It seems like just yesterday that we were pondering a Tech Reckoning and wondering what the Me Too movement would mean for 2018. But no. It was not yesterday. We’ve been living in the Upside-Down for a whole year!
As I look to identify the cultural trends that will have the biggest impact on businesses and consumers over the next year, it’s easy to see the through lines. Last year – socially, culturally, politically – things felt volatile. They still do! Thank goodness for consistency! Further, we have seen changes to the world of technology that have been building for years; those changes are far-reaching, and touch many of our top trends for the coming year.
1. The Age of Bullshit
Illusion and deception has been part of the culture for as long as people have been willing to suspend their disbelief. From lauded trompe-l’oeil paintings to mystifying magic acts, viewers have appreciated the skill and effect of things that don’t look as they are.
In a similar spirit, executives and politicians get a pass for what we all accept as part of the job to mold the truth. Now, the game – call it our new reality if you must – has changed. The level of misinformation, deception and fakery normal people come across every day has mushroomed. And I don’t mean simply in politics. Reality-mending tropes are everywhere now. How many times have you wondered if you were chatting with a real person or a bot? Facebook and Twitter are in deep brand trouble for being prime purveyors of disinformation – and now LinkedIn may be joining them, too? Real is fake and sometimes fake is fake. How are we to know?
Skepticism is the new trust
Those who compete for attention on social media now have a new tool. Chinese AI firm, SenseTime, has released a new and automatic retouching tool to make your posts Insta perfect.
Last January, the GAO did a study of counterfeit goods sold on ecommerce sites like Amazon and eBay, and found that 43% were fakes, even while Customs and Border Control is seizing billions of dollars of goods that infringe on intellectual property rights.
And, media, where it all started, is a mess trying to find its footing in this anxious age of shifting truths. Axios recently listed 11 new fact-checking sites that “aim to thwart false information.” If you can’t trust the fact checkers, who do you have to turn to?
Tabloids have always preyed on celebrities, but the stories just keep getting crazier. Gossip Cop has emerged to fact check celebrity reporting, separating “What’s Real From Rumor For The Most Accurate Entertainment Reporting.”
What this means for business
There is a new war on fakery, counterfeits, lies and misinformation, but how do consumers stay on top of it? Who do they believe? And are they left linking a company’s failure to police lies and fakes with a brand that doesn’t deserve their trust? Sunlight is the best disinfectant – being real makes you shine even brighter in an age of fakery.
2. Still Bowling Alone (but texting our friends about it)
With each new leap in innovation experts have warned that technology– from telephones to televisions to the internet to social media–will be the cause of all manner of ills. Robert Putnam chronicled the decline of social capital in his seminal 2000 book Bowling Alone, citing a lack of vibrant community leagues, PTA, etc. Now, pundits point to a “social media paradox,” a time when we are more connected, yet more alone than ever before. Ben Sasse’s new book Them also suggests that the fabric that once tied us together is frayed and is what gives rise to hate and distrust.
Now, according to a recent Cigna health report loneliness is as potent a health risk as smoking and obesity.
How did this happen?
Social media is a stand-in for real face-to-face relationships. Ideological bubbles keep us confined to interactions with like-minded people. The increasing demands of the workplace keep us away from our families. The stress of getting into good schools changes how teenagers approach their worlds. Never-talk-to-a-real-person corporations and one-click shopping for instant delivery doesn’t even require leaving the house.
What This Means For Business
With an inevitable swing of the pendulum, retail has begun to incorporate engaging in-store, community-building experiences alongside their ecommerce strategies. Even Amazon is opening stores.
Governments are taking isolation seriously. It was reported recently that the UK has appointed a minister of loneliness with plans to direct citizens to activities and groups to improve overall well being.
Helping in the effort, Sainsbury’s has created Talking Tables that are set aside with signage to indicate that people who sit there are open to a conversation. Brands and companies can address a loneliness epidemic with F2F events and community-focused strategies and by partnering with social service organizations that already know what it takes to build community.
3. Toward Zero Staff
It’s easy to forget that vending machines have been a part of the retail landscape for many years. And, really, they were our first experience with staffless self-checkout. Plenty of people fear that AI is going to take our jobs, and staffless solutions are already everywhere now. We won’t be going completely without people anytime soon, but many high-tech AI interfaces are already all around us.
Amazon Go debuted their checkout-free concept a couple years ago in Seattle and other solutions like Standard Market in San Francisco already has plans to expand. The Wall Street Journal just published a piece titled “Your Next Job Interview May Be With A Robot.” These automated interactions are meant to streamline a short-staffed process, but they can definitely take some getting used to. Ping An Good Doctor centers in China use intelligence to gather medical history to develop a health plan and include a smart medicine cabinet that dispenses 100 different medications. That’s a fascinating solution for a serious doctor shortage, but we’ll be watching to see how it plays out. And Zora the Robot Caregiver is being embraced by seniors in France in need of companionship. It will never replace human touch, but it can be a useful tool with sometimes hard to reach or bored patients.
