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At the start of the year, Mintel’s team of global thought leaders identified four key consumer trends set to impact the North American consumer market in 2016. As we prepare to release our predictions looking ahead to 2017, Mintel Trends experts Stacy Glasgow Bingle, Carli Gernot and Jenny Zegler take a timely look back at how the current year’s trends are playing out.

Balance or Bust

Multifaceted consumers are finding harmony by going to extremes.

As increasingly hectic North American lifestyles beg for a greater sense of personal harmony, consumers continue to find balance by going to extremes. While many people seek the ability to both indulge and live healthfully, in 2016 the foodservice industry has, in particular, given us quite a few of the “unlimited” business models that support the former. In September, for example, it took Olive Garden one short second to sell all 21,000 of its Never Ending Pasta Passes. Such acts of indulgence are being counterbalanced with encouragement to live more healthfully from brands like insurance provider Aetna, which this month became the first major health insurance company to subsidize Apple Watches for users in its wellness program.

Pasta isn’t the only thing that people want to consume unlimited quantities of: Extreme technology consumption shows no signs of slowing, either, as exemplified by T-Mobile’s continued development of its Binge On program, which allows customers to stream some video services without using their data. As predicted, we’ve also seen substantial activity from brands seeking to help people offset those tech binges. In the spring, Chick-fil-A launched a campaign with “cell phone coops” to encourage diners to put down their phones and spend more time with their family and friends.

More advances in automation are emerging that could help consumers more efficiently use their time. Perhaps most notably, the past year has witnessed a profound shift toward a world of smart automation as exemplified by Volvo’s partnership with Uber that began testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Yet at the same time, we’ve seen confirmation that consumers aren’t ready to eschew human interaction altogether. Even as brands swiftly begin to rely upon artificially intelligent chatbots to assist customers, many offer help from an actual person as backup: Icelandair has a booking bot that keeps human representatives on hand at all times.

The Big Brand Theory

A brand’s story can make or break consumer purchases, which is driving the growth of craft, but not necessarily leaving big business behind.

Stories and messaging that display what a brand or company is all about became more important to forming connections with North American consumers in 2016.  We have seen more initiatives that show a brand through a customer’s eyes or voices. Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, has partnered with Discovery on a new 360-degree video series about everyday people who run on Dunkin’s coffee and food.

The ways in which brands and marketers tell their stories have become increasingly visual, as well.  Nike created an eight-episode scripted YouTube series as part of its ‘Better for It’ Nike Women’s campaign. Virtual reality, augmented reality and live streaming also are elevating modern storytelling and showing consumers different aspects of a brand’s story. Basketball star LeBron James has released a virtual reality film in collaboration with Oculus Studios, and music festival Coachella live streamed performances for free on YouTube. These virtual experiences take storytelling beyond telling and allow individuals to feel and see what a brand is all about.

Brands also can help to tell any type of story in a new and different way. Spotify’s new US campaign features present-day characters from “The NeverEnding Story” to celebrate the art of storytelling by way of a user-generated tale. Mosaic is an experimental film on HBO that allows audiences to pick what happens throughout the story through an app. These developments will likely continue to impact communication with consumers as they seek to understand the brand’s identity and why it’s  worth spending money on.

Eye Get It

 An image is worth a thousand words — but consumers now rely on it for time savings, too.

Immediately after the release of our 2016 predictions, the power of images was corroborated by a rather reputable authority on language Oxford Dictionaries, which announced that the “crying with laughter” emoji was its 2015 word of the year. In a nod to people’s ability to communicate effectively without words, in February Facebook globally launched “Reactions,” allowing users to laugh at jokes or express anger from halfway across the world with a simple emoji.

Emojis are not just for interpersonal communication: Mintel’s research recently found that nearly half (46%) of US consumers are interested in advertisements that use emojis. As a result, brands have persisted in communicating themes through images; Dove’s curly-haired emojis were designed to boost confidence and GrubHub released its mmmoji keyboard to help foodies spice up their texts.

In regard to more functional emojis and other images, a Google doodle was created to allow users to directly register to vote, but we have yet to see many brands tap into the vast potential of interactive, functional emojis that Eye Get It originally explored. However, the opportunity remains.

As forecasted, much of Eye Get It’s development has been in the realms of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). There was an unprecedented fervor this summer when AR app Pokémon Go burst onto the scene, almost instantaneously inspiring businesses big and small to encourage players to visit their locations. Meanwhile, AR and VR advancements are changing the way people try out L’Oréal‘s makeup, test drive cars in Canada and redecorate their homes with Modsy. This year has proven that consumers are interested in immersing themselves in new environments, so stay tuned for even more excitement from this arena in 2017.

Pride & Persona

Companies are looking to strengthen relationships with consumers by recognizing and reflecting our more diverse and open-minded society.

Companies and brands have an opportunity to be more inclusive — and to compose an identity — with products, advertising and corporate promises that show their support of all ages, ethnicities, identities and values in our society. In fact, incorporating messages into the core of a brand or a company’s mission may be a more effective way to reach consumers than by simply partnering with charities. In the US, 33% of US adults say companies partner with charities or non-profits to try to make themselves look better.

Thus, partnerships that seem organic, rather than self-serving, might better connect with consumers. Such is the case with actions of many companies and brands that challenged traditional stereotypes about gender in late 2015 and throughout 2016. For example, a recent Barbie ad featured a boy, and Always’ ad questioned why many emojis for activities and professions are male. Gender is not the only issue on which companies and brands can be more inclusive, as shown by clothing retailer Uniqlo’s collection of hijabs in the US and UK.

In particular, Mintel predicted that there was an opportunity for companies and brands to embrace people with disabilities — and the past year has, indeed, seen new efforts by a range of companies. Burger King hosted a promotion to develop an official sign for its signature Whopper burger. Retailer Target announced plans to add carts with a harness-equipped seat to accommodate people with disabilities. For passengers traveling with people on the autism spectrum, Delta Airlines opened a calming room at the airport in Atlanta.

Going forward, Mintel sees more opportunities for companies and brands not only to be inclusive, but also to make statements that align with their views of society. Immigrants also can be a focal point for companies and brands. In 2016, more than 50 US companies, including Microsoft, Google and Airbnb, committed to help with the global refugee crisis through activities such as outreach in countries with refugee camps as well as pledges to help employ and educate refugees in the US.  

Mintel’s 2017 Trend Predictions are coming. Please contact us to get your digital or hard copy, attend one of our Big Conversation events or have us visit you to present our findings.