So you think you’re a Trendsetter?

by Justin Healy

Trendsetters rule the world.   

What is a trend? Are you trendy? Does the fact that I used the word “trendy” make me the most un-trendy person around? Is your brand on-trend? (Note: “On-trend” is the trendy way to say, well, trendy).  To be on-trend a brand needs to understand what the current trends are.  The Oxford dictionary defines a trend as “a general direction in which something is developing or changing.” To be clear, in this instance I’m not referring to the daily trends that occur on X (it’s not trendy to call it Twitter anymore), Insta (not Instagram), TikTok or wherever else you get your daily dose of doom scrolling, celeb watching or maybe just news?  I’m talking about trends that develop over months; sometimes these are a result of a movement in society, other times they are created by brands or more likely co-created by brands and their consumers.  Either way, these trends drive consumption by adapting consumer behaviour in such a way to necessitate a reaction from brand owners.

In recent years we’ve seen that the locus of control in many categories has changed 180 degrees. Whereas previously the model we were accustomed to saw consumers sitting patiently, being rational, and waiting for the next big thing to be delivered to them on a platter by the brand owner, the opposite is now true.  Of course, I say this with tongue in cheek, consumers were never rational, brands were never in charge, in a market where we may have 50 million consumers and 50 brands the balance of power is really always going to lie with the consumers.


That’s not to belittle brands, in my opinion, a well curated purposeful brand is one of the most powerful things in the world.  But that well curated, purposeful brand will always have consumer insight at its heart and trends are essential to strong consumer insight.  I could go down the psychological route here and say that all trends are based on a consumer’s psychological and emotional needs and there’s no doubt that that is true.  However, I’d rather leave that train of thought to the psychologists.  In my world, the one of “buy one get one free”, “new and improved”, “two for £10”, “Because you’re worth it”, trend is the “visible manifestation of a bunch of consumers’ outward declaration of what matters to them at a point in time”.  Granted, that definition isn’t as snappy as the one in the Oxford dictionary, but I would postulate that for marketing people it’s the one that matters.

Trends needn’t be, on the surface at least, cultural phenomena with deep psychological roots.  Many of the most evident trends that we see in today’s market can appear quite trivial and will often have a core need of “wanting to fit in” or “belonging” as their root.  We often see trends such as these play out in the Gen Z market particularly where these consumers are just finding their feet and discovering who they are in the world.  Has anyone seen the resurgence of Doc Martens with this cohort? Why has this been the case? The brand has reported a 50% increase in its sales of shoes and sandals in 2023.  Supermodels and lesser mortal celebrities have been seen donning their “docs” on TV, on catwalks and on stage.  People see this, they want to emulate their stars so they go and pick up a pair of shoes with yellow stitching.  (then they realise that they’re the most comfortable shoes they will ever own and become quite proud of their docs).


What about Birkenstock? Surely they’re interchangeable with Docs?  Well they saw this trend for Doc Martins and said “we want in!” Birkenstock, paid a significant multimillion dollar fee to have Margot Robbie end the Barbie movie wearing a pair of their shoes.  The “Birkenstock bounce” failed to realise.  We can only guess as to why this may be the case but my own inclination would tend to be that Barbie exists in a highly polished, saccharine, pink world and Birkenstock really don’t.  Fit matters.  Money can buy lots of things but consumer trends generally are not on the shopping list.  These types of trends are easier to spot and understand.

Occasionally, we will see a trend in this market that jars with us.  One such trend over the last 50 years or so has been for ambitious, upwardly mobile, young men to wear chinos and blue shirts as an unofficial uniform of affluence.  However, last week we saw the Cardiff University has banned the wearing of chinos and blue shirts due to the fact that “gangs of youths” wearing this “uniform” have been causing too much trouble in their student union.  And you thought it was hoodys that were the problem.  A trend that has been turned on its head.

There are more wide-ranging trends that any purposeful, progressive brand needs to be mindful of.  And I suppose that’s why you’re here so let me quickly run through a few of those.



Self-Improvement (and health)

Consumers want to be better people.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many consumers to reevaluate their priorities.  People such as Stephen Bartlett (Diary of a CEO) have been very outspoken in relation to how pre-2020 his main concern was his work, his dog and looking well.  Post COVID-19, he has re-evaluated his relationships with his partner as well as his work and put huge emphasis into when he eats and what he eats.  As far as I know his relationship with his dog stays the same.  Which is good, life is better with dogs.  Basically, the trend is Wellness.  It has led to some really interesting brand campaigns.  For instance, a standout brand, in my opinion, of the last five years, Tony’s Chocolonely, has actively led a campaign in its home country, The Netherlands, for a sugar tax.  Yep, a chocolate bar company is saying there should be more tax on people who sell chocolate.  Counterintuitive? Perhaps.  However, they know that consumers will still want a little bit of sweetness in their life and whilst they’re leading this campaign for the sugar tax they’re also actively trying to reduce the sugar in their products.  It seems that finally you can have your cake and eat it.


