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Understanding Innovation and Trends to become Consumer Centric

According to Trendwatching.com, we live in a world of absolute INNOVATION OVERLOAD: clever entrepreneurs, inventors, and marketers from all over are coming up with so many innovative ideas, that even innovation blogs have a hard time keeping track.

This implies that:

1. Innovation isn’t rocket science. It’s an obsession with understanding or creating what makes consumers happy, what delights them, which problems they face, and then creating something that delivers to those needs.
2. Innovation is not necessarily about serious people in white coats puttering about in R&D labs. In an experience economy, marketing innovations rule.
3. Wherever you live, you have absolutely NO excuse to be unaware of innovations popping up in Austria, in The Netherlands, in Japan, in Brazil, in the US, in Turkey, in South Africa, and everywhere else all over the world.

But the most important piece of understanding innovations and leveraging them for your business, or even coming up with innovations yourself, is understanding the consumer. In order to understand the consumer, we need to be aware of the trends the impact our lifes. Let’s face it: never before has knowing about emerging consumer trends been as important as it is now. Why consumer trends? Well… Why not? In a nutshell, tracking consumer trends is a crucial way to understand what consumers are doing now and may be doing next. Which ideally should inspire you to dream up new goods, services and experiences for and with your customers to meet and anticipate their needs. And the latter should lead to more revenues, more profits. So consumer trends are as much about making money as anything else in the business world.

So, what is a trend?

How about: “A statistically significant change in performance of measured data which is unlikely to be due to a random variation in the process.” That won’t get the creative juices going, though. So consider what we came up with a few years ago, and which is still holding up well: “A manifestation of something that has ‘unlocked’ or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need, desire, want, or value.” Example? One of the core human needs is to be in control, or at least to have the illusion of being in control. No wonder then, that the online world (a new technology), which firmly puts the individual in the driver’s seat, is so addictive.

The Net continues to put even more control in the hands of ordinary consumers, we’re spotting sub-trends every day. This is why I believe that online marketers are the best trend-watchers of today’s time, and the web is a big virtual focus group. Once we fully understand what’s driving trends, why it is that some things take off and others sink, it’s time to figure out which of them will affect your business, and determining the impact of the ones who do. But it is not that easy – in the end it all comes down to execution, and the following three main challenges will almost always emerge:

The 3 main challenges

1. Management and corporate culture (Are they into trends and innovation or not?0
2. Resources (Information overload or starvation, lack of time and/or lack of funds
3. Understanding and applying trends (How to think Big Picture? What to actually do with your point of view?)

Let’s address all three challenges and try to overcome them.

L’enfer, c’est les autres. This seems to hold true in particular for innovative minds stuck in less-than-innovative corporations. Some replies to our surveys resembled a bitch-fest more than anything else. Boards stuck in a retro ’50s mindset. Obsession with shareholders instead of what’s driving today’s consumers. CEOs dismissing every new trend, every new business concept because “they would never use that”. No process in place on how to deal with bottom-up innovations. And so on. Is your trend project faced with fierce competition from the people who should actually be its greatest fans? Then consider this:

* Sometimes, it’s a language/perception issue. The word ‘trends’ may still evoke images of flamboyant fashion designers caressing delicate fabrics, or crazed teens in Japanese parks dressed in full Louis XIV garb. So try talking about the Future of Business. Or the Future of Consumerism. Or Drivers of Change. Or Currents (From Ian David, MD of McKinsey & Company: “Companies that ride the currents succeed; those that swim against them usually struggle. Identifying these currents and developing strategies to navigate them is vital.”)

* Make sure the trends you’re trying to explain are not just about YOU or your ideas and scenarios. Don’t make it an airy fairy one (wo)man show. Instead, be the messenger, the humble reporter. Show real-world examples of how other firms are already cashing in on a specific trend. Show all-round respected brands, and of course as many as direct competitors as possible. Never let it be just about YOU!

* Don’t present numbers, but do have them ready at all times.

* Make it visual. Pictures. Videos. Or, even better: Let people try stuff out. And conceptualize, demonstrate! More on the latter in version 2.0

It is crucial to use the above to get

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senior support. Without backing from at least one senior member of the management team, it IS going to be hard to get things done.

