Changing consumer priorities examined in new Ford report

By Diane Merlino

 The world is awash in a constant surge of new ideas about society, culture, technology, the environment and the economy — ideas that are reshaping what consumers want and expect from brands.    

As the global head of trends and futuring for Ford Motor Company, it’s Sheryl Connelly’s job to stay on top of those ideas, providing a fresh perspective on potential shifts that give the company a competitive leg up in the marketplace.    

"What a lot of people may not realize is that it takes us at least three years to bring a vehicle to market,” Connelly said. “That poses a problem that even Henry Ford had back in the day in terms of trying to anticipate what people SherylConnellyFordare going to want long before they’ve ever imagined it themselves. Henry was famous for having once said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’”    

While polling people on what will make their lives easier in three years is unlikely to yield any useful information, “We still have to try to imagine a future that’s otherwise unimaginable so that we can innovate against it,” Connelly said. “And since we can’t predict the future we use futuring tools, and that’s where my work comes in. I track global trends. The role of a futurist is not to predict the future. Its to teach an organization to expect the unexpected and still act decisively in the face of uncertainty.” 

The latest results of that endeavor are compiled in a new report entitled “Looking Further with Ford: 2014.” The report distills a broad range of research and ideas into 10 global trends that explore how the technology explosion will shape consumer choices and behaviors. 

This article features excerpts from a discussion between Connelly and Travel Weekly PLUS Editor in Chief Diane Merlino about key business takeaways identified in the 10 trends. The report was authored by Connelly, the first Ford employee and the only member of the automotive industry named to Fast Company’s Top 100 Most Creative People in Business in 2013.   

Merlino: Ford’s 2014 trend report outlines changing attitudes that you say will alter consumer dynamics across the globe this year and beyond. Let’s start with the first one: Innovation’s quiet riot.
Connelly:
Can you believe the iPad’s only been around for four years? Or the first iPhone came out just seven years ago? We can scarcely remember a time when we didn’t have these digital devices. I remember writing an article in 2004 about how funny it was that suddenly it was becoming socially acceptable to show up to work late with the explanation, “I’m sorry. I had to go home to get my phone.” It was akin to saying “I left the house without my wallet.” People were starting to say, “Yeah, okay, that’s an indispensable device.”

This idea of a quiet riot is that those realizations don’t come up with a bang. We don’t have this epiphany moment where we recognize the impact technology has had on our life. It’s actually very gradual and subtle. We’ve almost become immune to the dramatic disruptions of technology that take place around us each and every day.

In the report, we added that the barriers to entry in the market have lowered. You and I could become captains of industry if we so choose. If we had a great idea, we could go to Kickstart or another crowdsourcing funding mechanism for angel investors. We are just right on the cusp of the exponential effect that this quiet riot of innovation is having.

Merlino: Technological innovation, in particular, is transforming how companies in the travel industry do business. Are there other ways this quiet riot of innovation will shape how we operate in the world?
Connelly:
I’m 46 years old. I’m a Gen-Xer. The Baby Boomers are somewhere between 50 and 67. The work ethic of the Baby Boomers is such that it’s all about face time. The first to arrive, last to leave is the person most likely to get noticed and that’s how you got ahead in the workplace. But Gen-Xers like myself were raised during the wake of the women’s liberation movement, and we’re the first generation to come home to empty households. We’re latchkey kids.

A byproduct of that is as we start our own families, the priority of having work/life balance is paramount to all other things. So we’re not prepared to get ahead through face time. We get ahead through response time, and that means that we’re answering emails on a Saturday night at three in the morning when we’re supposed to be on vacation on the other side of the world. We demonstrate our commitment not by always being in the office but by always being available online.

Merlino: Another trend identified in the report is “statusphere.” What’s going on there, Sheryl?
Connelly:
I have a working theory that in the future only the most affluent — the class that’s most secure socially, financially, and emotionally — will be the ones who can disconnect from technology, and the working class will carry around their digital devices like a ball and chain.

This idea struck me when I heard Steve Wozniak [co-founder of Apple] talk about going on cruise. He said he completely disconnected for a week or 10 days, however long it was. And I remember thinking to myself, gosh! he must have some amazing network behind him not to have to worry about the balls that were going to drop while he FordStatusStatwas away, not to worry about the impact it would have on his employment status or financial security. That’s when I started thinking about this theory.

Social media also is a form of status now — the number of followers you have, your Facebook friends, Instagram postings — all of those things. I think that’s because conspicuous displays of wealth are considered distasteful today, particularly in advanced economies in the post-recession world. Things that were socially acceptable just six years ago are now frowned upon. So the new way to show off is through your information, your knowledge, your expertise. It could be about your access. It could be about knowing where to go for the best vacations.

