Today’s rapidly changing consumer environment has turned textbook brand marketing on its head, and what has worked for so many years must now be re-thought. A central focus of branding tends to be recognition, permanence, and stability, and marketers struggle to come up with a combination that works – and once they do, they stick to it. Marketers still take the four classic elements of marketing – product, promotion, place, and price – and ask a fixed set of questions. As to product they ask, “What am I selling and how is it relevant?” They ask what the value proposition is to consumers, and where, and how to sell it.

Those marketers are missing out on critical opportunities, especially as today’s consumer exhibits an entirely different set of needs and wants. Branding strategies that worked ten years ago may be less relevant today, and will be even less relevant in years to come. Marketers who make those branding decisions based on what worked in the past and what’s working today are already at a competitive disadvantage. Predictable growth doesn’t come from doing what worked and basing future branding decisions on past performance – it comes from understanding market changes that haven’t happened yet, and what will work in the future. That is the role of brand foresight in the marketplace.

Brand struggles and the fallacy of permanence

The market is filled with examples of brands that have missed out by not aligning with present and future trends. Traditional categories are struggling, because they have not been able to adjust quickly enough to align with consumer needs, behavioral changes, and new types of consumer segments which no longer respond to branding and messaging that produced results just a few years ago.

Changes in consumer behavior are even more readily apparent with the millennial generation, which exhibits an entirely new set of need states that most marketers just ten years ago never anticipated. Using breakfast cereal as an example, brands in this category have always recognized that people buy cereal for a very specific set of need states, which may have been 60 percent taste, 30 percent price, and 10 percent health. Marketers in this segment were successful for many years by adhering to this simple mix, but millennials are changing the equation, and marketers have to look to the year 2020 to realize that taste will be reduced in importance to about 50 percent, health will go up from 10 percent to 25 percent, and price will account for 20 percent; and a new and mostly unanticipated category – green sustainability – will take five percent.

By defining that mix forward, marketers will come to realize that having Tony the Tiger say “They’re grrrrrrrreat!” sold corn flakes for years, and it may still be working today, but it isn’t going to work as well five years from now. It’s hard to give up a branding strategy that works, especially when it has gained such popular recognition, but future growth depends on that flexibility. In a few years, Madison Avenue may well change Tony’s mantra to “They’re grrrrrrrreen!” to appeal to the millennial generation that has more of an interest in supporting companies with sustainable policies.

New consumer demands and need states

The permanence that marketers have always sought is even more elusive today. There is more technology and more demand from the consumer, but there are a lot more requirements for the brand to align with an ever-increasing set of consumer requirements that constantly change. Yes, brand has to have some element of permanence in order to achieve the recognition that is the goal of marketing, but at the same time it has to be dynamic and agile enough to align with those constant changes, or else that prized brand will quickly become irrelevant.

“Understanding consumer needs today isn’t enough. We need to understand how they evolve.”

“Brand” is defined by many elements, most importantly, positioning. Brand positioning answers the question, “What types of needs and behaviors should we exhibit in our brands to be most relevant to consumers?” By its very nature, this is impermanent. And to answer that question from a marketing standpoint, one must understand consumer needs and behaviors not only in the past and present, but in the next three, five, ten years, and beyond. Understanding consumer needs today isn’t enough. We need to understand how they evolve.

A lot of brands – even well established ones – have not thought those questions through, and assume that the historical perspective is what the future will be.

What is foresight analytics?

If you’re basing decisions on your brand’s future based on previous and existing performance, you’re already behind the curve. Foresight analytics uses a specific set of tools and methodologies to transform historically-based insights combined with new input, into future-driven foresight that tells you what changes and new behaviors the brand must adapt to in the coming years.

“What’s important, and what’s new, is improving the level of analytical thinking, asking the right questions, and tapping into the right data that captures the cutting edge of emerging trends, and using that to understand what’s coming in the future.”

Foresight analytics also answer the question of not only how consumer behaviors will change, but how the competition will change and react, what new products may exist, and how the brand and value proposition must evolve in the future to adapt to these emerging market realities.

It’s not just about the data

Big Data has brought a lot of power to the table in the marketing and branding realm in terms of collecting information points that were previously inaccessible. Newer technologies and capabilities have pushed marketers to adopt a very data-driven approach, mistakenly believing that insights will simply fall out of the data silo – but more important than the data itself are the questions that are being asked. The data is valuable, but to gain foresight into future branding trends, you have to know what to look for, and what questions you should be asking.

To think that creating a branding strategy is simply compiling routine information that gives you information on what consumers are buying and what they have bought in the past, in order to derive a mathematical projection and historical-driven insights into the future, is to miss the entire point. Much of this information has been available for at least the past decade, so making projections based on large amounts of historical data is nothing new. What’s important, and what’s new, is improving the level of analytical thinking, asking the right questions, and tapping into the right data that captures the cutting edge of emerging trends, and using that to understand what’s coming in the future.

A new type of input

Data will obviously form a major part of foresight, but the big question is what type of data to gather. Not all relevant data fits neatly into rows and columns. Companies do conduct things like consumer needs studies, surveys, and focus groups, they gather point of sale data, channel data and consumer demographics. That information remains important, but much of that data exists in analysts’ PowerPoint presentations and PDFs, and often only exists in the heads of sales executives and channel partners, and is relayed in the form of anecdotes at monthly sales meetings. Yet these anecdotes often bring more value – if they can be harnessed – in bringing foresight to the branding process.

In addition to those anecdotal stories, new types of data exists in the form of social media cues and user-generated content. Looking over the horizon and seeing the faint beginnings of emerging trends is often accomplished more by analyzing this user-generated content than by poring over years of historical sales reports.

While that type of unstructured social content is challenging to analyze mathematically, new methodologies and tools designed specifically for foresight analytics are able to take cues from that data, and process it to gain a deeper understanding of emerging and future trends in a way that traditional historical data analysis could never approach.

The challenge has always been that this type of input is unstructured, and analyses of social cues and UGC has not had the traditional rigor that was applied in the past when looking at mainstream rows-and-columns data. New tools and methodologies created specifically for foresight analytics today allow marketers to add that traditional rigor to new methods of data accumulation.

In a foresight driven world, you’re not asking questions about today. The decisions about today have already been made, and today you must make decisions for tomorrow.