Ford futurist on the road ahead for autos and 'the many faces of me'

Sheryl Connelly talks about digital detox, fluid consumer identities

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Credit: Natalia Sanabria

Sheryl Connelly gets paid to look around the corner. Ford's head manager of global consumer trends and futuring tracks the trends shaping consumer behavior and how they'll affect the automaker's product development and corporate strategy. Here, she discusses some of the findings in her recently published 2019 Ford Trends report. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The report suggests that people are afraid of the unforeseen consequences of technology. What does this mean for marketers?

We tend to fear what we don't understand. We need to make sure we demystify technology so people can see the benefits, and [that] it's transparent.

In the 2019 [Ford] Edge, we have artificial intelligence inside the vehicle to help improve the drivetrain. But what that really means is there are sensors on the vehicle that are evaluating the road conditions, the weather conditions, and those sensors feed information into a software program to determine what is optimal for the vehicle: Should it be in two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive? If we can break it down that way and simplify it, you take out all the mystery and hopefully remove the anxiety that comes with technology.

Which brings us to self-driving cars.

People tell us that they think the biggest benefit of self-driving vehicles will be having more free time. There's something inherent about this technology [that engenders] some level of trust. Sixty-seven percent of people said they'd rather ride in a self-driving vehicle than ride with a stranger. And as a parent of two teenage daughters, I completely agree with that sentiment.

Talk about the different personas people portray online—you call it the "many faces of me."

Identity is really fluid in modern times. Thirty years ago—50 years ago, 100 years ago—we identified by a single marker: stay-at-home mom or family provider. But when the millennials were coming of age, they called themselves the "slash generation": "I'm a mathematician, a microbrewer and a photographer slash long-distance runner." What they were basically saying is you can't put a single label on me to understand who I am. When you add social media on top of it, identity becomes even more complex. How you present yourself to the world and how you see yourself internally don't always match.

What's the takeaway for marketers?

Brands with the clearest sense of identity are the ones that resonate most deeply. Historically this has always been something that marketers tended to opt into. So you think about Toms shoes, Warby Parker, Patagonia, Chick-fil-A—these are brands that knew what their values were and then set about building a business around them. But in recent years, more and more brands are brought into discussions that they don't necessarily intend to take a stand on.

It's part of this movement. We call it "ethical consumption." People are thinking about their identities and they recognize that where they spend their money, their time, their resources is an extension of their sense of self. They want to know: What are the values of this product, and what are the virtues of the company behind it? [The] bottom line is: What does it say about me when I choose to do business with you?

You talk about "digital detox" as a growing trend. What will drive people to spend less time online or with their devices?

There have been signs of this for a very, very long time. In recent years we talked about the phantom vibration syndrome—when you think your phone is ringing or vibrating when it's not. The early theories from doctors were maybe this is an early form of [technological] anxiety. We do know that [technology] is affecting the way we think. A couple years ago some research revealed that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish. Some people talk about e-neck—that's the really poor posture people tend to adopt when they are looking down at their phone.

But marketers keep spending more money to reach people online. Is digital detox a risk for brands?

That's a tough question. I don't think people will disconnect completely. I think they'll be more purposeful about where and when they'll use technology. For marketers, I think if you have something meaningful—purposeful—to say, then people will find you. That's how videos go viral. But I think marketers have to recognize they're vying for a limited resource, which is time and attention. So a marketing message has to be informative, educational or entertaining. Otherwise you're just wasting people's time.

Will Facebook's struggles—including concerns over how personal data is shared—accelerate this digital detox?

I wouldn't lay it at any one brand's feet. I don't think that's necessarily fair. I just think people are saying it's really hard to live in the moment, and these digital devices really distract us.

What one word will define 2019?

Hope.

Why?

Twenty-seventeen was about divisiveness, 2018 was about resilience. And so I think [for] 2019, the next step is hope. That's what I'm going to push for.

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