8 minute read

A load of crystal balls: why trend forecasting is a waste of time

Everyone wants to tell you what the future will look like. Here’s a friendly reminder… they don’t actually know.

Trend forecasts are a perennial fixture of the advertising world. Much like weeds, cockroaches, and other endemic irritants, they provide very little by way of actual value to anyone, and instead simply take up space and feed on what’s already there.

If you haven’t guessed already, no- I’m not a fan. 

In fact, I made a presentation a few years ago on this very topic. Once a year, IAPI (the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland) holds their annual ‘Rant Night’ an event where members of the Irish ad industry are invited to speak on topics that grind their gears. No prizes for guessing what grinds mine…

PLEASE NOTE: The opening two minutes of dancing have been edited down to protect the innocent.

The Illusion of Predictability

There’s nothing human or empathetic about trend forecasting. It’s like a team of people set out to learn about living, breathing human culture, and came back with everything except the humanity. At worst, they perpetuate the distance that brands have from their customers- peering as they do from a distance at emerging cultural practices and reporting back like visitors from outer space.

Not the mention that the transient and ever-developing nature of trends, by definition means that building a long-term strategy around them is precarious and a losing battle. Creating genuine connection with a target market is not the same as superficially aligning with buzzwords and slang. It just exposes the true disdain that marketing teams have for the people they claim to want to reach.

You’re forgetting that the audience is human

Trend forecasts present marketeers with a comforting illusion. They say “here’s a short primer on the future, so you don’t have to be afraid”. The thing is, this isn’t about the future. Nobody’s even remotely ahead of the curve by the end of one of these trend reports. In fact, the forecaster is simply observing what’s already happened- which is to say… the past.

As a marketing tool for their own myopic self-importance, there’s little to compete with it. Laying claim to the future, when in reality all they do is simply repackage the recent past, and make wild and laughable claims.

Who do they appeal to?

One thing is undoubtedly true. Trend forecasts appeal to those who fear being left behind. And people who are afraid of being left behind will buy anything. This is what the cruel and unimaginative snake-oil-salespeople have long known. 

Sell a reductive summary of existing culture to those unable to connect with culture at all. They presents their collected ‘trends’ as a salve to the future, when in reality it only really presents a salve to an uncertain present. 

Trend forecasts are not benign.

They perpetuate the idea that brands only exist to jump on bandwagons. At their core, trend forecasts present reductive summaries of complex societal shifts, and squash anything true about them into neatly packaged narratives for easy consumption. They’re junk food of the mind, trumpeting ludicrous spoonerisms with a straight face, and posturing as oracle to the marketing world at large.

In other words, they are the purest form of self-important nonsense- overlooking everything that’s truly interesting about culture and how it develops and proliferates. The bandwagon is leaving the station, they say. This is your one chance to go all in on ‘suggestion-weathering’ or ‘5G-snuggling’ or whatever lame phrase they secretly hope will come to be used across the world.

What’s the alternative?

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”. I’d suggest that we do the same. Instead of surfing in the wake of human culture, it’s entirely possible for marketers, brand managers are others who wish to communicate with the walking, living public that they can create culture too. They simply can’t do it in a sleazy, mercantile way. 

Don’t buy your way into an existing conversation. Start one instead. Invest in creativity. Create trends, don’t simply make up names for those that have already emerged. It’s entirely possible for existing brands to participate in the world, rather than to badger and cajole people into spending their money on more shit they don’t need.

Don’t grasp desperately for an invite to the party. Be human, maybe people will want to attend yours instead.

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