In a millennium tipped to fundamentally change life as we know it, forecasting plays a huge role in business. We chat with Dr Antonia Ward, Consumer Trend Advisor about trend forecasting and the importance of finding fresh ways to connect with consumers.
I started out as a journalist, editing design magazines. I then joined the Design Council UK, which is the government body that promotes design. That part of my career was about communicating ideas to help businesses do better, and understanding how brands, designers, companies and even public services need to recognise the changing needs of their customers in order to create products, environments and services that people want to buy. Before that I did a PhD in literature and gender theory, where my research focused on how masculinity has evolved and is represented. I was interested in how society and culture, and even language, is always changing. As a business journalist, I loved the constant challenge of having to get to grips with a new industry, company or technology. I like being on a learning curve, so the constant newness of trends really appealed. I joined The Future Laboratory in London, working on its press and PR-facing reports before moving into its consulting division. Working in trends was a great combination of the research, writing, interviewing and ideas-structuring skills I’d learned earlier in my career. I’ve been at Stylus for four years now, and in that time we’ve built up our Advisory office from just me to a team of eight working across the world.
As Stylus’ Global Head of Advisory Services, I spend a lot of time travelling, so no two days look the same. I bet everyone says this but most days begin and end on email or Skype. We can be working in Korea, Japan, Europe, the US and Australia, so there is always something to read or respond to. My work is a combination of overseeing and supporting my awesome team, and working on individual projects. Today, for example, I’m liaising with colleagues in New York and LA about a project on understanding whiskey consumers and another on technology trends for an entertainment business. At the same time I’m giving presentations this week about digital technologies for a train company, and about the changing face of luxury for a group that owns high-end gyms and fitness clubs. Meanwhile, members of my team are researching and presenting on a vast range of subjects for our clients, from looking at health and wellness trends in food, the ‘future of sleep’ for a hospitality group, to design trends for sportswear and sports technology companies and the latest uses of artificial intelligence. This is all while interviewing interns, creating proposals and planning projects.
I get to work with some of the biggest brands in the world. I also have a fantastic team: seven talented, dedicated and brilliant women from five different countries. In terms of our work, I find the constant change is really stimulating. We have to be one step ahead all the time; whether that’s understanding what today’s 12-year-olds are going to want when they are in their late teens, or how virtual reality technology will change how we shop. So, we read and research widely and there is always something fascinating in every industry or type of consumer behaviour. But ideas and insights are useless if they are confusing or out of context, so I also really love organising, structuring and communicating ideas – ‘naming and framing’ trends and supplying the right examples and evidence to really get the point across. I do a lot of presenting and the moment where you can see someone in the audience getting your point…there’s nothing better. I like to be ‘just scared enough’ to be stimulated, and so presenting to large audiences or tackling complex ideas means I get that almost every day.
We are constantly scanning across geographies and industries to find the new ‘new’ behaviours among consumers, innovative products and services that are appearing, as early evidence of how brands can respond to those new behaviours, and fresh ways to connect with consumers through media, marketing and retail. So as a business we are publishing new content on our subscription platform Stylus.com every day. But we’re not just magpies looking for shiny new things. Our understanding of the slower-moving but hugely important global drivers of trends – things like evolving demographics, emerging technologies, economic drivers or social and political change – means we’re looking at newness in the context of changes that have already happened or are going to happen. It’s because of this that we can make connections across industries, such as showing a beauty business, say, how a new ingredient becoming popular in packaged foods might move across into the cosmetics sector. Ultimately we’re always looking for patterns, because as humans, patterns are how we find meaning. You can’t have a pattern of one, so we’re always looking for comparison and context. And there’s no point just describing what is happening now, we have to explore why something is happening. Only by understanding what’s behind something can you really know what’s ahead.
Augmented reality (AR) technologies becoming more accessible to individual consumers is a trend to watch. This is set to change everything from our at-home entertainment to our shopping habits. And pets – keep an eye on pet foods and products in the Australian market. When populations age, or there are more families without children, there’s more spending on domestic pets. Overall, though, the biggest trend is the move away from even owning items or objects and into experiences. As people demand more environmentally responsible products and services, and our expectations around convenience and delivery (hello, Amazon Australia) grow, we’ll start to see ever-more sophisticated leasing or renting services, even for things like clothes.