Design Based on Trends, Not What's Trendy

Why Brands Must Be Willing to Redefine Themselves to Remain Relevant

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Sohrab Vossoughi
Sohrab Vossoughi
Wibke Fleischer
Wibke Fleischer
Fifteen years ago when Ziba Design managers interviewed trends experts for a new research department, we were always struck by a commonality among the many candidates: siloed thinking. A trends specialist, for example, knew that wood was "in" that year in the auto industry and faithfully showed wood detail on all the products in her portfolio. Like her, most of the trends experts we met with had knowledge of what was trendy in a given industry, but didn't connect the dots across industries and cultures.

Design thinking translates rigorous trend research into meaningful experiences that lead markets and foster brand loyalty instead of merely following the cult of now. Blue may be the new green, but how is that relevant to an industry, a brand and the evolving desires of its customers? Times and trends can change so quickly that a campaign, product or service can be rendered irrelevant by the time it gets to market.

Consumer-experience strategy should be informed by a deep understanding of the values, attitudes and behavior of the target consumer, as well as the nature of the brand's values, essence and character -- the DNA. Trends research provides the context for the design process and ensures that the experience is right for the consumer and the brand at a given point in time. Effective research takes a global perspective to pinpoint patterns when and where they emerge and track how they migrate across the globe. It also takes a cross-industry view. From this vantage point, megatrends, as well as market, consumer and design trends, all combine to inform the consumer-experience strategy. Finally, effective trend research demands cross-discipline input. Trend hunters, social scientists, designers, marketers, artists and engineers alike interpret information differently, and their perspectives, taken together, allow deeper insight.

Trends for the coming years
Our own research highlights a few trends that we think will be relevant for the next few years. For one thing, in 2009, we have noticed a shift in the tone of thriftiness to one of resourcefulness. This trend is about more than just saving money. The financial meltdown of 2008 is now viewed as a constructive opportunity, a chance to make things better. We see it as fomenting a new kind of autonomy.

People want to become smarter and more resourceful about their choices -- a marked departure from meaningless consumerism. For example, many consumers are trading the convenience of "fast fashion" from stores such as H&M for the lower-cost and recycled aspect of vintage-store clothing.

Do-it-yourself companies are also experiencing a boom. The online hand-made marketplace watched sales grow from $26 million in 2007 to $88 million in 2008. And the National Gardening Association estimates there will be 40% more homegrown vegetables now than in 2007.

Social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have fostered global citizens. In 2008, political networking exploded and people began to engage their peers in the networked world. There was a new sense of connectedness to global peers that had similar values and interests. With the Obama election, individuals, especially the millennials, experienced the influence they could assert through social networking.

Redefine to stay relevant
Some trends are time-specific. Others remain relevant but change over time. The significant question becomes, how should a brand respond to these shifts in trends? Trends research provides the context for the design process and ensures that the experience created is right for the consumer and the brand at a given point in time. Brands must be willing to redefine themselves to remain relevant.

What makes it easier is that not all trends are radically new. People have always been looking for new forms of family and friendship, new tribes. Just how they do that changes. That is why we constantly monitor a consumer trend we called "we," the search for new and deeper connections.

Umpqua Bank, a regional Oregon bank founded to provide loggers and farmers a banking alternative, faced this challenge. In 2003, they wanted to redefine their banking experience. We understood Umpqua's brand DNA as a community bank and applied our knowledge of what people needed from communities. At the time, the concept of "we" stood for slow and intimate group experiences, as in the slow-food movement. Ziba defined the Umpqua opportunity as a "slow banking" experience that was inspirational and nurturing. This was translated into a hotel/retail metaphor that emphasized comfort and personal service.

The result was unprecedented: an Umpqua record in deposits in the first week. Since then, Umpqua's new stores average 2.25 times higher deposits, two times average deposit balances, two times average loan balances and significantly higher cross sells with these customers.

The new 'we'
But times changed. In 2006, Umpqua asked us to re-envision the banking experience. The concept of "we" had evolved to stand for a new kind of participation in the larger community. Umpqua 2.0 needed to re-interpret the power of social networking for a community bank. The insight: through connection, community prosperity was as important as personal prosperity.

To accommodate the new "we," a community table enabled groups to meet; an interactive mosaic fed by Flickr showcased the community; and conference rooms were offered as a service as was a dedicated table promoting local businesses.

Brands with less opportunity to change the retail space can demonstrate their savvy around this concept in the digital space. More recently, Coca-Cola Co. built community around its "Open Happiness" campaign. Tapping into its DNA of enjoyment and ubiquity, Coke involved its community in selecting three representatives who will travel the world and create content around the theme of happiness, content in part recommended by Coke customers.

Looking ahead, we expect the concept of "we" to shift from a focus on the larger community to deeper relationships with the trusted few. Design thinking can interpret this shift and ensure the creation of a meaningful experience for consumers.

Sohrab Vossoughi is founder-principal of Ziba Design, in Portland, Ore. He launched Ziba, a product-development firm, in 1984 and directs projects for marketers including McDonald's, FedEx, Hyundai, Whirlpool, Xerox, Black & Decker, Samsung, Microsoft, Nike, Pioneer, Sanyo and Coleman.
Wibke Fleischer is senior specialist, Consumer Insights and Trends group, at Ziba Design. Her forecasting work contributed to the creation of new, meaningful experiences for clients such as T-Mobile, Dell, Wacom and Procter & Gamble. Prior to joining Ziba in 2006, Wibke spent six years as a senior consultant for Trendbuero in Hamburg, Germany, working for domestic and international clients such as Siemens, Braun, Bayer, Procter & Gamble and Deutsche Post.
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