If a magazine reports about a trend, chances are the trend has been in existence for a while. If an image board of reported trends is how a brand is deciding where to position itself, then it has missed an opportunity to take full advantage of the trend and, by focusing on the known, is missing other emerging trends.
Rather than search for the bold strokes of an existent trends, brands should be looking for the weak signals of what the future holds. A weak signal is a small disruption or innovation, often initially confined to a specific location or demographic but with the potential to spread and grow in importance.
We look for weak signals, not in the pages of a glossy magazine, but on the peripheries of the socio-economic environment. “As with human peripheral vision, these signals are difficult to see and interpret but can be vital to success or survival,” academics George Day and Paul Schoemaker wrote in Harvard Business Review seven years ago.
There are numerous ways of looking for and analyzing weak signals. One of these approaches is to talk to extreme users of a brand or product and not the average users. Sense Worldwide is a strategy consultancy that does just that. It’s strategy director Brian Millar wrote insightfully in Fast Company earlier this year:
“At first, it seemed strange for me to take mainstream brands to fringe people. But it works. Kenyan microlenders and global retail bankers can learn a tremendous amount from each other. Health insurers and medical tourists can create services that benefit both of them. Running shoe design has been revolutionized by studying people who have never worn them. Now it seems strange to talk to regular people. What are they going to tell you that you don’t already know?
It takes a degree of professional courage to leave one’s comfort zone and look to the fringe for weak signals. But that is where the answers about future trends are.