The year was 2003. An important client invited a revered futurist to share some of the inevitable cultural phenomena that was about to reach the masses in the coming months and years. It was highly tantalizing. It was like learning the results of the Super Bowl before the game was even played. We were told, quite matter-of-factly, that 2004 was going to be the year of the stripper pole. That stripper poles were increasingly becoming mass and soon to be installed in bars and suburban basements everywhere--part play thing and part fitness equipment. But 2004 came and went. And for the next 14 years I've waited with bated breath for the popularization of stripper poles, only to see things come and go: Livestrong bracelets, trucker hats, the Atkins diet, the thong song, etc.
But alas, no stripper pole.
Most businesses are obsessed with the future: preparing for the future, changing the future, realizing the future. The prevailing belief is that those who have access to the future have an unfair advantage. It's not about identifying trends, it's about foresight. By identifying the cultural status quo of the future, companies gain the information to make better decisions. By predicting how and when change is coming, brands can better develop products and assure their competitive differentiation. If McDonalds knew Starbucks culture was coming, they may have been prepared for it. If Blockbuster really understood that we were entering a new age of digital entertainment, they may have preempted Netflix. Simply put, brands are desperate for access to the future.
This makes sense considering how society in general is future obsessed. So many movies of the day depict a romanticized or apocalyptic version of the not-so-distant future. Blade Runner 2049 is a film only about the future.
For brands, if you believe all that you hear, the future is daunting. There is a constant and ominous threat: are you ready? So much change is afoot: automation, space travel, the rising Chinese middle class, the "graying" of America, the alleged end of brick and mortar retail. When it comes to understanding the future, brands are on the defensive.
But somehow, businesses get it so wrong. Remember the Segway? Or how VR was supposed to be the consumer electronics product of 2017? And then of course there were all those predictions about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What are we going to do with all this future? We are clearly gluttons for it. (Gucci asked that question earlier this year).
This fascination has spawned an entire industry of futurism--prediction as a professional service. Companies, blind to the needs of their customers, employees and shareholders, put their faith in vague, earnest, and over-confident prophecies. Like stripper poles. For example, industries like carbonated soft drinks, tobacco, and fast food are paying top dollar to futurists for a version of the future that keeps them relevant.
Some brands do this right. AB InBev recently announced they will begin making beer on Mars, in order to take advantage of "micro gravity" in the beer-making process. It's inspired by the promise that humans will likely colonize Mars one day, a plot often explored in science fiction. It's innovative science, not a manufacturing leap. Or Amazon has flirted with a number of new delivery methods, like drones or in-home delivery. By exploring a variety of ways to deliver packages in the future, Amazon is learning more about the perceptions, limitations and advantages of their business today. The key takeaway is that brands should look to the future to inspire new ideas and experiment with new technologies, not save their company.
Ultimately, our fascination with the future is a form of escapism. For many brands, the times are uncertain and there is an overwhelming sense of anxiety. That's probably true across the board. Brands are just self-medicating like we all are. They're projecting a distant future as a way to correct or improve today's reality.
But the promises about the future are too unstable, too fleeting, to provide real value today. Brands need to be present in the same way many people talk about being aware of the moment they're in, as opposed to being nostalgic or fantasizing too much about the future.