Predicting human behavior is more art than science.
Marketing software, such as its Internet Explorer web browser or Exchange e-mail program, could be quite routine for Microsoft. But the company spends years researching customer behavior and preferences, diving deep into the marketplace to identify trends and the behaviors of people using its products - and those of its rivals.
And while the tools often remain the same - focus groups and research - what the company looks for changes with each new initiative.
Microsoft isn't necessarily looking for the next hip group of consumers. Adapting software to identified trends, such as singletons (women who embrace their unmarried status) or metrosexuals (straight men who are very particular about their appearance) isn't what Microsoft is interested in, says David Hamilton, director of Marketing@Microsoft, the company's marketing group.
But in its own way, Microsoft can discover burgeoning behavior in e-mail and web surfing. And that leads to a partnership between marketing and engineering in which marketing shares its research with the software engineers, who in turn develop new software based on marketing's research. This allows marketing to come full circle and promote the new products that were developed based in part on their initial research on customers' behavior.
"We look at what's happening in the market - the macro trends and what our competitors and partners are doing," says Hamilton. "Beyond that, we look at customers' habits. It's not just how they are using the product, but we look at the things they do on a daily basis - how they communicate, how much they [use] e-mail, and so on.
"If we have a good understanding of how they're communicating," he continues, "that influences how we develop - as well as market - new versions we're working on."
Predicting consumer trends is a complicated mix of art and science. There is certainly more science on marketers' side these days, thanks to Google and blogs. It's easier to find raw information on consumers, but that doesn't mean it's easier to find what marketers are looking for - emerging customer behavior they can hitch their brands to.
Barby Siegel, MD of Ogilvy PR Worldwide's consumer marketing practice, cautions against jumping on the latest trend too fast. Chasing everything that looks like a trend will most likely lead to a client looking faddish.
Siegel encourages her team to take a long-term view and understand what is the two-to-three year road map of the client's brand, and the trends in front of them. "Twelve months is just too short-sighted," Siegel says. "If you don't know where the business is going over the next two-to-three years, then you put yourself in danger over the next 12 months because you can't jump from one trend to the next. But that's what you risk with such a short-sighted view.
"You need to understand the changing consumer dynamic and not be too schizophrenic," she adds. "There's a fine line between being opportunistic and being smart."
Relying on research
Marketing and PR teams are trying to be smarter about those nascent consumer behaviors by reappropriating what has always been at their fingertips. Predicting trends is about being more artful with the science at their disposal.
Edelman works with its research firm, StrategyOne, to find "breaking insight," says Jennifer Scott, StrategyOne president. The organization relies on the standard research tools, while also appropriating blogs and other online media. But with so much information, it's easy to get distracted and go chasing phantom fads.
"We have to make sure we're paying attention to what's out there and how possible trends relate to our clients," says Scott. "We constantly need to hone down what we're seeing, to make sure it relates to our clients."
One new tool Edelman uses is Intelliseek's BlogPulse service, in order to see emerging issues and what people are talking about in the cluttered blog universe, explains Edelman's US president and CEO Pam Talbot.
When it came to the latest global marketing campaign for Dove, Edelman noticed a growing unrest among women with "normal" bodies about the supermodel body images being foisted upon them. Criticism of such body images is nothing new. But Edelman noticed that more and more women were looking for a more realistic representation.
"We did a global study of women, more than 3,000 women in 10 countries, to find out how they relate to beauty," says Talbot. "We recognized an untapped voice of women who had a deeply held sense of what beauty meant to them. And Dove had the ability to give voice to this trend." The "Campaign for Real Beauty" features women sizes 6 to 14 talking about what beauty means to them, in everything from ads to a website that encourages women to send in pictures, with a goal of having a gallery of 1 million faces.
Again, discontent with beauty stereotypes is nothing new. But Edelman's research enabled it to trace the evolution of that discontent to the point where it sensed the time was right to reach out to these women.
"You should be able to see how a trend started, how it morphs, and is expressed in multiple ways," says Talbot. "There's a history and evolution to a trend."