What This Means To Business
Just like the retail trend moving back to in-store experiences, staffless solutions will never be completely staffless. All businesses need some personal interaction. The challenge for companies is determining the right ratio of human to machine. Consider how can you streamline some of the processes that don’t need that critical social element, then put your budget towards the strategy to really connect with your audience.
4. Taking a Stand
Edelman’s new Earned Brand report finds that nearly two-thirds of consumers want companies to take a stand on social issues. Is the customer always right? On the other side of this dilemma, CMO Network conducted a study recently and found that the majority of marketers don’t believe they should engage, citing the bottom line as a concern. However, those that said they would stand up increased 17.4% from six months ago.
What’s a brand to do?
Some companies are moved by long held convictions aligned with their brand ethos and some are newly impassioned by recent events, investigative or research reports or catastrophes. Others still become aligned with movements when their core purchasers nudge them to be. The reality is that brands are no longer sitting on the sidelines in the neutral zone. There is a clear shift as brands move into the political and social impact arena in ways that feel more overtly political.
250 companies -from PepsiCo to Unilever to H&M -have joined in the effort to end the flow of plastic in to the ocean.
BeautyCounter rallied 30,000 people to support legislation to fight for better product ingredient regulation.
On November 28th Patagonia announced that it was donating its $10 Million Tax Break to green groups, to help save the planet (an act they think the government should be undertaking).
Nike launched a standout campaign to commemorate Just Do It with Colin Kaepernick. After initial backlash, sales have soared to $6 billion since the ad ran.
Dick’s Sporting Goods moved to ban assault weapons from its shelves after the Parkland shooting.
Starbuck’s pledged $10million to support the development of a compostable coffee cup.
What This Means For Business
Even though we are seeing demand from consumers and an increase of politically active brands, it’s not for everyone. Every brand can stand for something and that provides a clear path to align with what matters to your customer. Be clear, authentic and in line with your brand’s core values for a meaningful stand.
5. Anger Therapy
Anger is a natural reaction to some form of injustice and, like other emotions, somewhat expected throughout life. But the level of outrage is definitely growing and spilling in to our public and private worlds. Road rage was one of the first symptoms of this bubbling up of emotion. The examples were a shocking public display of unfettered wrath with potentially dangerous consequences. Looking back road-rage seems tame compared to the volume and complexity of fury in the current culture. As a result, impassioned pleas for civility are on the rise.
We’ve got anger problems
Normally a sober event, the supreme court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh didn’t hide his anger affecting viewers and voters and he won nomination. Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad talks about the revolutionary power of women’s anger. Consumers and government (finally) are fed up with the tech giants manipulative, revenue driven surveillance business models. The political landscape is so divisive it’s made holiday meals a battleground. And activists are taking their frustration to the streets in huge numbers around the world.
These examples and more are making Bryan Cranston’s Broadway role as Howard “I’m mad as hell” Beale in Network is as relevant as ever. We’ve even heard people talked about rage voting.
Have we bottled it up for too long? Does is just plain feel good to let it out? Is it a natural response to coping with so much change outside of our control? Anger is having its moment. But is that a good thing?
What This Means For Business
Maybe it’s the world in upheaval, or our over-connectedness or too many of us crowded onto the planet. Whatever the reason, anger is, undoubtedly, spilling in to public forums, retail spaces and the workplace. Business should step back and consider the state of your community and customer, then provide them with stabilizing practices and policies borne of honesty, transparency and generosity. Be vocal about your brand values and physically and financially demonstrate your commitment to it.
6. The Smashing of the Norms
The level of social technological, environmental, economic and political turbulence feels like something (Good? Exciting? Not good?) is about to happen. We’ve become somewhat accustomed to disruptive innovations but now, some significant, some potentially life altering changes, some intriguing and some convenience-focused developments are brewing and smashing norms in the process.
Brexit is about to alter the European Union as we know it. Long a dirty word, socialism is being reinvented in hopes of bringing equity to the culture. Critics of AI claim it will steal jobs and ruin the planet. And speaking of ruining the planet, the government’s recent report said that if no steps are taken to reduce climate change “the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.” Fed up with current state of the party, true-red Republicans are denouncing the GOP. (wow!) Brands like Glossier, Away, and Casper are bypassing traditional retail and going DTC rattling the already shaky retail category. And, Oscar-worthy movies are being released on streaming services like Netflix, not in theaters.
What This Means For Business
Change is going to happen. The world turns and we get on with our lives, but recent events can be unsettling or exciting depending on your perspective. Business should remind customers of the convenience, safety, or excitement of changes in policies, practices, or products or how business will manage change. Develop easy to consume but authentic informational videos with access to real people if they have questions or need help navigating any changes with you.