Artificial intelligence is going to change all our lives in ways that at the moment we can’t even comprehend.  That’s not me being verbose, just the facts.  It’s a little old now, in AI terms, having been released in June of this year but if you haven’t listened to Steven Bartlett’s conversation with Mo Gawdat, then I highly recommend it.  It’s two hours of listening that at times is quite difficult.

The inescapable truth is that AI will change brands and the way that people interact with brands beyond recognition.  We see some examples of this now but really they are just the tip of the iceberg where AI is being used to facilitate better customer experiences.  Some banking brands for instance are using AI to analyse big data, so borrowers that were previously turned down may actually be sanctioned for loans.  Perhaps you have been to a Nike store and used their in-store machines to customise a pair of trainers just for yourself.  Nice.  Nike are using all of this data generated in all of their Nike stores by feeding it into machine learning algorithms that then feeds their innovation funnel so ultimately Nike know what you want before you even know you need it.



A reaction to the perma-crisis culture that exists across the world today.  Society in general has gone from a relatively stable, peaceful time to one where media outlets report crisis after crisis on a daily basis.  People can only deal with so much.  As is so often the case, the reaction to too much of one type of input is to go the opposite way completely.  In this instance, it’s not just girls that want to have fun á la Cyndi Lauper, but all consumers particularly Gen Zs and millennials.  Brands that build “fun” into their consumer brand experience are more likely to cut through and build share with these cohorts.  Recently the Argentinian government, for instance, were trying to increase women’s participation in breast check; checking for lumps and bumps that may need to be examined further as they could be potentially cancerous.  The Argentinian authorities decided to lean into this fun element even in a category that is by its nature very serious.  They took well known paintings from across the centuries from artists such as Rubens and Raphael and created 3D models of them with 3D breasts, showing where these lumps and bumps may occur and creating a national conversation in the process.  It achieved cut through and most importantly got people checking themselves, so it achieved the campaign objectives.  People want to have fun.  Brands need to build this into their DNA.



Conscious Consumerism

Everybody is busy.  And when we are busy despite our best intentions, we tend to make consumer decisions that are convenient.  Then we feel bad.  Promise ourselves we will do better next time.  Then we get busy.  And so on.  Thom Yorke sang about a world where things are fitter, happier and more productive.  Increasingly brands are realising that part of being a purposeful brand is helping your consumers be more purposeful and live their core values too.  I take lots of flights.  I feel bad about it because I know the environmental damage that this does.  So, when I book my flights and I see a button to click to allow me offset the carbon that my seat on the flight is creating I pay that extra few quid and I feel better about myself.  Have I also checked to see if this money actually goes somewhere to reduce that carbon footprint.  I have actually.  It’s a simple way for an airline to grow brand affinity and trust with people who feel this way.  Ryanair does this very well.  Could they do more to promote it? Possibly but it’s easy to see how their detractors could cut them down for that.  An airline talking about environmental issues?  It’s rocky ground at best but what they do is a start.

These are just some of the trends that are big and becoming bigger in 2023.  Honestly, there are lots of trend websites and trend articles freely available on Google.  If you have a brandhouse that was built in 2019 and it hasn’t changed since I can say with confidence your brandhouse is now obsolete.  Consumer-centric insight is the only way to address what that brandhouse looks like in 2023.  Imagine building brand plans, as many of us are now for 2024 and beyond, based off trends and consumer insight that is no longer relevant.  As any one I work with will attest, I’m very fond of the saying, “before you climb the ladder, spend some time to make sure your ladder is up against the right wall”.

The sales bit

At Spark, and indeed in the whole of Audience Collective, we help brands navigate the trends of 2023 and understand the impact on every aspect of their business from the cash cows that they have been selling so well for numerous years to the rising stars that might need just that little bit of extra help.  We know brands, we know consumers and we understand trends.  We also love chatting to brand owners, brand teams and insight managers so please get in touch if you’d like a chat and we can talk around your own specific circumstances.

Perhaps a quote to finish up? It seems only right and fair to quote Steven Bartlett considering his thoughts and predictions are woven through the words above“Be willing to adapt and change as the world evolves. What worked yesterday may not work today.”

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