2. Resources

There’s too much information, or not enough. Some information is too expensive, while some free information is not relevant enough. And above all, time to thoroughly and properly track developments is

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lacking. Then the web provides great resources, but there is definitely an information overload. No need to endlessly surf from site to site: by now, every aspiring trend watcher has of course set up his or her own RSS based trend feeds (we like Bloglines). Other ways to let information come to you are Google Alerts and Technorati Mini. Enter search phrases like ‘consumer trends’ or ‘world’s first’ or a specific trend name. A ready-to-use flow of trend-goodness will come your way. Still feeling overwhelmed? Don’t feel like doing it all yourself? The good news is that plenty of (new) trend firms and blogs are working hard to do the work for you, often for free (well, to a certain degree, we’ve all got to eat ;-). Spend a few days on PFSK, Iconoculture, Influx Insights, Agenda Inc and yes, trendwatching.com, and copy, then aggregate as many consumer trends and insights as you can, and you will have enough material to start building your ‘framework’.

After

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putting your web of resources in place, you’re left with an equally important job: sharpening your trend watcher mindset. The biggest challenge here is to maintain an open, curious mind. Closely observing instead of judging the world around you; ask yourself ‘why’ whenever you notice something new, instead of looking for the faults. Realize that you are not necessarily your customer: your professional interests should be broader than your personal interests. In other words, think and act with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Fine-tuning your trend watcher mindset

* Look cross-industry, cross-discipline, cross-demographics, cross-class.
* Think like a (paranoid) CEO, even if you don’t get paid like one. Stop being ‘just’ a specialist and aim to become a generalist: yes, we all need to be a specialist in something. However, we also need to be generalists, to understand the big picture and how we and our companies and products fit in.
* Never dismiss anything too quickly. Many of today’s success stories, from the camera phone to the Airbus 380, were dismissed and ridiculed from the day they were imagined, announced or conceived.
* Ask questions. Why is something happening? Why was it introduced? Why do consumers like it? Or why do they hate it?
* Try stuff out: the proof of the pudding is always in the eating.
* Read a random magazine every week (buy one you would normally NEVER read), or a random blog!
* Taboos, prejudices, dogmatism, negativity: all of this will stop you from picking up new ideas (and becoming a more pleasant person!), understanding many of your customers, and will thus cost you money.

About the latter: get a motley crew of people together who are interested in discussing your findings, your trends. One easy way to do this is to pick, present, discuss and brainstorm just one trend. Assign one person to do a 20 minute presentation, spend 30 minutes discussing what’s truly driving this trend from a consumer need perspective. Spend another 30 minutes relating these findings to your industry and brand: what will the impact be? Last but not least, ask all participants to dedicate half an hour to coming up with new ideas for your brand. Use a corporate wiki to invite people to contribute. Be honest: how many meetings could you afford to skip each week? How many hours of mindless television watching can you forego? Spend those hours tracking trends and building your framework instead, and you’re already doing more than your competition!

Please make sure your ideation sessions take place in an inspiring environment, accompanied by a glass of wine or other beverage, and plenty of good food. None of the above is rocket science. In the end the process of applying findings to your own industry is a mix of common sense and creativity. Feed yourself, in every possible way!

3. Understanding and applying trends

We’re all about consumer trends, but that leaves two other main trend categories unaddressed. In general, switched-on companies track three trend levels :

* Macro trends (the STEEP approach below is a good start if you want to categorize macro trends: Social, Technological, Economic, Environment, Political)
* Consumer trends
* Industry trends

Applying trend information

In your trend sessions, pick, present, discuss and brainstorm one trend. But how do you actually apply a broad consumer trend to your own brand or industry? Ask yourself if the trend you’re discussing has the potential to:

Vision
1.Influence your company’s vision.
2. New business concepts
Come up with a new business concept, an entirely new venture.
3. New products, services, experiences
Add ‘something’ new for a certain customer segment .
4. Marketing, advertising, PR
Speak the language of those consumers ‘setting the trend’: we haven’t come across too many trends that were not useful in shaping (part of your) marketing messages.
5. Internal
6. Improve your organizational processes.

Personally, I just joined a global network of over 8,000 individual trend spotters. I believe if we are open our eyes around us, leverage the internet as one of the most effective marketing mediums, and try to apply our learnings to our businesses, I believe we will have lots of excitement ahead of us.

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