Is it ever too late to jump on a trend?

As a founder of insight agency – Spark Market Research (who have developed the LifeStars research app), I’ve been at the coal face of many new trends as they have emerged. Whilst many trends come and go, I’ve come to conclude that trends are much like knowledge. Knowledge is not, (as many would believe) power, but potential power. What I mean by this is if you know something and do nothing about it, then nothing changes. Trends are the same. If you have somehow managed to spot a trend in good time, one that affects consumers and could be harnessed to make their lives or product experience better (whilst making your business stronger = win/win) then you need to act on that to make a difference. Spot the trend, and act on it. 

Today if you’ve missed a trend, in my view you should still act on it now. After all, the best day to plant a tree was yesterday, but the second-best day is today. When we know that something is the right thing to do we should just do it. And do it with gusto!

Over the years we’ve seen lots of examples of companies that have been amidst a trend and yet decided – we’ll just wait a little bit longer, and as a result they’ve missed out on the trend and the associated growth that comes with capitalising on that trend. Let’s look at a few of those trends below.

Trends in recent years

Protein: Protein was a massive trend in and around 2015. Lots of new protein products were appearing on shelves and subsequently disappearing off shelves very quickly as consumers swooped to pick them up. Some people, including experienced marketing people thought to themselves “this can’t really last can it?”, so they erred on the side of caution and decided to maybe talk about the protein in their products already, but designing and developing new products, classic NPD, that was a step too far. Of course, whilst brands such as Mars launched protein versions of the Mars bar and even protein water (seen here) made an appearance. There was a 498% increase in products launched with high protein claims – Source: Bordbia).

 This trend looks set to continue according to Statista.

The protein market continues to present strong growth opportunities for the food industry. Projections suggest that the worldwide market for protein ingredients is set to grow to over 47.4 billion U.S. dollars by 2032, increasing massively from the 2021 figure of about 26 billion U.S. dollars”.

You could speak to a lot of people involved in food marketing before you find someone that says protein isn’t at least worth a look in terms of new products.  In other words, plant the tree!

Athleisure: Who saw this one coming? There was a time when if you were wearing a “tracksuit” you were either one of two different types of people.  You were an athlete or a wannabe athlete who was exercising, had just been doing exercise, or going to exercise.  Alternatively, you were a teenager who spent most of their time after school running around chasing a ball or just hadn’t really found their own style yet.  All fair game but then we started to see a new trend emerge particularly in countries like Australia. Adults were wearing tracksuits and casual leisurewear including trainers and hoodies, although they had no intention of exercising. This was the beginning of a trend that has become a booming industry called Athleisure.

Brands such as lululemon, Gym+coffee and Sweaty Betty have helped to shape this industry over the last ten years or so. It turns out Athleisure clothes are very comfortable!  Over recent years, we’ve seen how business dress has become more casual too – can you even do a Ted Talk if you’re not wearing Jordans? Major fashion houses have kept a watchful eye on this trend and have had little choice but to embrace it as a forecasted annual growth rate of 10% is estimated (Source: Grand view).

This Athleisure trend fits neatly with the explosion in Wellness. If you’re a brand involved in either fashion, food, are directly in Wellness industries then keeping your ear to the ground and keeping your customers close is essential.  Plant the tree!

0% alcohol: Another trend that has emerged from the meta trend of Wellness is the adoption of 0% alcohol. I’m old enough to remember researching lots of concepts for 0 percent or low percent alcohol with many different types of consumers across Ireland and the UK. Usually, it was a question of trying to understand the usage occasions during which they would consume the 0% alcohol. Typically, there were none.  The stock answer was “why would I pay more for that when I could just drink a soft drink”.  And this was less than 10 years ago. Now of course, we’re used to all our major sporting events being sponsored by 0% alcohol brands and people drinking 0% alcohol on a night out is not uncommon. The usage occasions have become very clear, and 0% alcohol is here to stay. The no alcohol market is currently expected to grow at 9% per annum (Source: IWSR). 

One of the more interesting projects that we were involved in was trying to co-create a new high alcohol beer for a well-known brand of craft beer. The premise being that having a high ABV beer in its portfolio somehow gave the range credibility. The product that emerged from those co-creation sessions wasn’t a 0% alcohol, but neither was it a high percentage alcohol product; it was a low alcohol beer; about 2%. In my opinion we haven’t even got started yet in terms of brands like that in this industry; that 9% projected growth could be very modest.  However, how will we ever notice, unless we stay close to our consumers, understand their day-to-day occasions, and allow them to work with us to shape the future of the industry? Plant the tree. 

