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August 31, 2012

Reaching a Future of Choice by Leveraging Global Trends and Futuring: Insights from Renowned Futurist Sheryl Connelly

James Giese UWEBC Communications Director

Sheryl Connelly was the featured guest speaker at the Marketing Executives Retreat on August 23, 2012 hosted by the UWEBC.

As a futurist, Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Company, ironically admits she spends a lot of her time reminding people that no one can predict the future. But, as manager of Global Trends and Futuring, she tracks consumer trends and collaborates with people throughout Ford Motor Company to see how trend information may impact future products.

She also admits that what she does is not market research but very qualitative and, in many ways, very subjective. She reviews social, technology, environment, economy and politics developments to try to understand the global forces that shape consumer attitudes and beliefs as consumers.
To those who might dismiss her work, she responds that, “If you don’t take time to think about the future, you are almost guaranteed a future of constraint rather than a future of choice.”

 Connelly “predicts” the future using three approaches: wild cards, alternative scenario planning, and reviewing global trends.

Wild cards are those low probability events that can have great impact either positive or negative. As examples, Connelly cited the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak, the 2010 volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and the 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan.

The other approach is to use alternative scenarios, basically a form of storytelling that use “what if” questions. These scenarios can use an “outside-in” review of developments, with the world as the outer shell, within that, the industry (in her case, the auto industry) and finally, the individual company or organizations (such as Ford Motor Co.) as the innermost shell.

“This is what I call the “scare the room” segment of my presentation,” says Connelly, speaking of her third approach to future prediction by using global trends. These global trends include more people (7 to an estimated 9 billion); falling fertility rates in some countries; aging populations (some may even live to 150); and increasing urbanization (there may be 30 to 40 megacities, with populations of more than 10 million people, in the next few decades).

In outlining her trends Connelly is careful to distinguish between trends and fads. According to Connelly, a trend is a manifestation of a shift in consumer values, attitudes, or behavior—some trends are regional in scope, while others a have a global impact. Unlike a fad, a trend is a true change in values and behaviors.
Given these three methods of predicting the future, there is a subjective nature to identifying trends admits Connelly.

Connelly outlined the some of the trend clusters she follows and gave market illustrations for each:

  1.  Aging Populations. Key drivers of this trend are medical advances, delayed marriage, postponed parenthood, and falling fertility. Connelly cited Dove’s wrinkled or wonderful ad campaign, portable diabetes testing handsets, and wearable power suits for the elderly.
  2. Changing Physiologies. The human profile is constantly changing as a growing number of people are dealing short term and long term physical changes that accompany aging and affluence. Some examples of this trend in the marketplace include anti-obesity gum, healthier body images in advertising, and an increase in elective surgeries.
  3.  Safety and Security. Consumers are seeking reassurance though products and services to obtain personal security and ease their sense of vulnerability. This trend is illustrated in the market by gated communities and consumer devices that prevent drink tampering and check for food freshness.
  4.  Ethical Consumption. Consumers are increasingly aware of what a product “stands for.” Key drivers of this trend are activist citizens groups and more prevalent information. Some market examples are bloodless diamonds, and the Tom’s Shoes concept of “buy one and give one.”
  5.  Careful Consumption. The careful consumer balances practicality with passion. Purchases tend to include elements of self-discipline, thoroughness, and deliberation. Some examples are the desire for more streamlined transactions and technology convergence.
  6.  Information Addiction. As knowledge and access to information is perceived as translating into greater control, power, and success; consumer demand for information is for many constant and for some insatiable. Information is seen as a status symbol, but information overload, can be as problematic as too little. It leads to choice fatigue and “analysis paralysis.”

As Connelly concluded her presentation, she emphasized the tendency to only pay attention to what we think is important. This tendency is reinforced by internet technologies such as social media and personalized search engine results. To reach a future of choice, companies should consider alternative scenarios, review global trends, and be aware of the “wild card” events.



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