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With respect to all the trendspotters out there, I’ve always needed more.

I bristle when I’m introduced as a trendspotter. One of the reasons for my distaste is the inevitable follow-up question: “So, what’s hot right now?”

Usually, for the sake of conversation, I try to go along. (These days, “It’s too bad cronuts have peaked, but I’m excited to see what takes their place,” works quite well.) Even though I’m deeply interested in food trends (and donuts), what I want to say is that “I’m particularly intrigued with the aging populations in Germany, Japan and the US, the simultaneous emergence of megacities and megaregions, along with the stress they’ll put on urban planners, the environment and the global economy.” I always appreciate an effort to make conversation, but the simplistic nature of the question points to the heart of my argument.

Culture creates Context

My former company, Iconoculture, was at the leading edge of the social trend movement, dissecting the culture and producing a tool businesses could use to understand consumers. My partners and I created a fun, provocative brand and gave clever names to cultural movements, but there was always a serious structure to the approach, the analysis, and the deliverables. Talking about trends looked easy. It wasn’t.

Trends, now, though, are even bigger business. Outsell told The Telegraph that “trend forecasting, as part of the data driven trends sector, could have a global market value of $36bn.“ So what’s led to the growth of this business space? I believe it’s the mistaken assumption that trends are easy money.

From the outside, building another consumer research firm, it’s painful to see the proliferation of people self-identifying as part of the trend business, but who lack a true cultural understanding. It’s giving the business of trends a bad name.

What bothers me most are the trendspotters (and trend departments) that simply gather more and more flotsam for the data spillway, assigning names to ideas that have no relationship to the rest of the culture. Without a framework for thinking about why people are making new decisions, the work of these trendspotters lacks the context to make it useful. When we try to examine trends free-floating, without any cultural context, we lose any means for analysis and application. It’s no wonder marketers and bystanders dismiss trends and the true practitioners.

How to Tell If You’re Seeing the Trends for the Trees

This past January I ran across a LinkedIn discussion asking if “trends were becoming redundant.” That this question was being discussed offered even more evidence that there’s confusion about what trends are, about how businesses can use them, and about the need for some quality standards.

I’ve been in the consumer research and insights business for 22 years, trafficking largely in trends, and this is a conversation that needs to happen. Instead of dismissing trends outright or accepting any old trend as a factor in your important business decision, use the following as a guide for gauging meaningful analysis:

1. Experience. Say what you want about Malcolm Gladwell, I happen to agree with much of what he says about experience. How many miles has your trend or insights person logged? Once you’ve had your gaze trained on the cultural landscape for a long time, your grey matter morphs into a hard drive that stores information, and picking up on meaningful events and movements becomes second nature.

2. Methodology. Does your trend expert have a well-conceived approach to data collection and evaluation? Where does it come from and how does it stand up against other practitioners? The research provider should be able to walk you through a thoughtful philosophy, an approach to collecting data, a methodology for analyzing the findings, and some tactics for translating those findings into something you find useful.

3. Framework. An interesting single event or product is worthy of note, but it’s not really meaningful to a marketer without gauging it against a well-conceived framework. There is no way to judge the value of any trend without an understanding of its position relative to the culture.  A framework can be created specifically for a business or it can be category-agnostic, but it needs to give direction for where in the consumer environment the ideas and consumer behaviors you’re discussing lands. Without a context, trends – even those backed by substantial research – have little meaning for your business.

4. Analysis. The ability to synthesize data is a key skill. Will your expert triangulate the information pertinent to your business, looking for both conflict or alignment with relevant hypotheses? Does he or she naturally connect the dots and find connective tissue between ideas? This is where useful insights are formed.

5. Application. It’s not enough to spot trends, or to see new kinds of consumer behavior emerging, no matter how exciting they may seem. Trends signify consumer demand, and these days they often manifest themselves as a collection of data. Trends are not the answer, though. They are the clue. And they can be a very important clue. These little nuggets of ideas or insight must be made meaningful and translated into business, demographic, or category-specific applications. A skilled practitioner will make that leap to action naturally, or work with your team to deliver ideas that don’t chase after the next cronut, but instead move your strategies inexorably forward.