If you’ve found yourself daydreaming of late about Pac-Man and classic WrestleMania, you’re probably not alone. It’s no secret the ’80s have come back in full force, with signs manifesting across all pop culture mediums: From the popular sci-fi novel “Ready Player One” to the five-part “NB80s” series on NBA TV; from “Glee” covers of Journey and Michael Jackson to big-screen reboots of everything from “21 Jump Street” to “Transformers.” And, of course, the saturated neon clothing – oh, the neon.

But lest I lose focus and start sharing angst-ridden poetry about my love for the Coreys, let me get to the point. This is a post about consumer trends – like ’80s nostalgia – and about why we, as communications professionals, ought to pay attention to them.

Trend or Fad?

When we talk about consumer trends, we’re talking about behaviors and attitudes that develop among significant populations over time.

Interestingly, Merriam-Webster also expands the definition of a trend to include “a current style or preference.” However, there’s an important distinction to make here, as this definition is more indicative of a fad than a trend. Fads are fleeting: Just ask someone who came of age in the ’80s the last time they played with a Rubik’s Cube, or talked in Valspeak. You don’t even have to go back that far. Remember last year when we were using the hashtag #winning? Good times.

Fads are also hard to predict and are quickly overplayed. Communications professionals who want to catch a ride on a fad must have both speed and luck on their sides. For an entertaining and well-researched fictional take on how fads start, check out Connie Willis’ novel “Bellwether.”

In contrast, trends stem from deeper cultural roots, and are more closely tied to consumers’ emotional needs. This makes them more useful when planning a campaign with staying power. Do your target consumers want to feel (or just look) healthier? Do they feel overscheduled and underappreciated? When deciding on a product purchase, are they confident in their own judgment or do they whip out their mobile devices and get advice from their social circles before they’ll commit? Knowing the answers to these types of questions can help you better predict how your audience will react to a campaign idea, or even to a specific message or medium.

Of course, there are a lot of other types of trends that we need to pay attention to as marketers and communicators. For example, it’s important that we understand the industry trends that affect our clients, so that we can better understand how their communications needs ladder up to their broader business needs. And we must stay on top of trends within our own industry to ensure our recommendations align with the changing media landscape. But it all goes back to the same basic communications commandment: Thou shalt know thy audience.

The Payoff

I’d wager that we all follow consumer trends to a degree, if only for sheer curiosity. But there are more tangible benefits to keeping tabs on consumer trends – not least of which is the ability to plan more thoughtful, targeted and resonant consumer campaigns. While we would relish the opportunity to speak directly with our target audiences ahead of every campaign, not every client has the time, budget or appetite for primary research. However, learning a trend is not unlike learning the language of your audience, and is a reasonable proxy in most situations.

Studying consumer trends also helps us frame our ideas within an easily digestible narrative, which is especially important when working with clients who do not come from a traditional PR or marketing background. Professional experience and industry standards are important input streams when planning a campaign, but these practices can seem opaque to the uninitiated. Instead of heading straight for the details, try getting everyone on the same page by providing a birds-eye view of the consumer trends driving your campaign. Chances are, your client will personally identify with the trend, or will know someone who fits the description. And if not, your client can at least start to imagine what such a person would be like, and evaluate your proposed strategies and tactics through that lens.

When preparing for your next consumer push, do a little research into the trends surrounding your target segments, and be deliberate about weaving the resulting insights into planning discussions with your clients and/or co-workers – and ultimately into your campaign. In the same spirit, Weber Shandwick Seattle will be posting here periodically with insights on new consumer trends. I hope you’ll check back in and join us for the ride.

Image courtesy of  Mike Saechang

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