Predicting the Future: Marketing science or marketing myth?

Kathy Benson

Kathy is the chief client officer for Ipsos Australia and New Zealand and has 29 years’ experience as a strategic researcher specialising in assisting companies and brands to stay in sync with consumers and abreast of the latest consumer trends and behaviours. Kathy has held the Australian Market and Social Research Society’s professional accreditation of QPMR (Qualified Practicing Market Researcher) since its introduction in 2002, and conducts both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, combining advanced research capability with strong strategy skills. Kathy has directed many large-scale and complex studies for clients across CPG and FMCG, telecommunications, financial services, entertainment and tourism, retail, education, infrastructure and transport. Kathy has a Bachelor of Business (with Distinction) and a Master of Marketing from Queensland University of Technology.

Unicorns, the Sunken City of Atlantis, Zeus: They are very famous. So famous in fact, that we often think twice about whether they are real or not.  Sometimes if we talk about something widely enough, and for long enough, even the strangest fiction can seem like fact. But ultimately it is still fiction - stories we make up and tell ourselves over and over until we believe.

Some marketing commentators say attempting to predict the future falls into that realm.  Future-spotting is impossible they say – a fictitious story we are being told, or we are telling ourselves to meet an agenda, and mostly, it is an insidious agenda.  It might be consultants attempting to make a sale, or marketing professionals trying to avoid the practical and harsh realities of dealing with current market situations. 

For whatever reason, we have long been fascinated with all manner of crystal ball gazing such as future-casting, foresight and trends-watching. Why? What makes the future so important? 

Quite simply, every single marketing initiative we undertake is an investment of critical and hard-fought dollars desperately anguished over. Marketers need to achieve a return on investment. The biggest success a marketing professional can achieve in their career is to understand not just what people want and need now, but to predict what they might want and need in the future. These are the latent needs in the market, the unknown unknowns, the problems people have they aren’t even aware of. And meeting these first can be Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.

If 2020 is the year of marketing pain, 2021 might just be the year of marketing opportunity. Despite everything the world has withstood this year, the extent of change and volatility presents a wealth of possible and unfulfilled opportunity. Old entrenched behaviours have shifted and continue to shift, attitudes have pivoted, new needs have emerged, beliefs are evolving, and consumers are looking for inspiration and leadership. The next few years will be a utopia of opportunity for brands.

However, there is a massive stumbling block in front of us, and that is that we are scared.  2020 has left us feeling even less equipped than ever to take a chance on investing in new initiatives.  However, when we think about it, our future was always uncertain. If someone had told us this time last year that wearing face masks outside would be mandatory in Victoria, that crossing Australian state borders required permission, or that cruises could be a thing of the past, it would have seemed like science fiction.

Most of us probably didn’t think about it at all. Those who did probably envisioned 2020 being somewhat similar to 2019 with a few tweaks here and there. This time last year we weren’t all talking about an uncertain future and yet, it was just as uncertain then as it is now. Most of us don’t bother, but even when we do, we are not great at predicting the future. 

Here are a few examples of very bad predictions:

  • Taken from a Western Union internal memo in 1976: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” 
  • Decca Recording Company stated this in 1962 when declining to sign the Beatles: “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”

These predictions were made by experienced business professionals. But do a Google search of The Simpsons and their predictions, and they seemingly got it uncannily right up to 30 times.  


Above: The Simpsons introduced the concept of a watch you could use as a phone in 1995, nearly 20 years before the Apple watch was released.

So, what is going on?  How can industry experts on one hand get it so wrong while a cult comedy cartoon gets it right? Is it all just completely random, or is there any science to it at all?

The science

There is a science and it is called Behavioural Science. 

Behaviours change all the time, but normally they change at incremental rates and maybe not all at once. The impact of COVID-19 this year has created tsunami of change. Much of that change might revert, some might endure long-term and some might carry on and then fade away. 

Figure 2 Ipsos Behaviour Change MAPPS framework

Whether we are trying to create behaviour change or determine whether a naturally occurring behaviour change will endure we need to look at five elements:

  • Is the motivation still there, do people want to do this? Have their beliefs, aspirations and ideals fundamentally changed?
  • Do we have the ability to carry on with the change? Are the resources still available to enable us to continue with the new behaviours?
  • How are we processing information regarding these changes?
  • Does the contextual frame encourage it, support it, incentivise it or even allow it?  Can we physically continue to behave in this manner?
  • What are other people doing? Will others keep doing this or will they stop? Will I be the only one? Is this a social change?

Abraham Lincoln once said: “The best way to predict your future is to create it”.  Using Behavioural Science, brands and organisations can play a role in shaping the future by shaping people’s behaviours.

Understanding and practicing Behavioural Science principles can empower marketers to create their own future. There is no need to sit back and wait for the uncertain future to hit and nor is there any a need to make big, risky and ambitious predictions. The smart marketer will use a simple but effective four-step process:

  • First, understand the bigger picture and what was changing the world before 2020;
  • Second, understand the impact on current behaviours and attitudes by collecting information and listening to your consumer;
  • Third, use Behavioural Science or a framework such as MAPPS to understand the behaviours that have changed and their likely evolution;
  • Fourth, put it all together to create plausible future scenarios.

The key to predicting the future is taking a scientific approach combined with creative thinking to build multiple future scenarios. How do we know which one will transpire?  We don’t, but the smart marketer develops a roadmap for each.

All scenarios have elements that will come true, but no single scenario is likely to happen in its entirety. They may all contain elements of the future – but none of them is the future.

When it comes to predicting the future, it is not about being right, it’s about being prepared.

Tags: behavioural science, marketing strategy

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