

Trendwatching.com distributes their insights via free or premium level online trend reports created by a combination of in-house analysts and an external network. The latter is composed of 2,500 people around the world who together form the "Happy Spotting Network." They discover trends happening in their local markets and pass those back to the central office. These discoveries are then tested back at HQ to see if they actually cater to consumer desires and fundamental human needs. If they do, then are shared online. If they don’t, they won’t make the cut. Mason, a former KPMG consultant whose study of politics and international relations led to his fascination with an ever-changing world, says, "it's named the Happy Spotting Network because trends are about opportunities and we’re relentlessly optimistic; we give business professionals the ability to make their offerings better.


3. Invent New Products and Services That Will Succeed in the Future

"Trend reporting is a key part of what we do," says Walker Smith, executive chairman of The Futures Company, "but it is not our only deliverable anymore. Many companies want help turning trend identification into a growth opportunity."

Walker, a 20-year veteran in the trends business, credits his study of anthropology and mass communications (he has a PhD in the latter discipline) with showing him the impact of culture on our choices about products, politics, and people. However, he says of his firm that, "we think of ourselves as being growth consultants, not futurists. The benefit we bring to clients is showing them opportunities to grow. The way we do that is through our expertise in trends and futures."

For example, Walker holds workshops with clients to understand how trends are manifesting themselves both inside and out of the client's industry. That's the input. The output of the workshop is concept development. The workshops are followed by "blueprinting" sessions which turn those concepts into more well-defined communications, products, or services. In fact, it was The Futures Company (then known as Yankelovich) that provided the insights that helped MasterCard and McCann Erickson develop the Priceless campaign mentioned earlier.

What To Look For In a Futures-Insights Company
So I asked Terry, Walker, and Henry what they thought a company that wanted to "invent the future" should look for in a futurist firm. Here's their advice:

It Looks Outside Its Industry
Firms that focus on only one industry may be experts in that arena but may miss developments outside their purview that either could heavily impact your industry or provide new business approaches to follow. "You need to work with a company that has a cross-industry perspective" per Henry Mason.
It Can Work Both Fast & Slow
"Culture operates at two speeds--fast and slow," says Terry Young. So you need a firm that can quantify trends--both emerging and macro--and determine short-term and long-term business value." Emerging trends tend to be more communications-oriented while macro ones can be either communications, product, or service-focused. That said, Young makes the point that, "monitoring macro trends helps companies build an arsenal of content that is ready to adjust to emerging trends, memes, or breaking news. It helps brands be part of conversations in real time with content that is highly relevant, yet strategic."

It Gets to the "So What"
Make sure that whomever you are looking to for help can provide what you need to get beyond "Here's What's Happening" to the "So Here's What We Do Now." They should be able to do that by providing examples of other companies riding these trends, providing you toolkits to enable you to do this yourself, or working closely with you to invent the future.

It Doesn't Get Carried Away
Remember how Segway was supposed be selling 10,000 of their vehicles per week and was going to hit $1 billion in sales faster than any other company in history? It's easy to get carried away with the excitement of futuring so, as Walker Smith says, "While your head is in the clouds you need to keep your feet on the ground."

So, the future is just ahead. Maybe it's time for you to take a peek around the corner.

Mark McNeilly is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School in the MBA@UNC online program. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo. You can follow him at @markmcneilly or learn more at suntzustrategies.com

[Image: Flickr user KOREphotos]

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