Understanding the future market potential of trends

Mention the word “trend” in business circles today, and you’re likely to turn some heads—at least that used to be the case. Somewhat problematic, with the rise of the verb “to google” and the increasing depth of digital information, the internet itself has altered the way trends are gathered, discussed and ranked. What were once annual trends reports and listings produced from painstaking compilations and analyses of industry sales and transaction data has now become an art form and science overturned by daily tracking of industry feeds, influencer blogs, Eater posts, Instagram feeds, Pinterest pin counts and the like.

So, we find ourselves today in conditions where there are trend prognosticators aplenty in today’s food and beverage marketplace: If you’re looking for “new” in the world of all things food and beverage, most likely you can find it on the internet — and fast. With a few taps on the keyboard, the internet makes it possible for you to find “what’s new” in food and beverage with lightning speed. Finding “what’s new,” however, is one thing; finding what has true future market potential is another thing altogether. Relying on the internet for spotting food and beverage trends comes with a certain inherent risk, and you will need to weigh if noticing the perceived “new” unfolding in the moment has any real value for your business in the future.

So what is a trend? Trends are really about the scaling of innovations through the marketplace. The problem many recognize, though, is that not all innovations actually move through the market very far. Some crash and burn (e.g., Juicero). Some get stuck in consumer niches so small that no one notices…until…some variable changes and it gets unstuck (e.g., Greek yogurt). Some have persisted for decades at tiny scale, waiting for the stars to align (e.g., spelt).

When thinking of uncovering the market potential of trends, it’s relevant to describe trends that have already been adopted in the packaged food and beverage marketplace. These would include trends that:

  • Connect to an established cultural demand space (e.g., convenience, satiety, weight management, health and wellness, energy, culinary, sustainability, transparency, local)
  • Are fueled by innovations that focus on higher order principles of eating or distinctions that cut across categories (e.g., organic, artisan, nutrient-dense snacks)
  • Are innovations that contradict/invert/upend some established principle of eating (e.g., low fat)
  • Are quality markers that align with current food culture to propel forward (e.g., chipotle peppers in the 1990s)
  • Require involvement of multiple cultural change agents beyond the manufacturer (e.g., cultural apparatus including progressive consumers, leading chefs, innovative restaurants, food media)

Marketers interested in discerning trends should keep in mind that the activity is both an art as well as a science. We believe the artistic approach should be administered with cultural analysis and behavioral science theory. Using this combination, marketers can identify meaningful early trend signals and then differentiate between short-term fads and more impactful long-term trends. The most important aspect of the science component of trendspotting is that it quantitatively validates, or refutes, an innovation in the real world: For example, our own analysis of the RTE popcorn category using proprietary metrics comparing sales data and product attributes showed that the success of low-calorie, minimally processed popcorn (like SkinnyPop) was not a fad but a trend built on meeting unmet consumer needs.

The art of trendspotting is about identifying tiny real-world innovations that show the potential for scalable, behavioral use by real consumers. Businesses seeking to uncover the future market potential of trends might consider embracing some basic precepts like:

  • Trends need to be defined from a business perspective before trendspotting activities are funded.
  • Trend identification cannot simply be fuzzy art or glorified intuition; it should always have a scientific component.
  • A willingness on behalf of management to understand that an external, early-stage innovation environment is critical to making the exercise productive.
  • Good trend identification and foresight doesn’t happen in organizational isolation but rather in a cross-functional vetting process which ensures that only trends with potential for organizational adoption and monetization are advanced into any innovation funnel for product development.

As CEO of The Hartman Group, Demeritt drives the vision, strategy, operations and results-oriented culture for the company's associates as The Hartman Group furthers its offerings of tactical thinking, consumer and market intelligence, cultural competency and innovative intellectual capital to a global marketplace.

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