In my last post, I talked about three “Periscopes” to help marketers rise above the day to day work to innovate more successfully.

This time I thought it would be useful to talk about a best practice you can use when you do have a chance to step away from your daily routine.

I call it Tornado Sighting. Otherwise called: keeping your eye on macro trends.

Macro trends are big social and economic shifts – technology, consumer demographics, culture, or historical turnings – that can reshape markets and create big new opportunities.

When you watch the horizon, you can see trends coming your way and have time to prepare for and capitalize on them. Understanding macro trends can also prevent you from being sideswiped by something you didn’t see coming.

Three ways to use macro trends to innovate more successfully

1. Research trends that could affect your business

Several years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study on the Atkins Diet that showed people could lose weight by shifting their dietary intake from carbohydrates to protein. This was reported widely by the media, sparking consumer interest that quickly developed into a craze. The newly appointed U.S. retail president of Sara Lee wanted to understand how this trend would affect the company, which makes both Jimmy Dean sausages and other meat products (Atkins-friendly proteins) as well as pound cakes (evil carbohydrates).

We researched the literature and interviewed a variety of experts: the medical community, scientists, influential chefs, food trend researchers, manufacturers, media and consumers.

It became clear that the Atkins Diet would soon lose popularity, and that the much bigger issue would be obesity, which was not yet getting much press. Sara Lee was able to develop products and marketing plans that addressed the true long-term trend and avoid the distraction of launching short-lived products tied to what ultimately proved a diet fad.

Ask your team to search for information on a continuous basis, and report back on what trends might be coming your way. You can start with global macro trends from sources like Euromonitor for inspiration. Once you have a handle on which trends you want to pay most attention to, assign individual members of your team to each issue, to set them up as internal experts.

2. Identify and learn from your expert network

Of course, you can’t become an expert on everything, and the good news is that you don’t have to. There are plenty of people out there to learn from.

If your target audience is millennials, for example, find out who understands them well. Experts could include other companies marketing to the same target, psychologists, intergenerational consultants, even a panel of Millennials themselves. Follow their work; potentially enlist their active help.

If your company is incorporating virtual reality (VR) as part of your customer experience, for example, find out what companies are pushing the boundaries on VR and related technologies, what reporters and analysts are covering them, and follow them. CB Insights, a publication that serves the venture capital community, covers emerging startups and is a good place to hear about new technologies.

Conferences are a great way to immerse your team. This is also a great time to bring in your agency, as they are in the business of understanding different target audiences, technologies and cultural trends.

3. Build macro trends into your annual strategic planning process

At Nordstrom, in preparation for a Board meeting, we were once asked to investigate “What’s the future of service?” This was an interesting question coming from Nordstrom, as they are considered by many to represent the ultimate in service. But Nordstrom is humble enough to realize that they had to continue to earn that reputation every day.

We conducted secondary and primary research, including online anthropology, to understand how people talked about service, what companies they associated with great service, and why. One of the key findings was that service didn’t have to involve people – wow. The Board and executive team immediately saw the implications for Nordstrom’s brick-and-mortar stores and online business. As we see the rise of Amazon in fashion today, it’s obvious that they have begun a major competitor. Nordstrom will continue to evolve to serve their customers better.

It’s good discipline to look at macro trends as part of your strategic planning process. Make this its own section. Report on macro trends you see on the horizon and the strategic implications for your company. You can own this yourself, but it’s even more effective if you can invite your counterparts from other departments to contribute their thinking as well.

Now what?

It’s not enough to simply become aware of what’s going on, obviously. You’ll need to decide what should you do more of, less or, or change. to stay competitive.

What macro trends should you be paying attention to? I’d love to hear. 

This post was originally published by the American Marketing Executive Circle.

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