Separating the wheat from the chaff is even harder for the serious analyst of social trends these days. Twenty years ago knowledge about such trends was reserved for the privileged few – a handful of applied social scientists who had access to proprietary research and statistics that immediately established you as an expert and had audiences hanging on your every word. We talked about Big Things – such as the effects of changing work practices on the sense of time pressure and the decline in trust in institutions. I remember asking an audience of (almost exclusively male) financial service managers to estimate the percentage of households that conformed to the traditional model of the nuclear family. They over-estimated by a factor of two. Nowadays you would expect such a group to be much better informed about social realities – although the proportion of women in the audience has hardly changed, I can’t help but notice.
In part this reflects the success of us forecasters in communicating ideas about how the world is changing through the media. Prompted by their savvy PR agencies, many major brands have commissioned thought pieces to make a connection between them and a key social trend. Ad agencies have been building campaigns on such insights for years through the application of planning, so they form the basis of many the narratives portrayed in ads. And we at the Future Foundation like to think we have done our bit through our on-line nVision service which effectively puts the all raw material and interpretation in the hands of our clients, some 150 major organisations in the UK. The upshot is that now such knowledge is everywhere – part of the social currency that feeds the chattering classes, fills newspaper columns and inspires magazine articles and TV programmes.
The fact that we are still talking about and making predictions about the future direction of those same ‘Big Things’ twenty years on tells us that really significant trends inevitably continue to wield their effects over decades rather than years – even centuries in the case of fundamental shifts in values and behaviour, such as liberalism and feminism. But to me it seems that these are being obfuscated by a proliferation of so-called trends being identified and discussed in the public arena. Few of them would pass the Future Foundation test of a real trend: namely that it is measurable and quantifiable, affecting a significant proportion of the population, and that it is of sufficient depth to relate to underlying drivers of change.
What is going on? Why is this happening?
Firstly the term trend is widely over-used word. It seems that everything is a trend these days. Women’s pages and magazines are full of artfully displayed ‘on trend’ items. Cool hunters produce regular listings of ‘trends’ which are snapped up by the journalists with ever more column-inches to fill on reduced budgets. It has become a kind of short-hand for an observation of something new and different. For example, the London Evening Standard has a regular ‘Trends’ section, which only yesterday covered a trend called ‘The New Rude’ based on the success of a couple of upmarket sex shops and a new art exhibition at the Tate Britain. This is very typical.
Secondly, we have seen a rapid expansion of the application of ethnographic approaches to ‘trend spotting’ behavioural changes. This has resulted in a proliferation of qualitative trend spotting outfits, some consciously emulating the queen of this approach, Faith Popcorn, who pioneered such methods back in the 1980s helping clients such as Nike develop winning styles from observing street gangs. Such trend-spotting is faster to set up, generates more immediate feedback and does not need quantitative backing – being designed to stimulate ideas for shorter term advertising and brand development. But we take the competition from this area seriously enough to have incorporated elements into our emerging trends section – nVitro. We attempt to apply the same rigour to assessing such new manifestations of trends as we would to any other aspect of our work and constantly review them to see if they are worthy of inclusion.
Thirdly, and most encouragingly, I would argue that trends have become a useful shorthand language for the growing number of Insight professionals working in organisations, to help them communicate ideas and inspiration to innovation and marketing teams. Our research shows that Insight has become more highly valued within companies as a result of the recession, as ROI is more closely monitored. So, this newly empowered army of Insight managers are filtering huge amounts of information and data to identify those trends that are really significant to their organisations. No wonder the term ‘trend’ has become a sign meaning, ‘something that they consider to be worth attention’. While they will all have their own methods for assessing and judging the power of each trend, quantification is critical.
Ultimately it all adds up to an era in which there are more observations, more research, more information and ideas about how the world is changing. And it is all more readily accessible and available than before – Google can deliver a startling amount of information on most topics in a couple of clicks. But, it seems that the enduring requirement is being able to sort and prioritise the ‘trends’ that come out of the process and really decide which are going to be the engines of change in your market, for your customers. And that skill is something that we all have to work at all the time, particularly if we want our insights to really make a difference in the organisations we work for and with.