Although the transition is actually a blur as opposed to a break, the clean shift of the new year is an irresistible opportunity for columnists to cast their gaze ahead and ordain the new trends for the months to come. Not wanting to disappoint those hungry for prognostication, herewith are the business winds to watch.
Perfect Storming: Once upon a time, industries could shrug off an attack here, a threat there. But increasingly, we're seeing multiple forces--environmental, political, health-related--converge all at once. It's happening now to fast food, where obesity, safety, and environmental concerns conspire to create deep and lasting reputation trouble. What other industries are at risk? My guess: for-profit education companies. In the coming year, look for them to be hit by attacks from traditional educators, scrutiny by regulators, and bad PR over their mediocre success rate with students.
It's the Aesthetics, Stupid: We are just at the beginning of a period where the form factor is the ultimate differentiator. Virginia Postrel heralds this in her book The Substance of Style, but the reality is that only a small percentage of the objects in our lives have been thus transformed. The need for a "visual connection" with buyers will continue to drive product success.
Open Sourcing: Linux has shown us the power of collaboration and the willingness of volunteers to join together to create something new. This concept is rapidly expanding in the tech category, but that's just the beginning. Why can't business users join with, say, Steelcase, to create a new line of office furniture?
Consumer Mobs: "Smart mobs" were all the buzz in 2003; large but fragmented groups organized spontaneously via the Web and mobile communication. Howard Dean's campaign, feasting on the Internet, also demonstrates the power of the dissociated many. Expect consumers to organize in the same way against companies that betray their trust. The level of customer activism we will see is likely to be unprecedented, verging on the political.
Unloved Technologies Finally Embraced: Long-struggling technologies like solar and wind power, hydrogen fuel, and PZEVs (partial zero-emission vehicles) will become darlings this year. Speaking of PZEVs, The New York Times wrote "there is growing evidence that consumers will seek out environmentally responsible vehicles if they do not have to make a tradeoff in terms of lower performance or a higher price." When this tipping point is reached, major structural and economic shifts will follow.
Reverse Consolidation: Over the last decade or so there has been massive vendor consolidation--companies are working with fewer and fewer partners, whether in high-tech software or low-tech janitorial services. I would argue that we will see a reversal of this phenomenon. In 2004, nimble entrepreneurs will emerge in a host of industries to create a more complex purchasing ecosystem.
Celeb CEOs as Brands: Celebrities are turning their fame into brands at a more strung-out pitch than ever before, whether it's Dr. Phil or 50 Cent. I fully expect that business celebrities will get in on the action. This goes well beyond the lecture circuit, which is the traditional pocket-lining strategy. A line of Lou Gerstner computers? Jack Welch management training programs? Hey, who knows about monetizing assets better than CEOs?
Command and Control Returns: Business used to be structured on the military model, but in recent times, leaders have shied away from the concept of authority--a kind of "power embarrassment." But in reaction to the corporate scandals (many of which were encouraged by decentralization) there will be a tilt back to the traditional power structure--a re-hierarchizing.
Lastly, here's a trend we won't see--but should: a new focus on manufacturing. America's smarter-than-thou elevation of technology and knowledge-based products over stuff that gets produced in factories is reaching the crisis point. Our inability to "make" anything globally competitive--other than pharmaceuticals and entertainment--is an underexamined economic cancer, and it's high time we embark on the race for the cure. The world's most powerful economy can't exist solely on bits, bytes, and rap.
Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.