Companies, and especially those in the FMCG world, have a profound interest in understanding where their consumers are heading. Cool hunters, trend watchers, urban influencers: all of these subjects have become a known and relevant part of the corporate world, with the objective of better understanding how consumers’ lives are evolving and how this can translate into innovative products and services.

Typically, a company will put some effort into identifying these consumer trends and use this knowledge as one of the inputs into the innovation process. When confronted with these trends, companies usually embrace them and try to respond to them. In fact, in some cases they are able to become first movers or actually shape consumer behavior (act as trend setters) by owning a certain trend at the appropriate time and with the right propositions.

The challenge is that trend identification is not an exact science. Evaluating the relevance (and even existence) of a specific trend can be increased with systematic observation and non-traditional research methodologies. Yet, even if a trend is identified and understood, a company needs to reflect on some key questions before using it as a guiding light for evolving its brand:

  • Is this trend real and does it have staying power?
  • Will it be relevant in my category?
  • Does my brand have the permission/capacity to respond to this trend?
  • Will focusing on this trend affect my current positioning and therefore alienate my key consumer groups?

Answering these questions will help a company define the relevance (if any) that a specific trend should have on the innovation process and ultimately over its brand.

One approach is to embrace the trend. Some brands have been very successful in doing this. A good example is IKEA, which understood early on the intersection between the “do it yourself,” “simplicity,” and “modern look and feel” consumer trends and made them the basis for its products, price points, and overall consumer experience.

We could say that IKEA has been so successful at this that it has actually become the “trend setter” that other companies in their category have followed, with special emphasis on the “do it yourself” part of the equation (today it feels like it is impossible to buy furniture in Europe that one does not need to assemble at home).

Another good example is how McDonald’s has responded to the “healthier lifestyle” trend, by reshaping its menus, being more transparent about its products, and even starting to change its look and feel toward a palette that is dominated by the color green. It’s likely McDonald’s still makes most of its money by selling Big Macs and fries, but it has gone through an evolution based on its views on how consumers are changing.

Does this mean that every brand should adopt new trends in such a transformational way? Not necessarily.

Consumers are complex, and their needs are not uniform. On one hand, there will be segments of consumers that will not follow a certain trend, and on top of that, other consumers will embrace trends differently based on product category or even specific consumption occasions.

What this means, is that every trend has an implicit “antitrend” associated with it, and there are opportunities for brands on both sides of the spectrum.

We know that “anti-trend”-driven consumer needs feel counterintuitive, but the reality is that a good number of brands have been very successful in following them. If we go back to the fast food example, it is clear that Burger King has achieved success by following the anti-trend; they are all about the big, “all American” fast food eating experience versus the  healthy/good citizen approach that McDonald’s has taken. And they are both doing pretty well.

Finally, we also need to consider that trends that at first glance appear to be antithetical, can actually co-exist For example, there is a key consumer trend around the “need for mobility”, which has resulted in numerous easy-toconsume, single serving and on-the-go products that are very much in tune with the 20-something’s lifestyle (or so we would think). At the same time, Heineken has developed a keg beer for at home consumption, which seemingly goes against the trend, unless there is some specific trend out there about spending more time at home sharing with friends vs. going out to clubs. Confusing, isn’t it?

In summary, it is important for brands to pay attention to trends, but observations and responses need to be systematic, avoiding oversimplification that leads to superficial analysis or hasty reactions. After understanding the trend, you must understand if it is a relevant one for your category and brand. If it is, use it as one of the inputs for the innovation process. If it isn’t, think of the possibility of following the “anti-trend” and make your brand different from all the others.

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