Valerie Jacobs, vice president and managing creative director of trends at the branding firm LPK, likes to remind us that "trends are data from the future." Before you discount trends research as a bit wishy-washy or ungrounded in scientific data- hang on and suspend judgment! Valerie sees it differently. "You are looking at trends to help you understand change...I think of trends in terms of how ideas spread."

Trends are articulated shifts in observed phenomena, with a focus on the implications of these movements on the future.

"If you are only thinking about your data from the past and even what you know about the present", says Valerie, "then what will happen when your campaign, product or service launches months or years from now? Trends help you anticipate how consumers and markets will change...they help ensure relevance tomorrow, not just today." This is the fundamental benefit to how your business can gain value from trend research.

There is a deliberate process that Valerie and other trends researchers such as Doty Horn of Colorvoyant put into place to identify "what's next." Often they will start with mnemonics such as STEEP (society, technology, environment, economics and politics) to goad their thinking and research process. By tapping in to the drivers in the landscape, they can connect the dots between seemingly disconnected ideas.

Valerie starts by casting her net wide, and getting very good at seeing, listening and asking the innocent, or "child's gaze" questions. She reminded me that a good trend researcher is excellent at asking open-ended questions--not leading questions--and asking "why?" Sometimes she starts with very broad questions, such as "What is "customization?" and sees where the bread crumb trail will lead her. Often the answers have surprising interconnections to other phenomena she has been observing and thus patterns emerge.

There are 4 major ways that trend research adds value to your business development.

  1. Clarity: One value of trends is that they can help your business develop a repeatable and viable heuristic to identify opportunity and effectively communicate your brand's direction. Trends reflect what is nascent in society in terms of behaviors and attitudes--but haven't yet been named.
  2. Provoke the New: Valerie also cultivates her network of "instigators" to call upon regularly. These are people who will make her a bit uncomfortable, push her to articulate her point of view and ultimately keep her from having an "echo chamber" of similar perspectives. In one new project that Valerie directs, bringing in a steady flow of external provocateurs encourages experimentation and exploration of new ideas. She is more interested in the perspectives from a random range of diverse people to help see things in a new light.
  3. Self-Awareness: The more you practice trend research or engage with a trend researcher, then the more self-aware you become about your business direction--in part because you will be forced to articulate it and map how it is similar or different from directions that are being uncovered.
  4. Plan with Fresh Insight: Trends are used to spark thinking--Valerie's clients don't really focus on her batting average. "It's not top of mind for them whether the trends are right or wrong. They are really interested in uncovering untapped opportunity and being inspired by how they can apply that on their specific brand or business." It is more about the application of the trend insight and then understanding if it is right or wrong for their consumer.

So, if you are looking for a creative way to gain insights about future directions for your brand, product design or service delivery, seriously consider trend research. At the minimum, you will find that it will inspire you and your colleagues with new ways of seeing what's in front of you!

You can follow Valerie Jacobs on Twitter @futureglimmer.