We talk a lot about trends, but have you ever wondered if they’re merely a reflection of our echo chambers and interests, or if they actually do transcend culture? We’re all obsessed with them, but what are they really, and how much do they actually matter?
Well, today’s the day where we’re going to answer all of your burning questions about trends!
What is a trend? The dictionary defines it as "the general course or prevailing tendency", a topic that is "being widely discussed", what’s popular or "en vogue." To put a finer point on it, I’d also add that a trend requires behavior adoption, momentum and a beginning and an end.
Trends come in all shapes and sizes—there are macro trends and micro trends, fashion trends and food trends, economic trends and business trends, demographic trends and media trends, and my personal favorite—cultural trends.
Micro trends are the small rumblings happening on the ground and they typically have shorter cycles. If they do start to get traction and hit a certain threshold, they evolve into a macro trend. Most of the time, macro trends generally live within their respective industries. When a macro trend breaks outside of its industry, it becomes a cultural trend.
What is a cultural trend? First, we must define culture. According to Magna IPG Media Lab’s The Impact of Culture study, culture is more expansive than you might assume. 83% of people said that culture is more than the traditional definition of heritage, cuisine and religion, and includes facets of entertainment, fashion, sports and pop culture.
Ok, now we’re ready to define cultural trends!
Cultural trends are way more than just a micro or macro trend because they have a much larger, more robust place in society due to the fact that they both reflect and influence culture themselves.
According to Mary Meehan, the founder of the cultural analytics tool Metametrix, the power of trends lie in the context of culture. She says, "when we try to examine trends free-floating, without any cultural context, we lose any means for analysis and application."
The forces that make up a cultural trend are the sum of three key ingredients—the media we consume, the motivations we have and the mood of society. They are the halfway point between a macro trend and a movement.
As you can see from the chart below, there are many direct and indirect factors that contribute to this evolution.
Throughout the evolution, a trend feeds on itself, compounding the momentum due to adoption and conversation along with investment in them. At each stage, more micro trends are spawned within the larger trends, and ripple effects continue to be set in motion, growing and extending into adjacent categories. At any point in this process, it could fizzle and go back to square one.
This is not a perfect map because no evolution is a linear process, but these are the main road signs for determining when and why a trend is graduating to the next stage in its life cycle.
Let’s take gaming for example. As we discussed previously, it's now a mainstream pastime—I considered it a macro trend until Fortnite. The second that Ninja and Drake played each other on Twitch and combined the worlds of gaming and music, gaming was catapulted into cultural trend level. Pop culture news sources, not just gaming, wrote about this and Twitter was LIT. Then it proliferated further with the arrival of their first real competitor, Apex Legends.
Brands from Wendy’s to the NFL jumped on the Fortnite bandwagon by integrating into the game due to the buzz and scale. Fortnite amassed a tribe of 200MM players across the globe and $1B+ in revenue in a mere two years. Additionally, Fortnite is now a competitive sport due to their entrance in the esports leagues.
At this point, seemingly Fortnite has peaked and their moment in the limelight is over. When was the last time you heard about it? Ya, me neither.
If you're curious, the level of interest is less than half of what it was just a year ago.
If a trend is going to take off, it will spread (and die) faster than it used to because of many reasons, but here’s my short list.
The speed in which information is shared is now instant. There’s no waiting to hear about something, just check Twitter.
Along with that, technological advancements have contributed to newer and faster ways of consuming, making us hyperconnected around the world.
Which leads us to globalization—a double-edged sword. Although we don't have to wait to see what's cool in China, now we're exposed to a global deluge of trends that are not just local to where we live. It's harder to stay on top of trends both as a consumer and as a marketer.
Additionally, every facet of media from articles to shows to songs reinforce them (Murda Beatz wrote a song called Fortnite...how creative). And don’t forget advertisers, we perpetuate them every day by spending billions of dollars promoting our brands as a part of them.
Finally, we can’t forget the key concepts from The Tipping Point, Contagious and Made to Stick. Ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that we, want to tell our friends about something interesting, and some of us have more influence and connections than others, making them spread even faster.
