Matt Barker
Jan 10, 2023

Trend cycles: how brands can catch a ride

Cultural shifts, once given the time and space to grow organically, now coagulate and dissipate at speed, due in no small part to the ubiquity of the internet. So how can brands keep up with and tap into these rapidly moving trend cycles?

Trend cycles: how brands can catch a ride

During the summer of 2020, just as New York was emerging from lockdown, stories in the media began to appear about a new social and cultural movement. It had formed in the far reaches of Manhattan's Lower East Side, around Ludlow and Orchard Streets, a neighbourhood making one final stand against the aggressive gentrification that has now left large stretches of the city feeling like a sanitised, lux shopping mall.

Christened "Dimes Square", the largely Gen Z creative community of artists, filmmakers, designers and models was treated with a dose of scepticism, but also some excitement that such glamorous shenanigans could still take place out there in the real world.

However, within weeks, the phenomenon was mocked widely online, derided as over-sharing, privileged NYU students role-playing outdated ideals of bohemia. Earlier this year, it suffered the ultimate indignity, with the launch of a reality TV show, The Come Up (pictured below), set in the same locale and featuring figures on the fringes of the downtown milieu. From cutting-edge margins to tacky mainstream in under 18 months.

In the pre-digitalisation, pre-global age, cultural (and sub-cultural) shifts and trends enjoyed a greater life span. They had time to stretch out and take shape away from commercial pressures and restraints.

Now, everything has sped up to such headlong degrees that old structures and orders have been totally dismantled. For a creative, keeping tabs on changes in culture and spotting something that has potential durability, has become a significant challenge.

W David Marx, an American writer based in Tokyo, is the author of the recently published Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change. One of the book's central ideas is that cultural touchpoints of the past, not just fashion, but music, art, film and everything else, have become as highly valued, if not more so, as those of today.

As Marx points out, it has had a decisive knock-on effect for creativity. He uses the example of the 1960s compared with the 1950s; the way that the burgeoning consumer society of the previous decade was criticised and rejected by a counter culture that set a whole new template for social, cultural and creative status, one that was resolutely modern and progressive looking. For Marx, that sense of a genuine alternative culture and way of thinking has pretty much gone now, so deeply embedded in the mainstream have notions like "rebellion" and "cool" become as to make them near redundant.

The pull of the late 1960s counterculture remains as powerful as ever, picked up on by a new digital audience and a seemingly boundless Beatles infatuation [Getty Images]

"Trend cycles move so quickly now, so there isn't this body of culture that only certain people know about, something that can be adopted as part of your lifestyle for a couple of years before everyone else comes to hear about it," he says. Marx adds that, as our society has become more tolerant, fewer people feel marginalised and forced to create their own separate culture, one that gets picked up and steadily adapted for wider consumption.

Peter York, management consultant, broadcaster and cultural commentator, who has been dissecting trends and social sub-groups since the late 1970s, covering everything from Canvey Island "soul boys" to "Sloane Rangers", takes up Marx's comparison
with the shifts of the 1960s and how moves into the mainstream were more organic. "The idea that somehow a whole cohort of young people were about to change the world, change old, hardline certainties of class and economics and so on... well they didn't," he says.

"But over the period of the early 1970s, those things became more commonplace, more men grew their hair out and gave us the full horror of prog rock, but they developed over years and face to face in real time. And, of course, there is now, because of total retrieval, a lot of undead styles and expressions moving about. And that's a problem, because it puts too much in people's heads."

Marx, like York, concedes that this may all be related to age. "When you look at the complaints about mass culture now, that it's lacking depth and it's stale, those seem to be from people above the age of 40, who remember the pace of cultural change in the 20th century, of weirdness becoming mainstream and culture being refreshed," he says.

"People who grew up in the 21st century don't have that sense of historical destiny that was installed in us in the 20th century. Avant garde art in general had this philosophy of 'we're creating history, we're creating innovation, this will be the next notch in the historical, linear story'. The internet really levelled that."

Greater choice is a catalyst

At social media and influencer marketing agency Fanbytes, where the demographic skews much more towards the digi native, head of creative strategy Tom Sweeney agrees that trends and shifts are speeding up. Notably, however, he sees it all as a good thing.

"This is here to stay," he says. "TikTok and Instagram and all of the social algorithms that we are at the mercy of, have democratised content consumption. Trends happen because they are the best things at eliciting an emotional response to the piece of content that someone's watching, or the message that's being shared. The difference now is that they are immediately visible, the changes are groupable by hashtag, by specific themes. People have so much greater choice and that's how trends develop."

When it comes to Fanbyte clients (including Vestiaire Collective, Casio and Burger King), Sweeney stresses the importance of balance, the need to anticipate as much as to react. "Sometimes as marketers we get caught up in responding to trends and making sure that we're culturally relevant, and at times we forget that these trends come from somewhere and that you could be creating the next one if you're brave enough," he says.

