How can marketers hope to know what is coming around the corner?

Most people reading this  can remember what they were doing 10 years ago. But 10 years ago, the Apple iPhone had only just launched. It did not really make an impact initially as the cool kit was the Blackberry Pearl. The number of people with broadband in the world was less than 300 million. Now it’s three billion.

Mobile broadband penetration in the UK and US was less than 23%, while today WeChat, the Chinese app that is a mash-up of Twitter, Facebook, Facetime and WhatsApp has 768m users daily. And, in 2007, Facebook has barely 60 million users. Today – just the 1.86 billion.

You can palpably feel the pace of change: our ecosystem, our economy and our technologies – the progress is rapid. Over the next 10 years, you can the sense that things will accelerate: what we are going to see, what we are going to create and what we are going to experience will transform even more than today due to Moore’s Law.

Some needs stay the same

I’m constantly inquiring about the impact of change on marketing – and marketers. I think that the best starting point is paradoxical, and best articulated by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. When asked by a reporter, “What do you think is going to change most in the next 10 years?”, Bezos’ answer was: “That’s a good question, but a better question is: what’s not going to change in the next 10 to 20 years?”

“When you have something that you know is true,” says Bezos, “even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.” Bezos’ view was that people’s wish for lower prices and faster delivery would never change, hence Amazon’s total focus on lowering prices and increase shipping speed with drones and the like.

Our needs and fears are universal and won’t change – regardless of our background, beliefs or technology.

Human nature is a wonderful counterpoint to the acceleration of change. Humans evolve at a glacial pace. Our brains are still wired as they were thousands of years ago. Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ is not going away any time soon. Food, shelter, clothing, healthcare and education are still going to be underlying ‘structures’ of society.

Our individual foibles, our prides and prejudices will be with us forever. We want some level of certainty and stability in our lives so we can plan. But of course, we want it both ways: we also want novelty and stimulus, and desire more freedom.

Humans will always want to feel unique and important, but also to connect with others and to feel loved. We always want to be part of a tribe – as we have been since the dawn of time. Many of us will want to contribute to other lives and have a sense of service. Regardless of what the circumstances are in a society, people are going to construct their lives using these basic building blocks.

The needs will remain constant but the forms in which they express themselves constantly change. The way we fulfil our needs and arrange our lives to satisfy those needs will change rapidly. In other words, we can bet on the underlying themes, but we don’t know how it will pan out.

For example, we might still want to connect with others, but how we do it might change from hanging out in the local pub to connecting with Facebook or Snapchat. Our 21st-century tribe might actually exist across different countries. How we make houses, how we define shelter, and how we get from A to B will definitely change.

Adapting to new technology

However, when things are changing at an extraordinary rate, it makes us all nervous. As technology continues to ripple through all areas of our lives and careers, we can begin to predict the perception of ‘future shock’. The phrase was first coined in 1970 by Alvin Toffler – the author who also popularised the term ‘information overload’. He claimed that the accelerating rate of technological change left people feeling “stress and disorientation”.

Looking at this a little more benignly, I believe that every year will bring new ideas and technologies that will blow our minds. But most marketers are not going to get jaded. We marketers will be most adept at managing this change because we are at the bleeding edge of technological development – it is part of our daily lives.

We know that no matter how familiar we are with one media channel, endless innovation within new digital channels or even familiar channels like TV means that we are always upgrading. Just like our laptops and phone apps always require upgrades, marketers are always going to be “endless newbies” who are “simply trying to keep up”, as futurist, Kevin Kelly puts it.

Marketers know the cycle of obsolescence affects our knowledge, and this sometimes pushes us to chase the newest technologies. Marketers take fast evolution as normal, unlike people in other careers – and this is our hidden competitive edge over those who have not worked this through.

Back to fundamental truths for the future: human nature is going to stay the same. A good marketer, most of all, is interested in people: they should always be able to see and understand what their customer thinks, believes and values. Marketers must realise that their customer is still playing with the same set of cards we all have throughout history. Our needs and fears are universal and won’t change – regardless of our background, beliefs or technology.

Customers will always continue to adopt products and services that make their lives better, easier or more fulfilling. Just like the launch of the iPhone 10 years ago spawned a world we could not have imagined, the same thing could happen with technologies launched this year. Solving customer problems, meeting their needs and, most of all, creating value will always be in demand. And we, as marketers, need to be ready to face the future and ready to deliver.