Most of us have year-end traditions, whether it’s scrambling to buy the perfect gift for everyone on our holiday lists, closing out projects at work or ruminating about which New Year’s resolution we’ll make and break this year. I have a different tradition. For me, December is all about trends—assessing the shifts that are likely to emerge and grow over the next 12 months.
I’ve been publishing an annual trends report for a couple of decades now and in that time have seen some pretty remarkable movements—from the rise of singletons and metrosexuality to the yin and yang of health obsessiveness and hyper-indulgence. I never grow weary of my “side job” as a trends forecaster and analyst because I continue to be fascinated by the human experiment and experience and the capacity people have to surprise.
In looking over my reports from the turn of the century (and, yes, that phrase does make me feel old!), I’m struck not just by how much has changed but also by how much hasn’t. Back then, I wrote about “new thrift”—people’s obsession with scoring good deals. Nearly 20 years on, the focus is at least as much on owning a good deal less. I talked about “new tribalism,” people cocooning at home and creating “families” out of friends. In 2019, we’re still cocooning, but its nature is far different—with our homes no longer so much places to shelter from the outside world as command centers to which we have the world’s entertainment offerings and local delicacies delivered on demand. Some things have changed hardly at all, including the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and ever-more-rigid lines drawn between “us” and “them.” And that’s really the difference between fads and trends. Trends have staying power, even when we’d prefer they didn’t.
So, what’s next for us all? For 2020, my trendsightings range from the solution-oriented (micromobility, scripting third acts, plant-to-plate) to the fear-based (bunker mentality, raising the drawbridge), but a common thread runs through most: chaos as the new normal.
As we approach the new year, people everywhere are uncertain about the future and whether it’s too late to change our present course. We’re feeling emotionally out of touch with one another—and hungry for physical touch. We’re fearful of the destruction we’re collectively wreaking on the planet and clinging to the hope that our small acts of mindfulness will go some way toward reversing the damage. We’re at once craving digital detoxes and embracing new ways to electronically monitor our every movement. (What? You don’t have a smartwatch that tracks your oxygen saturation, menstrual cycle and sinus rhythm? How do you manage??!)
It all boils down to a quest for control. We’re searching for anything that can help us in some small way to manage—and constrain—the chaos. We’re frantic to slow down the spiraling changes long enough to take a restorative breath and assess whether we’re living our best life. We want reassurance that it’s not too late to figure out a path to a better, more stable future—for us individually and for society as a whole.
It’s incredibly apt, then, that Dictionary.com has chosen existential as its word of 2019. What better word to sum up the angst and fearfulness that has so many in its grip? If we’re not worried about political polarization and the age of rage, we’re fretting about climate change-induced wildfires and droughts, wealth inequity or, in the U.S. particularly, gun violence and the rising cost of healthcare.
What me, worry? Uh, yeah. “I worry, therefore I am” pretty much sums up 2019 for a lot of us.
We can see evidence of consumer angst across industries—from the aforementioned health-monitoring smartwatches to people choosing cars based on safety and fuel efficiency rather than style. A study by the Advertising Research Foundation found that U.S. consumers are less willing in 2019 versus a year ago to share personal information with marketers, whether it be as general as gender, race and marital status or as personal as sexual orientation or home address. We simply don’t trust companies with our data. And as I explore in my trends report, sales of security equipment are booming. Strategy Analytics has forecast that the global market for home video surveillance cameras will rise from nearly $8 billion in 2018 to around $13 billion by 2023. Say, “Cheese!”
Consumers also are pushing back against all that existential angst by buying more mindfully—which at its core is just another way to assert some control in a world gone mad. That includes efforts to minimize waste and maximize budgets by purchasing used goods or renting rather than buying. According to the thredUP 2019 Resale Report, the global secondhand apparel market is forecast to more than double, from $24 billion in 2018 to $51 billion by 2023. And in its annual report, U.K. retailer John Lewis & Partners cites sustainable products such as reusable straws and water bottles as one of the biggest shopping trends of the past 12 months. As individuals, we aren’t able to control rising sea levels or the ever-growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but we can at least take small steps to contribute less to the problem.
For marketers, a world fueled by chaos and existential threats brings with it all sorts of questions. How do you make people feel good rather than guilty about an occasional splurge? How do you communicate that your product and brand are contributing to some sort of greater good? How do you help people feel more secure in their homes—and in their own skins? How can you give people reason for hope and optimism at a time when all hell seems to be breaking loose?
Some brands are managing better than others. Despite being an e-tailer (and so not wholly eco-friendly), Thrive Market hits a lot of the right notes by offering a carefully curated selection of health- and environment-conscious brands, making an effort to minimize packaging, keeping prices low and partnering with anti-hunger organizations and food banks to ensure as many people as possible have access to healthy essentials. Founded in late 2014, the company already has around half a million paying members. Retailer Costco is cutting down on the angst of buyer’s remorse by giving full refunds for most products at any time after purchase (yes, even years later), even without a receipt.
It’s a scary world out there—for consumers and for brands. My best advice: Step back and consider your products, your communications, your organization in light of a new normal that is abysmally low on calm, cohesiveness and certainty. And then figure out how you can bring order and connectedness and a reason to dream once more. Chaos will only continue to be the new normal if we don’t fight back.