Workplace flexibility: This is a trend that gathered huge momentum post COVID. There was a time when it was relatively difficult to find office space to rent in most UK or Irish cities. That’s all changed. Now the talk is of converting previous office space into residential living quarters. All in the space of a few years. Why so? Companies have realised that not everybody wants to commute every day. The percentage of U.S. companies offering flexibility increased from 51% at the start of 2023 to 62% by the end of the year (Source: Forbes). Initiatives such as four-day week, or nine-day fortnight are becoming much more widespread.

Indeed, in Audience Collective we operate a nine-day fortnight. Some of our very initial concerns were that clients might be put out by the fact that we weren’t available on that Friday for meetings or to answer their queries. In some instances, we’ve had to put in separate teams to make sure there’s cover but for the most part we’ve had clients asking us how it works, would we recommend it and how did we the theory into practice. Yes, we would recommend it! By listening to our colleagues across Audience Collective, understanding what works for them and what doesn’t, and assuring that we keep close, we were able to understand and identify an opportunity in terms of how we work. As a senior leadership team, the option of burying your head in the sand may seem like an attractive one but it’s one that’s likely to lead to employee dissatisfaction and bigger problems down the line. Bring your employees close.  Plant the tree.

The big trend of 2024 (and next!)?  Customer closeness.

It probably seems obvious at this stage that bringing your customers or colleagues close to understand them better is cited as being the number one trend for businesses in 2025.  We believe that the old way of doing things, while still applicable in many instances, is often found lacking. Think about it, a marketing director or a senior manager within the business has a question based on a hunch or based on some data they’ve seen from a report. To check that hunch they generally need to speak to the marketing insight team who will then create a brief, share that brief with research agencies, get proposals back, select a research agency, go to field and so on. That hunch can then either be confirmed or denied. This process takes too long, too costly, involves multiple signoffs and by the time they get the insight, the question is not as valid.

The need for more customer closeness is being driven by four primary challenges:

1: Digital transformation. Trends are happening more often as consumers are more connected globally. As in the examples above, brands need to be closer to the coalface for many (not all) of their research questions. The world has changed, and the research world needs to change also. 

2: Gen Zs are making the rules. Gen Zs grew up with either a remote control, game console controller or mobile phone in their hand.  They are the push-notification generation. This attitude pervades their lives. They are willing accomplices in a two-way brand-consumer relationship. They cherish communities and feel more loyal towards brands that engage them in their story. 

3: Brand promiscuity is on the rise. Driven by economic factors such as inflation as well as behavioural shifts such as a willingness to ‘give brands a go’, the majority (62%) of shoppers are making shopping decisions in a promiscuous context (Source: Alter agents). The flip side of that is that it’s tougher for brands to create brand loyalty. Know your consumers better, the big stuff such as brand drivers but also the important small stuff like what they are thinking about new emerging trends, where their heads are at, what they love, the causes they support and why they matter.

4: ESG – green for good. Sustainability has “jumped the shark”. It is a hygiene factor for many consumers. They may not always shout about it but that is because they expect it to be a driver. What started as recycling now includes corporate governance (looking at you Brew Dog!) and a full top to bottom understanding of how your brand sustainably makes its way into the world (and back again).        

Brands need to live and breathe their consumers reality. There are a few ways of doing this but essentially it boils down to looking at what other people have done (secondary research), or doing your own (primary research). Both have merit. Secondary research in the form of reports as well as data scraping online can be a great mine of data. The one obvious drawback is that you’re not asking the questions so you ‘get what you get, and you can’t get upset’. Primary data means you can set the questions and be one step ahead. 

What are the rules of customer closeness?

1: Start now. Plant the tree. There will be no perfect time to start better listening and engaging with your customers.

2: Formalise the approach. When you have the opportunity to have an ongoing dialogue with your customers make sure it is meaningful. We would suggest a monthly, bi-monthly, six monthly and annual plans. Meaningful customer closeness doesn’t just happen, brands have to co-ordinate it. 

3: Act and react. When you see trends emerging, develop the conversation. Rule them in and out. Not all data is insightful but robustness of data is ever important.

4: Share the victories. Provide a feedback loop. Customer closeness is a different type of conversation and letting your customers know you have heard them and are acting on it will create loyalty and better conversations. Create the virtuous loop.

5: Reward participation. Customers’ time is valuable. Ensure they feel rewarded for their time (and they will be more likely to get involved again).

Customer closeness is vital and the clamour to be closer to your customers will just increase as the months go on. It is worth remembering that your customers are also likely to be, at least occasionally, your competitors’ customers. Bring them close before your competition does. 

LifeStars is our always-on customer closeness app. It’s simple to use, quick and cost effective.  Learn more about why brands should choose LifeStars to stay close to their customers here or contact justin@lifestars.com.