One of the main characteristics of today’s consumer societies is the immense diversity and complexity of everyday life.
While we have the opportunity to be more informed than ever, the volume of information often becomes a burden rather than a blessing.
Businesses face the same problem when trying to determine the consumer trends and needs of the future.
Firms like greeting card maker Hallmark therefore employ the services of trend spotters like Marita Wesely.
Wesely each year compiles a review of changes in American culture.
The objective is to spot the change in society and to “synthesise [these] observations into cultural and consumer insights”, she says.
Wesely combines qualitative, and to a certain extent subjective, observations with the quantitative data gathered by Hallmark’s in-house research teams.
“A trend begins, builds, becomes established, and remains as part of the day’s social fabric – and then, at some point, begins to wane,” Wesely explains. “A trend typically lasts five to eight years.”
Beyond short-term trends companies also draw on the conclusions of futurologists. These researchers are more interested in the long-term changes to our society and the way we live our lives.
They are concerned with meta-trends from globalisation, individualisation, female emancipation and empowerment to ageing population and the effect of these developments have on the world of tomorrow.
Futurologists do not necessarily predict the future. They rather describe the consequences of potential futures and the implications future scenarios have on societies and businesses.
The conclusions from this research often feed directly into the decision making of the world’s largest consumer goods producers.
Trends are contrasting and sometimes contradicting
Forces to increase efficiency and success on the one hand and the ideal of happiness and quality of life on the other are the defining principles of today’s society, according to Futurologist Anne Lise Kjaer.
She says that it is important to understand the social pressures that are at work in today’s society and to anticipate the often contradictory demands imposed on individuals.
Both Wesely and Kjaern see contrasting pressures for example in the traditional male and female roles.
Predicting profound shifts in the dynamics of the traditional family Wesely says, “at the very least, women will feel they want a spouse who may not necessarily bring home the bacon, but who will take out the trash. The typical economic balance in marriage will change and will reach a tipping point.”
Kjaer anticipates that women will no longer mimic masculine power relations to get ahead in a man’s world. Women will, based on a higher level of education and their increasing experience as entrepreneurs, transform company structures and introduce a whole-brain structure that takes advantage of the female qualities of the empathic, multi-tasking leader, she says.
While our society will still be a consumer society in the future, the way products are selected will change, says Kjaer, predicting an age of what she calls “emotional consumption”.
Wesely even sees elements of non-consumption becoming more popular: “We are moving rapidly toward a place where individuals will be more interested in composing their lives in a dynamic way [rather] than amassing more ‘stuff’.”
She believes that people will see all of the choices they make for themselves, no matter how trivial, as part of the lifestyle they are creating for themselves.
Areas that may appear unrelated such as ideas, lifestyles, environments, education and interests will be combined in a way that is less about consumerism and a reaction to advertising than about “originality and a person’s response to their own inner vision”, says Wesely.
Kjaer agrees. She thinks our priorities are shifting. Emotional values and the time to think and dream are increasing in importance. But in a world of contrasts culture cannot be evaluated in a one-dimensional way.
She distinguishes between two groups of people with contrasting mindsets: me-oriented individuals who focus on life as it relates to them personally and we-oriented people who in their lives concentrate on collective group values.
While both groups will base their decisions in life on both rational and emotional considerations, businesses can use the categorisation to create more relevant product offerings.
Working with contrasting mindsets, says Kjaer, will provide a more complete picture of tomorrow’s people and their needs.
Using a technique called mapping she distils the most defining values to both mindsets.
Smart, interactive, empathic and meaningful
“People not only want products that are beautiful and high quality, they want products that emotionally engage with them,” says Kjaer.
She believes that emotional consumption and people empowerment will be some of the big drivers in the 21st century.
Companies will have to develop empowerment brands to respond to people’s true needs, she says.
At the same time the exchange of ideas becomes more relevant. To develop tomorrow’s products manufacturers will need to involve consumers by providing interactive platforms as a means to give feedback.
Wesely argues the same point. “Not only will potential consumers be offered the chance to weigh in on whether or not they would purchase a product described online, by indicating their preference (or not!) they could determine if the items gets manufactured at all. Online communities conceptualise, collaborate, design and vote – and then vote with their dollars.”
Social responsibility, sustainability and ethics are the terms indicative of a society searching for meaning and true quality of life, says Kjaer.
It is therefore imperative that production processes and components become more environmentally friendly and efficient to reflect these ideals.
Products need to connect emotionally with people, argues Kjaer. This requires a deeper understanding on the part of the producers of consumer behaviour and needs.
It means also that it is not enough just to gather data. Knowledge needs to be converted into an effective strategy or as Kjaer says: “Nobody cares how much you know, unless they know that you care.”