At GCI Group, the firm was charged with promoting Shell's new gasoline and co-branded MasterCard. But it's hard to get most consumers excited about gasoline or another credit-card offer. The agency, like everyone else, uses many tools to find the latest trends, from focus groups and blogs to retaining the services of EMPower Research.
But equally important is making sure trends apply to the right audience at the right time, says Jake Drake, president of GCI California.
"There's always been an obsession with target audiences," says Drake. "There's an incredible wealth of information. The hard thing is knowing how to tap it. It's not like the information wasn't there previously. It's knowing how to find and use it appropriately."
So GCI noticed a niche group of car enthusiasts who were also on the cutting edge of music, media, and clothing, known as the "fast and furious" crowd. So GCI developed a campaign around "Win This Bad Boy," a contest to win a 2005 Chrysler Crossfire limited-edition coupe, which was promoted on second- and third-tier websites catering to
such interests as extreme sports, video games, and music fan sites.
Toyota also relied on tried and true research channels to find out what would resonate with drivers reluctant to consider a hybrid car. And akin to Talbot's comments, Toyota's Prius division noticed the evolution of consumers' attitudes toward fuel efficiency. Concern over fuel efficiency was nothing new. The spreading intensity of that concern was.
"We look at everything from our in-house research to automotive research provided by third parties," explains Mary Nickerson, national marketing manager for Toyota's advanced technology vehicles division. "We also look at chat rooms and feedback from our own websites."
And what Toyota saw was a burgeoning concern over gas prices and fuel efficiency, evolving from just another factor in a car-buying decision to a driving force. At a time when gas prices, and anger over those prices, seem to be spiking to new highs every month, Toyota has changed its marketing from talking about engine technology to focusing on fuel efficiency. And instead of the message being about the company, the message was now about consumers and alleviating their concerns over gas prices.
But even though marketers have a greater bounty of tools and information at their fingertips, they need to heed the art of predicting trends just as much as the science.
"It's all about your gut now," says Marian Salzman, EVP and director of strategic content for J. Walter Thompson, author of the forthcoming The Future of Men, and renowned marketing trend-spotter. "The internet has changed everything. I can't recall how I did my job in 1992."
As Ogilvy's Siegel mentioned, the long-term view is important because it helps spot nascent trends far down the line, as well as how others might be evolving. And that instinct is needed to cut through the noise and clutter that the very best of tools and intentions can gather.
"You see all this information pulling in different directions, and the people who are good at this can see through that the furthest and farthest," says Schuyler Brown, MD of future trends at Euro RSCG Worldwide.
"There's so much noise," adds Salzman. "We're all searching and competing in such a heavy-duty, loud universe. And with so much information available, it's easy to get caught up in over-researching. That's why the art, the instinct, is more important than ever."
Companies put a little too much credence in the crystal balls of professional trend-spotters, says Salzman. Predicting trends can come from a creative director, the director of strategic planning, or even a journalist because finding those burgeoning trends is ultimately about having confidence in your ideas.
"The information is only as good as what you do with it," explains Salzman, who admits she has not always been accurate in her predictions. "At some point, you can only do so much research and then you must put your idea out there. You need to have faith."
PRWeek spoke with Schuyler Brown, MD of future trends for Euro RSCG Worldwide, about some of the trends she sees coming.
PRWeek: What are you focusing on right now?
Brown: There are two trends I'm fascinated by: The first is the search for community. In the next few years the way we live our lives will be defined by community building, and seeking out communities to belong to.
PRWeek: Is there any evidence of this yet?
Brown: I think it helps explain the rise of religion.
PRWeek: What's causing this?
Brown: We're coming out of a time and period of isolation. Technology and our jobs have made us more isolated. There's more anxiety than ever before. So people are seeking community, whether that's in your neighborhood or spiritual.
PRWeek: What's the other trend?
Brown: Cross-aging. It has to do with young people getting older faster, and older people staying young longer.
PRWeek: Such as?
Brown: Look at the sexualization of younger girls, the way they dress and act. There's a blurring of boundaries of what is age appropriate. It's getting harder to tell how old someone is based on their behavior.