With product lead times so long, reacting to current trends isn’t enough. Stacey Sheppard talks to the ‘professional trend forecasters’ and finds out how designers can look ahead to future developments in order to maximise the success and profitability of their products.

Trend Forecasting
At the first mention of ‘trend forecasting’, it is inevitable that many of us will immediately think of fashion and what the next big trend to hit the catwalk will be. However trend forecasting is a far more complex undertaking than merely discerning whether we should be dressing like 80s rejects straight off the set of Dynasty, toting outlandish feathered headdresses or indulging in the latest trend for ‘homeless chic’ – and no this is not just some bizarre fashion trend I’ve just made up, there really is an (oxy)moronic trend for looking like a dapper tramp.

Invaluable to Business Success
Trends are of course not limited to fashion – they affect all sectors of business and society. Contrary to the general perception, trend forecasting is also not something that can be done by merely gazing into a crystal ball, rather it takes in depth research, observation and application and when done correctly it can prove invaluable to business success. Numerous companies have made it their business to predict the consumer trends of the future and filter this information back to those that produce consumer goods.

Trend Tracking
Kjaer Global is one such company and its passionate and enthusiastic CEO is Anne Lise Kjaer, a leading global futurist and trend forecaster. For Kjaer, trend tracking is an integral business tool that can help give companies that all important insight into the demands and needs of their consumers. “Tracking trends is a crucial way to be informed about society and understand people, their behaviour, needs and mindset, and how that could impact the future,” Kjaer explains.

An Informed Future Vision
“There are Macro trends (long term drivers 5-10 years) and Micro trends (short term drivers 1-3 years). These trends ideally should inspire and inform companies’ future vision from the board, brand and marketing to innovation strategies for developing products, services and experiences that will fulfil and meet the needs of tomorrow’s people.”

And she should know. Having been in the trend forecasting business for over 20 years, Kjaer has built up an impressive portfolio of clients who come to her for advice and guidance. From BMW, Nike and Disney to Sony, Herman Miller and Ikea, the list of big name brands investing in her trend forecasting services is pretty extensive. And it’s easy to see why they seek external help – predicting the future isn’t exactly an easy task.

As we are now living in the knowledge age, Kjaer believes that we are often overwhelmed by the amount of information we have available to us and she sees the biggest challenge for businesses today in understanding how to take advantage of all this information and distil it into a meaningful future strategy.

A ‘Kick-Ass Strategy’
“I don’t know many executives who can deliver a ‘ to the point’ answer about where the future is going,” she says. “Even less who are capable of explaining the main ten, five, or even three key drivers shaping not only their industry but the entire business arena. And how many CEOs can comfortably create a ‘kick-ass strategy’ based on their understanding of today’s society? Therefore investing in trend intelligence and ultimately taking time out to actively think about the future makes sound business sense.”

Hunting for Trends
However, trend forecasting is not the sole domain of specialised companies such as Kjaer Global. In recent years, trend forecasting has become somewhat of a trend in itself as we have seen the proliferation of so-called ‘cool hunters’ and ‘trend hunters’ emerging onto the scene. Whilst most successful companies do tend to collaborate with international trend agencies, the sheer amount of information that can sometimes be involved means that some companies have now opted to set up their own internal trend forecasting teams.

The Importance a Trend Experts
This is something that Reinier Evers, founder of trendwatching.com, believes is crucial to the success of a company. “ Every company should have its own trend group, even if that ‘group’ is just one person,” he says. “The trend group is not some multi-million dollar/euro/pound affair. It doesn’t have to employ a dozen staff – though of course that would be nice. It’s more a state of mind. It can be low-cost, unauthorised and grass roots if need be.”

Evers feels so strongly about this that he believes you shouldn’t even wait for permission to make the trend group a fait accompli within your business, but that you should just do it and then tackle the support issue. “Without backing from at least one senior member of the management team, the trend group may steadily grow, but results – innovations, that is – won’t make it off the drawing board,” he explains.

External Experts and Internal Teams
James Woudhuysen, Professor of Innovation and Forecasting at De Montfort University, Leicester, agrees that the most successful strategy is to employ the services of both external experts and an internal team of forecasters. “That’s what makes the most sense. If you did it all externally then you probably wouldn’t be able to discern the wheat from the chaff. By doing it all internally you are probably not getting the benefit from the outside experience of other sectors but rather just the one that you are in,” explains Woudhuysen, who has also worked as head of research at international designers Fitch and as director at London product designers SeymourPowell.

Super-Smart Thinking
However, implementing an internal trend group is probably easier said than done and, whatever scale on which it is done, requires a huge amount of diligent research. For designers and R&D teams whose job it is to come up with innovative new products, this means having to look outside their sphere of expertise at the wider picture. As Woudhuysen puts it: “Designers and R&D teams have to do something that isn’t their strong suit and that is to read more widely. They need to read whole books and read from a number of different disciplines.”

Free or Dirt Cheap
For Evers though, books are just one of many resources that we can turn to when attempting to track trends. “There is now an incredible wealth of trend resources at our fingertips, many of them free or dirt cheap. Changes in consumer behaviour, new trendsetting products or just super-smart thinking on where our societies are headed at large can be found everywhere from papers, websites, mags, blogs, books, news, and newsletters, to seminars, fairs, and trade shows and from customers, clients, colleagues, friends, and family to consultants, researchers, and experts,” he says.

There are no Universal Templates
The main challenge as far as Kjaer is concerned is making sure that the company is devoted to tracking trends from the outset. “There are no generic solutions – no ‘one fits all’ template. The future is very much about the individual company being ready for the journey ahead – or else it just won’t work. “Everyone has to be committed and ready for actively navigating the change ahead. It has to be instigated at board level and filter through the whole organisation to the end-user, the consumer – otherwise it’s not worth starting the journey in the first place.”

Definition: A manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need, desire, want, or value.

Explanation: At the core of this statement is the assumption that human beings, and thus consumers, don’t change that much. Their deep needs remain the same, yet can be unlocked or newly serviced. The ‘unlockers’ can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity

Top Trends according to trendwatcher Reinier Evers and Anne Lise Kjaer

Article: Designer Magazine, March 2010

Images
1. Illustration by Alfred Brekke
2. Southbank Show London
3. Bob is changing the system by Alfred Brekke
4. Banksy Camden, London

 

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