Merlino: It seems that trend has implications for luxury travel.
Connelly:
Absolutely. I’ve been tracking the evolution of luxury for some time. And I started to realize that maybe luxury’s definition hasn’t changed. Maybe what’s happened is that luxury’s status symbols are shifting. So the tools or the mechanisms that we use to project our status, our wealth, our influence, are not as much about the car that we drive, the zip code in which we live, the jewelry that we wear. Maybe it’s a little bit more about our expertise, our connections, the knowledge that we have.

Merlino: Meaningful versus the middleman is another trend that has particular significance for companies in the travel business. Please fill that out for us.
Connelly:
The World Wide Web is a wonderful thing, and it gives us so many choices. You have these conglomerate retailers or service providers that promise to get you the item or the service that you want to buy at the lowest cost possible.

That’s a wonderful thing, but we’re just starting to really feel the impact of what happens when you lose the relationship with the people that you’re actually doing business with. It leaves many people wanting for the unique expertise of a consultant, the touch or the history of a mom-and-pop shop, the sense of community when you buy something local.

I think there’s a time and a place for both, but as we become more and more reliant on the online services, which are convenient, which are very value oriented, we have to recognize that it comes with a set of costs that may not be as easily measured.

Merlino: The report identifies an interesting contradictory trend you call “the fear of missing out versus the joy of missing out.”
Connelly:
This is actually tied to the trend of meaning versus the middleman because it’s the same idea about unlimited choices and opportunities.

Ultimately, fear of missing out is about the confidence we have in the choices we make. I don’t think is a new phenomenon. Anyone who’s been in the wrong place at the wrong time on New Year’s Eve knows that sensation. You wake up on Jan. 1 and people say, “Wow! You missed the best time.” That’s the story of my entire high school career.

But now what happens is that it’s 12:01 and my friends are streaming their pictures. They’re showing me the parties they’re at. I don’t just hear about it after the fact. I hear about it while it’s going on in real time, which can only aggravate the sense of frustration for some people. The fear of missing out is what makes us question our choices, the decisions we make about where we spend our time, how we spend it, and with whom we spend it. And when you’re so worried about that, it’s really hard to live in the moment and enjoy what’s actually at hand.

The joy of missing out is the counter trend to the fear of missing out. What we’re really talking about is the epic FordBrandsStatstruggle that’s happening between the two. Anytime we go on a vacation, we think we are buying into that joy of missing out, that we are going to have this experience, this escape from the grind of day-to- day life. Joy of missing out is learning about disconnecting and staying in the present.

Merlino: The travel industry, especially leisure travel, is dependent on the environment. The last trend in the 2014 report is called sustainability blues.
Connelly:
We identified a micro-trend last year called post-green. Basically, what our report said is the obstacles to going green are fewer and fewer. And the social pressures to participate in a green movement are greater and greater, so that many of us who would never self-identify as green are feeling compelled to do our part, to be actively responsible.

It’s a wonderful thing as the world goes green. But maybe what we really need to be worried about now is going blue. If you were to stand on the moon and look down on planet earth, you don’t see a green planet. You see a blue planet, a planet that’s made up greatly of water. And despite all this water, one in seven people do not have access to clean or quality drinking water. That’s a real concern.

The global population has tripled in the last 100 years, and our individual consumption of water has more than doubled. Easy math suggests that that’s not going to be sustainable. So if one in seven people don’t have access to clean water today and it’s projected that we’ll go to 9 billion people on earth, if not more, by the year 2050, that creates more crisis for more people. We’re inspired by the organizations, the companies, and the government efforts that are trying to get ahead of this. There’s some great work being done.

Merlino: You’ve written that the 10 micro-trends identified in the report collectively indicate that a culture of reflection is emerging in our hyper-stimulated world and driving us to reexamine what matters most. Is that a fair synopsis?
Connelly:
I think so. I follow patterns. If you were to talk about the ’80s and ’90s, the era of excess seems to be a fair characterization. A lot of dramatic changes came around in the first decade of the 2000s. And we’ve now had years of economic volatility, uncertainty, political wrangling.

When people are dealt that kind of constant change, they become more self-sufficient. Generally, they tend to focus on their health or wellness, their family, their community. Sometimes there’s a rise in religion and spirituality. It’s about what’s really important to me.  I would say the biggest driver of this is the global recession. But it’s not just that. It’s the intersection of economic volatility, sustainability, lasting fulfillment.

The boomers are an interesting case study. In many ways, they ignited the era of excess because they had worked so hard; it was work hard, play hard. You had these large rewards for having made such extraordinary sacrifices to become financially and professionally successful. But the boomers are now at an age when they’re streamlining, simplifying, reevaluating what’s most important to them. They are such a large cohort that they set the tone for many other generations. 

To download a copy of Ford’s 2014 trends report, CLICK HERE.
 

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