Look to the future

As brand owners seek to increase their understanding about future fashions and tastes, they are turning to semiotics – the study of human cultures – to identify the latest macro and micro-trends

Managing risk is one of the most important activities for any brand since much of the world entered recession. With ongoing economic crises unfolding day by day and an evolving digital culture calling for businesses to “tweet” with customers over social network Twitter, the business world appears to have become unrecognisable.

Futurologists are using semiotics to examine how cultural change over time can add to brands’ understanding about the future. Semiotics is the study of human cultures, with a focus on human communications. People express their culture in all sorts of ways; not just through words and pictures, but through their architecture, politics, education systems, health, dietary habits, family structures and choices in entertainment.

The semiotic method for futurology uses the “twig-to-branch model”. This takes a phenomenon, such as a new micro-trend in consumer behaviour, and treats it as a twig on a tree. Then futurologists work out what branch it is growing from and the number and size of other twigs growing from that branch.

To explain, consider that consumers today are more interested in having white teeth than ever before. They are more dissatisfied with their tooth colour than in the past. That desire and dissatisfaction forms the twig.

The branch from which the issue about white teeth grows is that of “visual culture”. In contemporary society, evidence we can see is the evidence we most trust and the appearance of things is in some ways more important than the thing itself. Other twigs extending from the branch of visual culture include cosmetic surgery, Heat! magazine and YouTube.

Macro-level trends form the thickest branches on the tree, and that is the source of hundreds of micro-trends in specific areas of consumer behaviour. Those macro-trends are ultimately what makes for the long-term success or failure of brands.

Visual culture is one of the most important current macro-trends, along with “accelerating culture”. Consumers today want everything fast, and they want it attractively presented in a full-colour, graphic format.

“Individualism” and “relativism” also play a big role, with Western consumers generally determined individualists, each believing themselves to be the master of their own destiny. This makes them sceptical of “official” messages, including most forms of advertising.

Recently, postmodernism has added a layer of “anything goes” to relativism, which means that consumers feel entitled to reject not just official messages but even the most basic scientific and historical facts, leading to a proliferation of personal theories and opinions, all of which the owners assume are as valid as anyone else’s. Word of mouth is king.

Consumers in the information age are also comforted by things that feel real. As a result, the “return of the real” trend means consumers have high levels of interest in things that are tangible, natural, hand-crafted, organic or associated with history. For example, things that are packaged in wood, straw, cardboard and unbleached string will appeal.

While micro-trends are constantly changing, macro-trends change slowly, which means there is always time for a brand to catch up. But what is the best way for companies to go about this?For banking brands such as HBOS, things are particularly difficult at the moment. Consumers have lost confidence in banking and trust each other more than they trust big banks, which is why they are forming their own peer-to-peer lending operations. They want to co-create banking services.

Other brands might be less obviously affected by the recession, but still need to rethink their strategy to keep up with consumers’ changing attitudes. For example, the United Biscuits Go Ahead! brand, appears in need of a polish, despite having being repositioned from a “diet food” to a “healthy snack”.

The name is the issue. Consumers are convinced they are the experts on their dietary needs, so they don’t need permission to eat. Go Ahead!’s fortunes may well improve when the brand name supports the customer’s perception of themselves as someone who chooses to include healthy snacks in their diet.

Clinique, on the other hand, has the opposite issue. The 1950s aesthetic of the cosmetics brand is relevant to consumers’ needs as they are currently taking the look and feel of the mid-20th century as a very reassuring sign of the return of the real, as we can see from the success of brands like Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgewater.

Clinique should recognise, however, that ours is an accelerated culture and people simply don’t have the time to follow the brand’s distinctive three-step skincare routine. They like the idea of a regime but the reality is that they want it complete in an instant, which is something that new products and sub-brands should cater for.

By connecting small social changes to the deep, underlying macro-changes that power consumer behaviour over the long term, companies can try to anticipate and even create new strategies, products and campaigns for the future.

Rachel Lawes contributed to this week’s Trends Insight. She is speaking at the Market Research Society’s annual conference at London’s Park Plaza Riverbank, on March 24 and 25.


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