One of the most important takeaways from school is learning how to think. We go in thinking that we will be taught knowledge, but really what we need to be able to do is take in knowledge and do things with it. We need to analyze if we believe it is true and properly contextualized. Can we convince with it, create new ideas with it, or critically evaluate how truthy it is, in the famous word of Steven Colbert.
One of my favorite classes in business school was Technology Strategy. At its core it taught us how to think. We were taught critical tools that can be used to evaluate and come to conclusions and develop new ideas and concepts. One of the tools we wee taught is a type of trend analysis. Applying it to topics broad and narrow, it can quickly succinctly coalesce many different elements of a topic into a few manageable categories and then allow the user to make trend predictions based on what they observe in the field.
Defining the Topic
The topic can be broad or narrow. I’ve seen trend analysis applied to concepts as broad as work or food service and as narrow as Star Wars. Whatever you want to analyze, go for it. I recommend thinking bigger rather than smaller. That allows you to capture more and not miss something that falls outside the scope of your topic but is related either directly or indirectly.
Step 1: Manifestations
Once you have your topic, start jotting down a list of everything and anything going on in the field. If your list gets long try categorizing these “manifestations.”
Here’s a quick example:
That took me about sixty second. With some more concerted thought and organization it is possible to have an extensive list of what’s going on in the world of beverages, under some broad categories like Products, Availability, and Consumer Preference. Also notice how I defined the category as Beverages, not alcoholic beverages or non-alcoholic beverages. This allows me to explore the interplay between these two types of beverages, and also go deeper into social and cultural trends.
Step 2: Establish Axes
I believe this step is the most important, and can require some refinement after you initially define your axes. Establish two axes that broadly cover the topic at hand. They should be vague and broad and allow for a wide variety of trends to populate a spectrum.
Axis 1: Consumption
Axis 2: Preference
The axes are continuums, but they need poles. The poles are the logical extremes of each axis and they help to constrain the eventual trends that emerge.
For Consumption: Non-Descript, Public
For Preference: No Choice, Endless Choice
Again, this is my cursory attempt at creating an example, but jotting down ideas early in the trend analysis process is important. You do not want pre-conceived notions or the opinions of others to taint your analysis too early. These axes and their associated poles can be refined later, but it’s important to quickly establish some boundaries for the analysis.
Step 3: Quadrants
With two axes, four quadrants naturally emerge. Give these quadrants descriptions based on their relation to the poles. The descriptions do not need to be technical, although they can be. They can be very matter of fact (as I do below) or more succinct.
Step 4: Relate the Quadrants
It will help you and your audience if your quadrants are easily relatable. You’ll need to get creative here, but it’s fun. Choose something from pop-culture or history and assign each quadrant a category from what you choose.
Quadrant 1: Beverage choice as a fashion statement <> Unique Cars
Quadrant 2: Beverage consumption as status <> Sports Cars
Quadrant 3: From the water cooler right back to your desk <> Mass Market Imports
Quadrant 4: Customized Thirst <> Classic American Brands
Step 5: Name the Quadrants
Based on the categories assigned to each quadrant, give it a name corresponding to something from the real world in that category.
Unique Cars: Tesla
Classic American Brands: Chevrolet
Mass Market Imports: Honda
Sports Cars: Lamborghini
Feel free to also assign funny taglines or phrases associated to each quadrant and category. For instance, “Honda: The Civic – Everyone seems to have one, but you drive right on by them.”
Step 6: Sort the Manifestations
You now have a well-defined framework to begin to truly analyze the topic and determine what is to come. Take your list of manifestations and roughly sort them into the quadrants.
Kombucha – “Questionably good for me, but I love it when people ask me what it is”
In-a-Can – “It tastes just as good in a can and I want you to know that I know that”
Flavored Sparkling Water – “Don’t you dare take the last pamplemousses!”
Sessionable – “I’m here to be seen and need to be able to keep up all day”
Spiked Sparkling Water – “I could just make a vodka soda, but I prefer to pay more so I can hold a skinny can in my hand”
Seltzer – “Low calorie bubbly goodness is enough for me”
Free at Work – “I’m glad that they want me to be happy and hydrated beyond coffee and the water cooler”
Rosé – “I like it, ok. I don’t care if the wine snobs think it’s crap.”
Fermented beverages growing in popularity (functional beverage)
Craft/Micro – “I just need better, plain as that”
Naturally Low Calorie – “I get what I need with no unnecessary frills”
With your trend landscape clearly defined and all of your manifestations organized, all that is left is to decide what trend (or quadrant) will prevail. Determine this based on the emerging manifestations and what you believe will prevail.
For beverages, are you going to go with the Honda? Probably not! The Chevy, Tesla, and Lambo all offer appealing attributes, so you can choose one of those quadrants and run with it or pick and choose from all three of them.
Final Step: Hope Your Right
If you want to put a confidence interval around your predictions, it’s infinite. You may be right, and you may be wrong. Experience certainly helps. This technique really just serves to organize thoughts and hopefully clear away some of the clouds surrounding what might be going on within a certain field or topic.
For me, I’d put my money on the Tesla-beverages. People are always on the hunt for new flavors. Coca Cola is launching new flavors of Diet Coke. Trends come and go, but consumers’ appetite for new flavors seems to persist. However, they want choice, and they want people to know that they are making bold choices. I’d put my money on customization and the ability of people to publicize their choice. Imagine a vending machine or kiosk where you could select what exotic flavorings you want in your bottle of Coke or your six pack of seltzer, it mixes it automatically for you and then puts a vibrant label on the containers. Maybe you could even make your selections via an app and it automatically posts to your Instagram or you Snapchat with your personalized flavor mix.