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Surprising Trends for 2018: The Year of Paradox

Posted: January 26, 2018

The eccentric American novelist, Tom Robbins, once famously wrote: “If complexity doesn’t beat you, then paradox will.” As we begin a new year, I find myself reflecting on the truth of this statement today.

Since starting my career as a strategist thirteen years ago, I have witnessed immense change and complexity – not only in our industry, but our country and society at large. At the same time, seeing anomaly as inevitable, I can only marvel at the sheer paradox that is our world in 2018.

As social networking has increased, so, too, has social isolation. Amid a ‘wellness revolution’, marked by greater access to health-related information and astounding medical advancements, the global burden of chronic disease is rising year-on-year. And, while technology promises improved efficiency and productivity, research indicates, ironically, that people are working longer hours than ever before.

In a world of incongruity, I predict that 2018 will truly be a year of paradox, wherein we (marketers, strategists, and creatives alike) will need to be increasingly cognisant of the balancing act required in engaging today’s consumers. To this end, what are the key paradoxes to consider for the year ahead?

Paradox #1: A growing digital backlash in an increasingly digital world

There is no denying the ubiquity of the digital revolution. In South Africa alone, internet penetration is expected to exceed 55% in 2018 (versus 9% just ten years ago). This has been accompanied by a rise in social media usage, e-commerce, virtual reality, and a plethora of mobile apps. However, there is a counter-trend: as digital grows more omnipresent, more people will oppose it. This shift, manifested in such phenomena as the ‘social media hiatus’ and an analogue revival (where vinyl and Polaroid-style cameras are popular again), will only heighten further in future. In this ‘physidigital’ world, brands need to remember that, while digital is here to stay, more consumers will view going offline as the new luxury.

Paradox #2: Greater time poverty amid a culture of quick convenience

Convenience is now a hygiene factor. From online shopping with same-day delivery, to 24-hour pharmaceutical vending machines in fuelling station forecourts, and a host of information at our fingertips, instant gratification is expected. Paradoxically, despite the conveniences at our disposal, research by McKinsey notes that people have actually become more time-poor, which has simultaneously led to escalating stress levels and other quality-of-life issues. Thus, successful brands of the future will not only talk the language of ‘convenience’, but actively offer valuable, holistic customer experiences that add hours to people’s lives and life to people’s hours.

Paradox #3: Less choice will mean more freedom

In a world of boundless options, freedom of choice has given way to the tyranny of choice. Studies increasingly show that too much choice can be overwhelming. And, although seemingly counterintuitive, less choice spells greater freedom by reducing anxiety in the consumer’s decision-making process. This is why Centrum (with its limited range) sells ahead of supplement brands with a multitude of variants, and why Capitec (with its sole Global One account) continues to grow ahead of more established, diversified banking players. In an already complex world, I believe more brands will capitalise on this mega-trend of simplicity via limited product portfolios and more streamlined architecture approaches.

Paradox #4: ‘Brand polyamory’ will become the new loyalty

The concept of brand loyalty has long been contested; in most categories, people seldom buy the same brands consistently. Instead, we tend to shop from a repertoire of brands based on their propensity to be thought of or noticed – the premise behind brand salience. However, a report by Kantar Millward Brown espouses the value of brand affinity. Beyond salience, emotional attachment is key because ‘liking’ leads to a higher probability of repurchase. In any given category, consumers frequently like more than one brand and will ‘switch loyally’ within a set of brands due to availability, promotion, or a desire for variety. I refer to this as ‘brand polyamory’ – something we can anticipate more of in a world of shifting consumer needs, drivers and values.

Paradox #5: Purpose beyond profit will increase profitability

Perhaps the greatest present-day paradox is the fact that the world’s most profitable companies are often not the most overtly profit-focused. A recent survey by Harvard Business Review and EY posits a direct correlation between purpose and return on investment. As such, it is not surprising that Apple – one of the most purposeful brands in existence – continues to see growth. The technology giant, whose purpose is simply “To empower creative exploration and self-expression”, was the world’s most valuable brand in 2017 (for the seventh consecutive year) in Forbes’ annual ranking, valued at US$ 170 billion. In this light, Apple’s success bears testament to the business-related value of a strong brand philosophy.

In closing, bearing in mind the ever-more complex and anomalous marketplace and consumer landscape, today’s brands will need to embrace, balance and leverage the contradictions in order to compete successfully going forward. I firmly believe that their ability to do so will become paramount in this, the year of paradox.