How To: Think About Trends

Most of the businesses we help with branding and innovation want to know more about the future well beyond the next launch. But from a behavioural science and market research perspective, trend-watching presents a tricky problem.

After all, we’ve most likely used the same basic modes of thinking – System 1 and System 2 – for tens of thousands of years. And we use them to handle the same basic activities: eating, drinking, dressing, entertaining ourselves, worrying about health or money or sex. We change much less than we think we change, and it’s not surprising most big, lasting consumer brands deal directly with those basic activities.

But this isn’t a very useful answer. Yes, the safe bet is to assume most things won’t change but if you’re a brand you still need to know about the things that will.

Thinking about trends means resolving a paradox: individuals are creatures of habit and will settle into patterns of behaviour quickly. But change still happens. So it must be happening when large numbers of people settle into newer habits or never pick up old ones.

Take the internet, for instance. As it became a mass medium in the early 2000s, people spent more time online than average. But the number of websites they visited went down. They were adopting new behaviour (going online) but rapidly finding comfortable, settled options within that. A decade later, as people adopted smartphones, very similar patterns applied to the apps people regularly used.

So the key thing to know about any medium-term trend is how new the habits it reflects are. The more settled they are, the easier it is to work out what will happen.

The easiest trends to analyse are the ones which reflect behavioural shifts that are already quite old. The “retail apocalypse” is a great example. As famous brands like Toys’R’Us and Bon Ton close their doors, it looks like a time of massive change. But the underlying shift in behaviour – people becoming comfortable shopping online – is old. The share of money spent online has been rising for twenty years and there’s no reason for that to change. So the broad trends won’t change either – a few big name failures, and growth opportunities for brands, like discount stores, which can adapt.

The next easiest trends to figure out are ones where the behaviour is still fairly new but the habits are settling. Social networking is one example – the basic things people do on social media (follow, like, share, etc.) have been fixed for a while. The big questions now are about responsible use, transparency and long term social effects of the behaviour, not about whether the behaviour itself is here to stay.

Entertainment is an even better example. Change is still happening but at this point the directions of it feel predictable. More people will opt for streaming or on-demand media, but given the choice they prefer to consume it in front of a big screen (TV) rather than smaller screens (tablets or phones). That creates a situation with plenty of opportunities for both traditional TV brands and newer ones like Netflix.

Finally there are the toughest trends to think about. Trends where the behaviour has just started changing and habits haven’t settled yet. An obvious one here is human/AI interaction by voice: it’s clear this will play a big part in people’s lives in future, but exactly how people will habitually use it isn’t certain.

How can brands deal with trends like this? Pragmatism should win out – along with regular ad, trend and brand monitoring. Nobody wants to be the next Kodak or Blockbuster, but that won’t be determined by the lack of a chatbot strategy. For most brands the principle of “Copy! Copy! Copy!” applies – be ready to move quickly and adapt ideas you see working elsewhere.

One thing to note, though, is how much stock the big players in voice – Amazon, Apple, Google, and so on – are putting in emotional video advertising. They know that the first step towards mass acceptance of new behaviour is making it feel natural and easy – in a word, Fluent. With any trend, the brands that adapt best are likely to be the ones that create most Fluency around it.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand tracking tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.

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