Ride the crest of a trend, be dumped by a fad.

By Dr Inka Crosswaite_Cultural Insight and Semiotics Specialist_Added Value South AfricaPost originally written for TREND.

Everyone – from Adelaide to Hong Kong, Istanbul to Stockholm, Tallahassee to Zürich – is dancing ‘Gangnam’ style. A handful of brands have embraced the music track, or its dance moves, in a bid to capitalise on the instant recognition they spark in consumers of all ages, and from all cultures.

But for how long?

Does Gangnam style’s universal popularity and acceptance herald the birth of a trend, or is it a fad that promises a wild, but brief ride, and a strong chance of the brand ending up spewing salt water with sand in its swimming costume and seaweed in its hair?

Because that’s the risk marketers take. Hitching your brand to a trend can see you riding the wave for a number of years, but aligning with a fad could mean the brand takes a hit when the inevitable fall from favour happens.

The difference between a trend and a fad is principally about levels and pace of change. Trends, specifically macro trends (or megatrends), are slow moving shifts in cultural values and can take place over the course of decades.

Not only do they become the defining characteristics of a generation – trends are long-lived and evolve. They are rooted in identifiable sets of cultural drivers, can be tracked across continents, and typically have global reach. Most importantly, megatrends impact on every category in some way, and so are vital when it comes to marketers setting their future strategies.

Micro trends are more behavioural and arise as a response to the mega trends – that is, people change their behaviour as a result of changing values. Micro trends are often triggered by shifts in technology or the advent of a new science, better materials or enhanced capabilities. For the brand, they are more inspiring to activate against and easier to own than a megatrend.

A megatrend starts in fringe culture, then gradually mainstreams through experts, popular awareness, institutional awareness and formal codification.

If we track one of the major megatrends of the 20th century – Women’s Liberation – against this life cycle, we see the following:

– First-wave feminists fought for women’s suffrage.

– During the second-wave, the aim was to secure economic and legal gains, and the movement tended to become puritanical in terms of media and the market place. The slogan for the era was: ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’.

– The third wave, which emerged during the 1990s, focused on the economic, political, social, and personal empowerment of women. There was less activism and more celebration of women’s journeys to build meaningful identities in the complex contemporary world. We also embraced the ‘bitch culture’ that celebrated sex, men, gay culture and clothes.

– Today, the focus is on fusion of spirituality and social justice; and the aim is to explore a new feminine paradigm of power that is based on tolerance and mutuality, which is crucial for curing the global crisis of poverty and war.

Evolving megatrends

Now, in the 21st Century, the trend has evolved from Women’s Lib to Gender Fluidity. The waves of this evolved megatrend can be viewed as follows:

1970s – Germaine Greer’s international bestseller ‘The Female Eunuch’ examined historical definitions of women’s perception of self and sexuality.
1990s – ‘Girl power’ became an international cultural phenomenon and androgyny the Holy Grail.
2001 – The Netherlands become the first country to legalise same-sex marriages.
2008 – Thomas Beatie, a man who conceived a child after a gender-reassignment operation, gave birth to a baby girl.

Importantly, for the marketer and brand custodian, a deep understanding of trends provides a consumer context for the shifts happening in the category, and allows the brand to ride and shape these changes, rather than react to them.

By contrast, fads are superficial and fast moving; they don’t necessarily reflect changing values. Also driven by socio-cultural factors, they are characterized by a ‘fast burn’; they’re there and then they disappear.

Sometimes, a fad can evolve into something we might call a micro-trend. For example, the 1990s scooters-for-businessmen was a short-lived fad, but over the past decade we’ve seen several more significant and permanent ‘business commuting’ changes emerge: consider cycling to work, car pools, etc.

Fads are also often for novelty’s sake only, driven by a new technology that people really don’t get – in the moment. The typical example here is the 1990s’ Tamagotchi craze. This was a fad, but also a precursor to the many interactive, portable, gameplay and virtual reality apps we now have on our phones.

So, fads, they come and they go, quickly. Try not to build your brand around them unless you are ready to roll with the punches when the fad falls from favour. That said, fads shouldn’t be ignored, sometimes they can point to a more interesting and value based change in behaviour on the horizon.

So where do you think Gangnam style fits in?

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