Product trend-spotting is a bit like birdwatching, or chasing hurricanes. You know they’re out there, but you don’t know when or where they’re going to show up. Patterns from the past may tell us roughly what to expect, but the actual event is harder to predict. So, because the product trend is an unpredictable beast, the conflict between delivering short-term results and innovating is a real one.

Here’s a typical scenario

Company A (CA) works in a consumer segment that has been reliably solid for years. Competitors have come along over time. Some have dropped away; some were bought and consolidated into the CA structure; some stayed on the market and incentivised CA to change up its product range from time to time. This is a reasonably common condition that can be managed through traditional marketing and sales tactics.

Another standard feature of this scenario is the year-on-year growth target. The R&D team works with Marketing to identify new product prospects, and runs research programmes to identify shifts in consumer thinking, usage and attitude, ethnography and so on. Range development is planned out to about 18 months. The budget runs to the end of this year. Beyond that, things are a bit vague.

During the year, the team goes off to trade shows to see what’s going on and what they might design into the product offering. Shows like Packaging Innovations may throw up a new material; consumer health and electronics shows could reveal some new functionality; and consumer experience shows point a way to customer service systems.

R&D get interested in some themes. They start looking to new ideas and working up some PoC projects.

Problem 1

Around mid Q3 the sales budget begins to look tight, so a gradual refocus on the year end begins, and by the time Q4 comes around, the whole company is working on promotional priorities to bring in the results declared to the market / stakeholders / staff bonus scheme. And the longer-term thinking, designed around new ideas picked up from market scanning, falls by the wayside, and the next year starts from point zero – again.

Problem 2

The new ideas picked up from trade shows were already old ideas. The new service and product designers exhibiting at the show, or working in an incubator to generate VC funding, were responding to a market need they saw way before you did. By the time you became aware of the solution, your competitors had seen their own version of your market dynamic.

No matter who picks up the idea, the fact is that it’s going to be a lot older before you research it, position it, brand it, package it, sell it in, deliver it – get it to market. That may still be in time to meet the anticipated consumer need, and you may launch at the same time as the rest of your sector. To make it to market alongside your competition validates the idea in the eyes of management. But the reality is that you’ve only kept up with the market – you haven’t outpaced it.

This is the trendy trend. The one everyone believes because everyone responds at the same time. Safety in numbers.

New ideas

As Theodore Levitt said, “Invention is having new ideas, innovation is doing new things” – not the same things as your competitors. To do this, you must see the future market as a real opportunity, and be confident in your assessment without the need for industry confirmation.

It’s hard for anyone in a corporate structure to be different. You may have seen this quote attributed to Steve Jobs (he didn’t write it), and “Think different” is the essence of the Apple brand to this day:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

My point is this:

  • Please let your creatives create without barriers.
  • The end of year result should have been underwritten long before Q3.
  • The innovation forecast has more veracity if it features products and services that meet consumer needs that don’t feature in your competition’s line-up.

If your team wants to go to the big trade shows and shop new ideas – ask them whose ideas will be more compelling: yours or everybody else’s? Trends are available for everybody to see. The most valuable ones are not obvious – but they are available.

Seeing it differently is a skill. Seeing it differently enough to be compelling is the skill further refined.

A skill takes time to develop and practice to get right. In the same way that captains captain boats and pilots pilot planes, trend-spotters spot product trends. Don’t underestimate this. It’s not a function you buy from an analyst or a forecaster.

This hard to define, sometimes intuitive, always practised skill comes from experience. It’s not easily written into job specs or recruited for. If you get lucky and find someone who can do it, hang on to them – give them the space to rebel.

Without a round peg and a square hole, the best you can do is follow the trendy product trend. A round peg will seek out the innovative opportunity. If you can’t wait for that person to show up, get in touch.

“Great companies make change for a living.” Michael Schrage.

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