Trend forecasting: whos willing to take risks

Written by Geeta Rao | Updated: Oct 21 2004, 05:30am hrs
At Hyemtextil, a well-attended home fabrics and furnishings trade fair in Mumbai, Gunnar Frank, Europes leading trend forecaster in home fashions, is urging the audience to experiment with colours if they want to be relevant and sell in Europe. But Frank is doing much more. He presents the trends for 2005-2006, including a psychographic profile of the owner of individual interior styles, and the look of the future home. He also unhesitantly presents a colour palette including pantone shades of what he confidently states will be the new colours of the season for homes.

Amidst the reds, greens and golds, the palette is an unfamiliar one khaki with a contrast of shocking pink, blue, caramel and yellow, inspired by football jerseys, sand, sable, pale greens and blues from Scandanavia. But he also adds that timing is everything. So, to meet Europes demands for 2006, India will have to start weaving in 2004. By the time the trends filter into India via Europe and Hong Kong, it will be 2008. So knowing when a trend will hit which market is also part of the trend forecasters job.

Earlier in the year, Irma Zandl, at an MTV-hosted youth marketing conference, presented a casebook of hot American trends, which were changing ways of engagement with the world. One of the trends video games influencing music, fashion and hanging out, games like Final Fantasy and Ragnarok as benchmark games for young adult men. In March 2004, these trends sounded as if they would never reach Indian shores.

But look around you. Ask a 14 year-old schoolboy and he will tell you all about world video game championships. Visit a cybercafe in off hours in Mumbai, Laos, Bangkok, Hanoi, and you wont see teenyboppers checking mail but playing a set of championship games with computers linked to each other which, in turn, link up to championship teams around the world.

In Europe and in America, trend forecasting is big business. It hasnt found the same gravitas in India, but trend forecasting and being able to spot the right trend could mean the difference between success and failure or between billions and merely a few millions.

Some years ago, when I worked at Rediff Y&R, I received a trends survey from the main desk in New York they had noticed a new trend among fashion- conscious girls in Tokyo. The girls were referred to as tea hair girls because they dyed or coloured their hair brown. The fashion industry carried this trend onto the ramps; the hair and personal care industry took this into hair colours that had never been seen before, streaking and styling hair in ways that was considered chic and alternative. The use of hair colour and the fall-out resulted in a new range of hair protection and hair maintenance shampoos, conditioners and styling products.

The hair market has exploded exponentially. The people who saw the trend first, cashed in. In India, LOreal is seen as the hair-colouring expert though technically hair dyeing expertise and technology has belonged to Godrej. Sunsilk, a leader in the shampoo market, failed to enter the colouring segment at the right time. In about five years, a trend had become a profitable industry. Take medical health. Doctors have moved to recommending preventive health measures rather than wait for last-minute intervention. Preventive health led to greater fitness consciousness, which together created a new cluster called wellness. This has led to the growth of cosmoceuticals and nutraceuticals from the pharma industry, to high gloss make up for the healthy glowing look from the make up industry, to the growth of gyms and the spin-off personal trainers, hip work-out gear and so on. On the other side wellness has moved to alternative healing and spiritual health and a resurgent guru, yoga, chanting, meditation industry. Which has had an impact on travel and tourism where countries are marketing their spa and retreat destinations.

Whole new categories and industries spring up with new lifestyle trends. Researchers traditionally scoff at trend forecasting as being the soft side of market research. Not true. Nor according to Zandl is a trend merely a prediction of what will be the New Cool. A trend like obesity in America has spawned a whole new diet industry.

Trend forecasting is even more essential in manufacturing and management. Take a simple trend, like outsourcing. Management gurus recommended outsourcing for years as a simple cost-cutting device for industry. So simple outsourcing, like security, office housekeeping, secretarial services, the copier service, etc., could result in big savings without damaging quality. The same model, replicated on a larger scale, has led to the big BPO boom. The principle is the same. The only difference the people who saw the technology boom and spread coming could offer the service first.

The first wave of outsourcing belonged to the techies, the second wave to the telecommunication boom, which has led to call centres. The Ipod is the marriage of two hot trends design and technology Napster served up in a designer pod. Saregama has just tied up to provide feed to Ipod, which reflects another growing trend acknowledging the power of the Indian consumer who is no longer willing to take music top down as it were from west to east but wants his or her own tunes.

It all depends where you look. If you were looking at America when the mobile-SMS explosion happened, you might have missed a trick. But if you were looking at the Philippines or Japan or Taiwan, you may have cashed in early. There is risk and there is failure, but the future usually belongs to the brave. Recognising a trend means one has to look at the consumer first. Rather than spend all ones time testing whether a new product sent in from technical labs will work in the market, it may make sense to listen to the market and create products to suit the consumers desires. As Gunnar Frank says: Look for young energies, challenge and confront the obvious, look for linkages, look at the world.

In Europe, Frank says the energies are now in Berlin, Barcelona and in Portugal. Tokyo continues to inspire design and fashion. Trend forecasting involves seeing the world in a more holistic fashion and seeing connections more intuitively. A good trend forecaster is interested in everything that deals with living. I believe manufacturing, product design, sales, marketing and research can all benefit from trend forecasting. And it can prove to be profitable. There is a tide in the affairs of men, said William Shakespeare, which when taken at the flood leads on to fortune. Or as Irma Zandl says in simpler terms: A trend can always be monetised.

The writer is a Mumbai-based advertising professional