You may not be able to read the future, but you can be prepared

Many companies could have protected their brands by doing more to anticipate changes in customer attitudes.

Patrick Smith

When US Patents Office commissioner Charles H Duell said “Everything that can be invented, has been invented” in 1899, he illustrated the pitfalls of predicting the future.

However, branding and the survival of products and services depends on planning for future scenarios. Brands can’t rest on their laurels, waiting for the future to become the present. To survive, they need to be comfortable with evolution and base themselves on the ideal of “disruption” – proactively linking the brand with a culture of change. However, disappointment can come quickly when definitions of “brandscapes” are presented that have little relevance for today’s mainstream audience. The challenge for both client and agency is to understand the brand context and the customer base, agree on a definition for the future and define the areas of exploration before analysing and applying the findings in a strategic and targeted way. The factors that are the most crucial to identify are the resonant psychological drivers that remain a constant, despite a social context and lifestyle for the future which may seem far removed from today.

Using intelligent consumer insight combined with global observation of category change makes it possible to analyse emerging patterns and identify otherwise hidden clues in the market. Today’s new rules become tomorrow’s tradition.

What differentiates a brand charlatan and a divine consultant is that the latter is made up of a diverse team of specialists who are able to identify what level of disruption is required for a brand’s longevity, and base recommendations on strong insights, applying learning with a pragmatic, commercial mindset. The routes available (there are more than one) should be calculated with a measurable degree of risk and a return on investment that means everything from portfolio management and positioning through to more executional details (tone of voice, product, packaging and distribution) will survive in the future.

By contrast, Selfridges flies in the face of convention to defy the fate facing other retailers such as Dickens & Jones or Marks & Spencer. It consistently adds some form of brand experience in order to entice and engage its consumers. It doesn’t put its marketing money behind isolated trends or fads; instead it intelligently identifies movements that appear to capture the zeitgeist, but actually have foundations in very solid consumer behaviour patterns and desires. Another interesting example is that of O2, which has moved quickly and successfully to be the facilitator of sharing occasions. The recent O2 Wireless concerts in Hyde Park brought people together, fulfilling the public’s growing need for empowerment and connection. Thanks to O2’s recognition of this need it has been successful in connecting with its target market and is seen more as an active citizen instead of a pure profit maker.

While studies into future trends will continue to be maligned, brands integrating well-researched and quantified forecasting with analytics and strategy will be on the road to long-term success.

Patrick Smith is the European chief exectuive of Futurebrand

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