Mintel has thought leaders watching nearly every consumer sector. Their expertise converges quarterly to identify key themes currently impacting US markets. Here, Manager of Trends North America Carli Gernot shares important takeaways and considerations for summer 2016…

A false sense of security

News reports continue to be dominated by uncertainty and unsettling events. However, many people are not living in complete fear because they are watching the world from the comfort of their own “echo chambers,” a term referring to the selection of media that aligns with one’s personal beliefs. When it comes to people’s online activities, algorithms help to ensure that people are mainly exposed to things that they “like.” This over-personalization is creating an environment in which people might feel “safe,” but might in fact just be naïve, such as:
  • Automated services and artificial intelligence help save time on tedious tasks such as paying bills, but does this convenience put our personal information at risk?
  • The expanding accessibility of virtual reality (VR) technology could encourage people to stay within the comfort of the world(s) within their VR headsets.

What it means

To help consumers escape these “comfort zones,” we’re finding that algorithms need to evolve. These formulas should respect people’s “likes” but also recommend things that might be outside those guard rails – even if only slightly outside. For example, fashion subscription service StichFix offers clothing and accessories subscribers might not have picked themselves, but that align with their personally created profiles. This reduces choice fatigue while also exposing people to things that are safe departures from their personal preferences. Algorithms for news feeds and other media recommendations should do the same to help people be exposed to viewpoints that differ from their own.

Empathy & escapism

Concurrent with the rise in feeling unsettled and uncertain is a rising need for human connection and empathy that equalizes the negative atmosphere. In a similar sense, many people are also seeking escapism, looking to evade the anxiety and pressure that can be felt from a 24-hour news cycle and an on-edge society. Perhaps somewhat ironically, some powerful paths to empathy and escapism – and antidotes to apprehension – could lie in new technologies that are rapidly developing. We’re seeing several instances where this has been accomplished:
  • The New York Times has sent more than one million Google Cardboard sets to subscribers, allowing them to access exclusive virtual reality content. The immersive nature of the videos allows people to truly connect to a given story. These approaches will not end soon, either as the NYT predicts virtual reality to be the future of journalism.
  • NBC provided virtual reality coverage for the recent Rio 2016 Olympic games, allowing viewers to feel a stronger connection to events and athletes.
  • Music festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza have begun live streaming bands’ performances, giving those who would like to attend, but are unable to do so, the chance to virtually “be there” in real time.

The popularity of Pokémon Go further emphasizes people’s hunger for empathy and escapism.

What it means

Brands have an opportunity to tap into the burgeoning technologies of virtual reality, augmented reality and live streaming to forge strong bonds with consumers. The popularity of Pokémon Go further emphasizes people’s hunger for empathy and escapism; the augmented reality app encourages users to turn their world into a fun game, and it inherently facilitates human interactions and connections among players. Imagine if other brands’ immersive content could strike a similar chord; the possibility to connect with consumers is immense.

On the inside

Some of the biggest questions around the boom in livestreaming, VR viewing and other enhanced visual experiences have to do with the communication infrastructure and whether or not companies are literally equipped to handle the increased traffic and growing demands of consumers. As individuals and companies alike become more able – and more apt – to broadcast themselves or their brand through channels like Periscope, Facebook Live, or any number of streaming channels, internet access, speed, and the ability to host this kind of content will be on consumers’ minds. Brands needs to ask themselves:

  • If internet connectivity and accessibility begin to institute limits when it comes to data consumption, will consumers shop around more? Consume less? We saw T-Mobile give free data to players of Pokémon Go during the month of August. Brands may feel pressure to make similar offers as these games/apps/tools become more popular. Thus, streaming limits create bottlenecks and unhappy users; brands will need to figure out how to allow as much streaming as people want.
  • As brands create these services and platforms that allow virtual connections, will limited broadband expose coverage issues in rural areas? Facebook is testing unmanned planes that provide wireless internet to people and if people come to expect this of companies, more will need to step up. Brands need to invest in the communication infrastructure in order to see this vision of connectivity through to its realization.

What it means

The United Nations has declared that disconnecting a person from the internet is a violation of basic human rights in this modern, connected world we live in. As such, brands may soon have little choice in doing more to make sure connectivity is possible and reliable in order to facilitate the virtual connections people need. Even brands that operate outside the digital realm and rely on word-of-mouth will do well to invest in this virtual infrastructure, especially as that word-of-mouth increasingly is communicated via digital means.

Carli Gernot is the Manager of Trends North America at Mintel. She’s been contributing to the success of Mintel Trends since 2010, spotting trends and shifts in consumer behavior all over the world. Carli is responsible for creating content for global trends, North American and EMEA regions, as well as ensuring that North American consumer trend content is relevant and insightful.