For York, that has meant a different way of running a brand, one based increasingly on speed and purpose. "Consumers expect messaging and therefore you've got to do lots of things," he says. "What are we going to relate to now? Are our buyers going to be on the barricades, all that stuff. The business of brand-making is different now and it isn't done by the sort of people who used to do it.

"What do people in conventional ad agencies do all day? It's not as clear cut or as fascinating. It always used to be that if you met John Hegarty, you'd think 'how lovely to be John Hegarty' and now you think 'could such a person completely exist?' It was one of the great inventions of all time, the idea of brand personality, but people have gone a bit far with it."

At creative agency St Luke's, senior strategist Tara Ellis (one of Campaign's 2022 Faces To Watch) echoes Sweeney's enthusiasm and believes brand personality is still in its infancy. "As a planner, and as a young planner especially, who briefs young creatives, I think trend cycles accelerating are a really great opportunity," she says.

"Anyone can bring an idea to the table and, when it works, it does exactly what you want it to do. Our generation has so much access to information, our minds have done a trajectory growth, we want to be seeing new bits of information and entertainment. Keeping up with the Joneses is no longer about what you have, it's about what you see online, whether you know the latest references."

'Brands are becoming people'

All of us can engage in conversations, and that includes brands. "There's a new sense of energy and unpredictability," Ellis adds. "Having a brand idea, making sure it has flex and longevity, that's the opportunity. Brands are becoming people."

The challenge now is that companies have to be prepared to occasionally disentangle from product messaging and instead join in broader cultural interactions, especially as algorithms become more sophisticated and target increasingly niche audiences. "What trends have done to the industry and to marketing creative more broadly is that it's required us to think about the positioning of our creative and the messages that we're sharing," Sweeney says. "Essentially, the algorithms are going to be so good at understanding what we like and what we care about, that they'll be feeding us a very specific set of content. Brands need to get ahead of it and start to understand why those trends are coming about in the first place."

That's where the opportunities for new creative, and potentially more deep-rooted trends, come in. "This is the next chapter of advertising and content and a really good opportunity for new work and ideas that we haven't seen before," Ellis says.

Conversely, when it comes to creativity, there's also the seemingly lost art of boredom. Marx remains optimistic that, faced with the repetition and uniformity of our current social media-centred structures and notions of status and culture, some will soon look to kick against such narrow confines.

"If we're all moving into this monoculture and everyone around the world is looking at the same platforms, in the same way, that provides a next step for another exodus and splintering. People will go in search of something else, especially kids, and that can be powerful," he says. "Things will get interesting again."

The art of borrowing

An extract from Status and Culture: How Our Desire for Social Rank Creates Taste, Identity, Art, Fashion, and Constant Change by W David Marx, published by Viking.

Some companies have borrowed enough cachet to start their own trends from scratch but, on the whole, borrowed innovations are more desirable than homegrown ideas. The twist succeeded as a popular dance because it tapped into a grassroots fad within both black and youth cultures. When the East German authorities attempted to create a dance called the lipsi, everyone ignored it. Companies thus look at innovators and early adopters as an R&D lab, sweeping in to imitate whatever appears to be gaining momentum.

The most daring cultural innovations tend to come from subcultures and artists, who use highly symbolic complexity to keep intruders out. Overly exclusionary tastes, however, are bad for business. In order to expand beyond the original groups, manufacturers must simplify the ideas. By creating a simplified version of a hot new style or trendy product, companies retain the sense of novelty while reducing the need for consumers to break established norms.

When innovations are retooled to cross the early adopter/early majority divide, they may retain only a passing resemblance to the original. But it is important that manufacturers sell it as the same entity. Once these simplified innovations are established as moneymakers, even less reputable manufacturers appear to make cheaper and lower-quality versions. The enormous industry of fast fashion operates under the same principle: quickly bringing runway collection knockoffs to market as cheap and disposable garments.

Advertising is a key form of publicity, especially for winning over early adopters. Ads employ seductive imagery and language in an attempt to imbue goods with a higher status value. When advertising to the early majority, companies must suggest that their products are in line with social norms – or create the suggestion of new norms.

Commercial markets are critical for the cultural ecosystem because most conventions play out in material goods for sale. So, if production logic shapes the nature of goods, companies change our tastes – and, by extension, the broader culture.

To be successful in the first place, companies must make goods that cater to the status needs of customers. Production logic simplifies innovations not just to reduce manufacturing costs but also to better match existing conventions. The overall effect of commercialisation is conservative: removing radical ideas and providing mass audiences with simplified versions claimed to be equal to the original. And with all the signalling costs – prices, information costs, barriers to access and difficult tastes – reduced to nearly nothing, a one-time innovation is ready to be "for everyone".


Campaign UK

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