Chinwag Psych Interview: William Higham "Gut feeling, instinct and research for trend forecasting"

Missing Chinwag Psych? Fear not - we still have some great content to share with you from our speakers. The day focused on machine learning, neuroscience and psychology and how these disciplines can be successfully applied to business. 

One of the great speakers was William Higham, consumer strategist, futurist, author and founder of the Next Big Thing consultancy. His understanding of the way consumers think helps him to advise businesses all over the world.

He talked to Chinwag about his work...

So what is a trend forecaster and how can you predict what’s on a consumer’s mind?

“There are many things you need to be a trend forecaster,” Higham explained to Chinwag. “I think the main one is an understanding of how consumers think. I focus on consumer trends. My job for a client is to tell them what their customers are going to be thinking, feeling and demanding in the next two to five years. So you have to understand what drives a consumer and then ask how they are likely to respond to outside influences such as new technologies or the economic cycle.”

Naturally, to gain an insight into the minds of consumers, it helps to know a little about psychology. Higham says that he has a focus on what drives consumers to adopt things and behave in particular ways.

“People want to know what their customer will do, what their behaviour or needs will be and that is driven by changing attitudes, how they feel about something,” he says.

“Some behaviours are timeless and some will change,” he continues. “You're likely to adopt something if it is going to improve your status, and you're less likely to adopt an innovation if it will detract from your status. That's a classic, universal, psychological driver of why somebody might pick up on a particular trend.”

Habits in times of change

Though there are core behaviours that we tend to express, Higham also acknowledges that changing times can also influence us. In the late 80s and early 90s, having ostentatious material things or something flashy was a fashion. Designer labels were popular and indicated social status, but lately things are somewhat subdued and as you might expect, a little more connected.

“I think now it’s a more communal social status,” Higham says. “It’s more about how well it will bond people or add to a status online and so on.”

Boom time and recession also affects the way we consider consumer choices. According to Higham the economic cycles have an impact where we shift our focus.

“It might seem counter intuitive but people tend to focus more on close relationships during a recession rather than money or careers. People typically think about what will happen to their family, friends or close circles and this will influence how they will behave.”

It’s these behaviours that can be exploited when putting together a marketing plan or ad campaign. If you hit the right audience, at the right time, in the right way, it unlocks a potential for change and possible adoption of your products or services.

Psych at the core

Trying to predict how customers might behave in the future is no mean feat. Of course there will be past experiences and data to lean upon but to find out what really drives them you need to understand a little about psychology and this is what Higham focused on at Chinwag Psych.

“You can look at all sorts of things like economic trends or technological trends but the only thing that really holds true throughout is how consumers feel,” he says.

“You could have the most interesting piece of technology in the world but if it's not a time when consumers think ‘this is right for me’, or it doesn't appeal to them in some way, then they are not going to take that up. So the thing to do is to think in general terms, how is a consumer likely to respond given their psychology.”

Telling time

Once you are inside the head of a consumer, the next step is to time your move. Higham notes that past activities or failures should not be dismissed, as it could be a matter of bad timing.

“People will say, this trend won't happen, we tried it a year ago and it didn't succeed. However, the time could be right at the moment and people might now be more accepting of it,” he says.

As most markets change over time, trend forecasting has also evolved over Higham’s career.

“When I first started out in trend forecasting, it was about cool hunting - let's go and find the most obscure trend out in the favelas and see what we can learn from that,” he says. “Increasingly now in trend forecasting, we have much information that we are being asked to analyse about a trend to see how big it's going to be and who it's going to affect.”

So as more data appears about consumer habits and behaviours, this information can be added to core trend tracking skills in order to create a broader picture.

Keeping across all of this information might seem challenging, but Higham says that it is an essential part of business.

“A good business should know its product and its customer,” he says. “I think businesses should trust their customers, think about them and put them first. As a business you have to track things, read around a topic and look at sectors other than your own to keep an eye on trends.

“As soon as you hear about a trend you should do an audit. Find out how likely it is to affect you and work out if you need to deal with it. Do this by looking at your customer - asking will this trend affect my customer, are they likely to want to adopt this and what will they do?

“If you know your customer well enough and you know what drives them, that's the way you can tell if you need to deal with a trend or not.”

Be Psychologically Savvy

It’s clear that according to Higham, what’s on your mind should be of utmost importance to a company that wants your business. Formalising this along the lines of academic research appears to be an emerging trend but he says that this often shows up as a natural habit with those who know their trade.

“If you ask any sales person, what ‘the knack’ is, it's all about psychology. The best sales people tend to be the best psychologists,” he says. “Marketing is a form of sales it asks how you persuade and convince somebody. That's increasingly important as we now have a consumer who is more in control of their spending power.”

Is that gut feeling and experience or psychology in action? Though we may not consciously reference the research of psychologists when making business decisions, it is possible that we are going through already recognised motions.

“On the whole - gut feel is typically just experience,” says Higham. “It's useful to have experience but it's vital to understand the academic side of it as well. It also depends on your own personal style,” he says.

“It's hard to be able to understand a very broad range of consumers,” he continues. “But someone like Richard Branson can understand an ABC1 baby boomer very well and so is able to create products and services that appeal to them. Steve Jobs understood a particular type of consumer very well and vocally said he didn't need to academically research them.”

The Bransons and Jobs of the business world are few and far between though and getting some research under your belt is a worthwhile pursuit in order to catch up with these extraordinary business people.

“The more choice the consumer has, the more you need to be able to understand them and appeal to them,” says Higham. “It's getting hard to bamboozle the customer, to sell to the customer. You now have to persuade the customer when they have choices elsewhere.”

This kind of forecasting has no crystal balls. Sadly gazing into the beyond with hope is not going to help your business. But Higham says there is still room for that gut feeling from time to time and there is usually a good reason for it.

“There have been times when the logical half of my mind will tell me 'don't be ridiculous, there's no way that logically could happen’, and yet there’s something inside you that has read all of the literature and the stats but has quietly, subconsciously been trying to work out what it would mean,” he says. “Sometimes you have to listen to your gut and see if you can find the proof and occasionally you can be surprised.“

To learn more about the examples Higham has to illustrate how trend forecasting works and to take notes from the great selection of speakers at Chinwag Psych, have a look at the presentations from the day.

Photo (cc) Benjamin Ellis