Why else are we obsessed with trends? Not only do we want to make sure we have the right mermaid nail art, but we also want to make sure we’re making the most informed business decisions. What industry isn’t trying to predict what their audience wants, the direction the business is heading and where they should invest their resources?
I’d argue that marketers and advertisers are one of the most, if not THE most, obsessed with trends due to both our inundation with them and reliance on them. With the inception of viral videos, Google Trends, Twitter trending topics, trend predictions—the past two decades have become all consumed by trends.
For every brand out there, there’s a strategy team figuring out what cultural trend matters to the target audience, a creative team developing ads for it, a media team planning for it and a social team jumping on it as fast as humanly possible, hoping that they’ll be the next viral moment.
With all the fuss about trends, you might wonder, does aligning with them actually make a difference? Luckily, our time spent scouring the deep bowels of the internet to find the next big thing is not for naught.
According to the Impact of Culture study, a quarter of people said that when a brand is involved in culture, it influences what they buy. My guess is this will continue to grow.
Aligning with trends matters more now because it is WAY harder to break through the clutter than it used to be. Because audiences’ attention is becoming an increasingly scarce resource, when a brand is able to latch on to a relevant trend, it can ride the coattails and take part in a trend’s momentum.
That’s why everywhere you look there’s a report on trends (but The Pollinatr is your favorite right?). The Hustle just launched a newsletter called Trends tracking startup trends. Cassandra tracks Millennial and GenZ trends. WGSN is a massive trend forecasting business with $94MM in revenue.
One could say that the trends business is #trending. Sorry, couldn't help myself :)
So how do you spot a trend in the first place? This list is somewhat in chronological order, but as we know, no one trend is truly alike and paths can diverge.
When you start to see unique data points that buck the last trend - A great example of this is the initially small decrease in high heel purchases and increase in women’s sneaker purchases over a few years, the early signs of the athleisure trend.
When a pattern starts to emerge - When you start seeing multiple data points supporting your hypotheses, then you might be on to something. The Hygge trend was a good example of this with interest and purchases rising across candles, cozy blankets, eating in vs eating out...the list goes on.
When it starts to spread outside of a region - Poke bowls is my fav example of this. I had been traveling to LA a lot in 2017 getting my fair share of poke, but it took about a year for the first poke place to open in Boston. As you can see from the chart below, the poke bowl trend spread from California in 2017, New York in 2018 and then the rest of America in 2019. Apparently, West Virginia, South Dakota and Wyoming are NOT having it with poke, though.
When it has a “moment” - Something puts it on the map and it gets a ton of press. Podcasts are a great example of this which we talked about last newsletter. When Serial dropped in 2014, suddenly podcasts became the hottest, new, old media channel again.
But be careful with trends, sometimes they can be deceiving.
Sometimes you might think a micro-trend is bigger than it is. Cronuts were THE thing in NYC for a period of time, and seemingly everywhere else. But, as a matter of fact, they absolutely were not.
Trends are not the same for everyone—everyone perceives and experiences them differently. Even if two people look very similar demographically, they may feel the opposite about that trend. And by the way, what you're surrounded by is likely not what your audience is, so please consider their point of view.
Trends are not a crystal ball. By nature of a trend, it is something that is already happening or has already happened. That doesn't mean they can't help you forecast a future strategy, but beware that you don't make it the end all, be all. Netflix would have never dropped all episodes at once and Uber wouldn't have created on-demand access to transportation if they were only looking at their industry's trends.
Trends can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a trend starts to take hold, industries will then want to gather more data on them. Data gathering prompts more reports, more strategizing and more creating for that trend, even if it may already be over.
What does this all mean? Understanding where a trend is in its evolution is imperative to help guide your strategy. If it's a micro-trend, perhaps you test and learn with a small activation in social, whereas with a cultural trend or movement, ask yourself how your brand could be involved in a larger way. Because when you get it right, it can majorly put your brand on the map...at least until the next trend comes along.