The Problem With The Trends (Business)

There’s something wrong in the trends business. It’s broken. It’s broken by lack of imagination, lack of collaboration and secrecy. In this article we’ve listed some major areas that need fixing, not for our competitive sake, but for an industry to evolve and become useful enough to inspire its clients to make things better.

As some of you know, PSFK began as a website project where Simon King and I wrote about the interesting ideas we were noticing around the world. It was something we did for the love of it. And one day a company phoned us up (Anheuser Busch) and asked us for our advice. That really started PSFK LLC – the trends and innovation company that fuels this site. As we have developed our offering for PSFK consultancy over the last few years, the more we have learned about the market we work in and the reaction that buyers have to trend services.

The key learning has been this: there’s something wrong in the trends business. It’s broken. It’s broken by lack of imagination, lack of collaboration and secrecy. Below we’ve listed some major areas that need fixing, not for our competitive sake, but for an industry to evolve and become useful enough to inspire its clients to make things better.

Arrogance and Control
Trends services have an unhealthy reliance on control, restriction of information and perception. Trends companies put up gates that guard this mystical information that somehow only they could gather. This presentation from Henley Center’s d_Code is an example of how the trends industry attempts to scare companies into thinking how little they know. There’s no explanation of why d_code knows better, just that they somehow know a lot more than you do (and they’ve got the graphic designer to prove it). AgencySpy gave this great reaction to the presentation in 2007:

“No ideas. No dissection of new cultural movements to help you on your way. No outlay of creatives, organizations, thinkers that are shaking up the underground to shape the future. Nada. Every one of their clients should feel like they just got punk’d.”

Death Of Creativity
Another problem with the sector is that having spent a lot of money subscribing to a specific trends service, companies are hesitant not to use it. WGSN has got itself in the monopolistic position where the fashion industry has accepted that if you don’t subscribe to their service, you’re not in the game. As we’ve argued before, if everyone’s looking at the same information for inspiration, you’re going to get the same product.

Lack Of Critical Judgement
The lack of transparency and walled-garden offering means that trends services’ opinion and recommendations can’t be discussed, criticized or judged. As their views aren’t open, there’s no way to check or challenge their validity. What really is in the Cassandra Report? Why are the Intelligence Group such experts on youth? (Especially if they use the image at the top of this article on their webpage?? ;)

We’re in a digital world where conversations are free – but trends services aren’t willing to be honest about where they got their judgments from. Too many companies and their ad agencies are cut and pasting their unchecked judgments into their powerpoint documents to make significant strategic decisions.

You’ve Made Your Bed, Now Rely On It
Compounding these problems is the cost that budgets get used up buying data from single sources. For a handful of log-in passwords, a company pays $20,000 for WGSN and $35,000 for Iconoculture. The thing is, that if your boss has paid that much for you to use the service, then it’s likely that you’re going to be forced to use it whether you like it or not. We hear stories that designers at H&M are forced to spend 5 hours a week on WGSN (Is that why H&M is rather off the boil these days?).

And let’s remember, when you spend that much money you feel that you have to start using their findings as gospel. Or someone else at work will.

Deciding What The Trend Is, Then Taking You To Its Grave
Another problem with the trends industry is that it doesn’t half like to tell you what the trends are, then spends a lot of time reminding you how right they were with new examples. You know how it is: you buy the 2008 report and then you get monthly updates on the same trends that were identified at the start of the year. The problem is that by working like that you’re immediately providing focus on data that might not really be reflecting change. Faith Popcorn, and her BrainReserve have been trading on selected ‘trends’ for ages now and Iconoculture are somehow following 45 trends. That means they’re destined to either report on the weird (Iconoculture’s Evolutionaries – “People finding new paths to fulfillment through an uncanny native intelligence combined with an intuitive understanding of paradigm-shifting perspectives, skills, and insights”) to the preaching (BrainReserve’s dated Cocooning – “The need to protect oneself from the harsh, unpredictable realities of the outside world.”) or the bland (Wellville – “A holistic (mind, body, spirit) approach to living that seeks total wellbeing through balance within self, community, and world.”).

Following set trends means that companies like Brainreserve and Iconoculture have trouble identifying the new.

The Blogosphere’s Love Of Novelty
Now to counter all these walled garden trends services and avoid these costs is to scan the blogs each day. And there’s a hell of a lot of information out there for you to gather (or get your ad agency’s intern to gather) – and a lot can be learned from the right analysis and pattern recognition. The problem with the blogosphere is that it’s too distracted by novelty. And novelty can kill innovation. Consider how far the idea behind the rolling-bench dispersed last week: from Coolhunting to Josh Spear and beyond. It’s a bench with a seat that can be rolled round so that your backside can always be dry. It’s not innovation. It’s not a manifestation of a trend. It’s a gimmick. It’s novelty and picked up because it’s different, not because it’s a good idea or could even work en masse in real life (And even if you’re a little more discerning, you’re still in trouble because trends newsletters are famous for spreading novelty not real ideas).

The Trends Industry Love Of Novelty
Ok, ok – it’s not only the blogs. It’s the industry too. The love of novelty can probably be summed up by this image about ‘Atmosfear’ on the BrainReserve’s site.

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The Ad Agencies Make Their Play
And then you get the services from the ad agencies. And sure, they’re all fun and funky and well designed and all but at the end of the day, ad agencies really are in the game to make ads – not help your business innovate. And there are deeper problems we know of – the staff your agency used to do trend research tend to be the young, hip things who might know what’s hot in Hoxton, but they’ve only just turned up as interns. Of all the trend data out there, Ad Agency reports should be the most distrusted (unless you’re looking to make a shiny TV ad campaign).

Using Consumer Research To Identify Trends
There are also a lot of Market Research companies that shouldn’t be in the trends and innovation business. There’s a misunderstanding in the market that consumer research will help you innovate. Consumer research helps you optimize, not innovate. Consumers can help you understand how to improve now, but they can’t help you with the tomorrow.

Lack Of Organizational Change
While one could argue that the fact that existing trends services significantly reduces creativity, differentiation and innovation – these issues combined aren’t as problematic as the this one: companies don’t know how to use trend data to create organizational change.

The frustration for professionals that buy these services is that they are either understaffed or ill-equipped to use the data to make change. It doesn’t really matter how good or bad trend data is. Companies accept that they need to be future forward but many just don’t know how to work in a way that allows this. There’s a major issue here that stops companies from making things better and trend services are not rising to the challenge to assist them.

In Summary, the trends business is a walled business that uses smoke and mirrors to protect it. It preaches from on high what the trends are without much transparency about what their recommendations were based on. In an era of Google inspired freedom of information, these businesses surely can’t continue to hide data that is already in the public domain. There’s an opportunity to really be open in the trends business, to bring in new players that want to work together, force the old players to change their ways; and work collaboratively with clients. More importantly, we need to find a way together to create and share a tool for organizational change that is strategic in process, transparent in delivery yet flexible enough to be inspired by trends data every single day.

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