What's a megatrend, you ask? It's something big. I'm talking really big.
Think of a giant unstoppable tsunami of change transforming society as we know it. Think global warming scale -- then apply it to mass human behavior. Think glaciers carving the grand canyon of consumer sentiment.
Compare and contrast. Here are some regular trends:
"Everyone is on Twitter these days."
"Boomers are investing more in home renovations as they approach retirement."
"Green is 'in' this season."
All of these are important. None are mega.
Here's a megatrend:
"Social media has permanently transformed the way people connect and share information."
Much of the planning that goes into positioning a brand takes into account product attributes, competitive differentiation, and target insights. These are all critically important considerations. But they're not what I'm talking about here.
I'm talking about what is so often left on the table -- the elephant in the room. Megatrends. Latching onto these tectonic shifts can surge an entire brand strategy forward way ahead of the curve. Google caught on to an access-to-information megatrend. Facebook caught on to people connecting. Yet, these megatrends are rarely leveraged by brands. (This was confirmed for me by the sheer difficulty I had coming up with campaigns for this article).
Most companies wait until a megatrend is so pervasive and obvious that it becomes a minimum standard, a non-differentiating proposition -- so that leveraging them does nothing to differentiate their brand. Case in point: Who doesn't have a "green" message these days?
So what are the new megatrends that I believe will transform society in the coming years? What brands are taking advantage of them? And what can you learn from them?
Mass collaboration is powering the new economy
It's no secret among iMedia readers that "user-generated content" was a sucker punch to the jaw of the marketing world over the past several years. A fundamental shift has occurred in which brands have become a conversation -- and audiences have just as much of a say in the shape of that dialogue as marketing directors and agency copywriters.
But, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
In their book, "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything," Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams describe a new economy where companies are taking advantage of a new collaborative world to foster innovation and grow their enterprises.
Of course, the UGC and social media titans are part of this mass collaboration. YouTube, Facebook, Pandora, and MySpace are all based on the participation of their communities. This new shift encompasses this trend, but extends far beyond how we entertain ourselves online.
Brands like Procter & Gamble, BMW, Lego, Boeing, and Netflix are all actively going outside their walls to find new ways to innovate and better ways to produce their goods and services. These companies are pioneers of the collaborative economy.
And now, Steve Jobs has taken note.
The brand that gets it: Apple
It almost seems cliché to mention Apple in any article about great advertising. But this article isn't about what's great -- it's about massive change reshaping the future. And Apple's iPhone campaign is all about mass collaboration reshaping the future of Apple.
The campaign is in line with most Apple advertising. The product is the hero. The voice is friendly, clever, and straightforward. The ads simply state that whatever you want or need to do with your iPhone, "There's an app for that."
"There's an app for that" refers to the tens of thousands of applications built on the iPhone API that are available for download in the iTunes store. The vast majority of those apps were not built by Apple.
If you're familiar with the history of Apple, you know that relying on outside sources to fuel innovation just hasn't been the way things were done -- until now. You'd also know that Apple doesn't always do things first. (The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player.) But when it sees an opportunity, it goes after it in a bigger and better way than anyone else ever has.
Apple has seen that opportunity in mass collaboration.
Last year Apple announced it would dump Macworld and instead focus on WWDC, its Worldwide Developer Conference. Why? Because developers create apps.
This is where the driving force will come from that will maintain Apple's leadership in innovation in the years to come. This is a major strategic shift for Apple -- and the absolute right one.
Constant connectivity in an on-demand world
I'm wired. Almost every minute of every day, it seems I am connected. Emailing, surfing, Twittering, streaming, gaming, texting, Facebooking, downloading, chatting -- will it ever end?
No. It won't. Constant connectivity is a megatrend.
More and more, we are relentlessly connected to one another. We weren't when I was a kid. We weren't five years ago. But you can bet we're not going to stop anytime soon.
Why? A new generation is growing up and entering the workforce in droves. The Millennial Generation is the largest this country has ever seen -- bigger than the baby boomers -- and it is the first generation that has grown up with technology and connectivity ubiquitous in their lives. To them, it's all they've ever known.
I am incessantly networked, but I think something's wrong with me. This massive new wave of population has no such hang-ups.
What these people do have are expectations borne of their condition. They live in an on-demand world. They know no other. Want a song? Download it. Want to know something? Google it. Want to tell Susie what Bobby said? Text it. Now, now, now.
The brand that gets it: Sprint
Sprint has zeroed in on this expectation with pinpoint accuracy. It used to be the phone company. But it's no longer selling just phones. It is selling the concept of "now."
The "Now Network" campaign was created for a new product called a mobile broadband card. But it hardly matters. Sprint isn't trying to dominate the mobile broadband card market. It is trying to dominate the space in the consumer's mind where the word "now" lives.
Goodby, Silverstein & Partners -- the agency I affectionately call the "other great creative agency on the California cable car line" -- initiated the campaign online with a microsite at now.sprint.com that featured a mesmerizing array of tiny widgets showing different things that live in the now: top words being used online, current world population, a tiny game of Pong.
This digital experience has been elevated to a brand campaign with TV spots inspired by the online execution. The ever-present "Now Network" message is a consistent presence, diligently working to build a bridge between a constantly connected consumer and the brand that wants to deliver that connection.
Globalization: Making the world a smaller place
Last month, I attended the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) SME Summit in Hangzhou, China. Former President Bill Clinton addressed the crowd. He told us that the world's greatest hope for financial stability and sustained economic growth is a massive shift in wealth from a handful of precariously balanced and self-interested financial institutions to a multitude of small and medium businesses across the globe doing business with one another -- and technology is the accelerant bringing this change to life.
Bill's words. Not mine.
Globalization is an unstoppable force reshaping our society. The world's economies are inextricably linked. Technology has made geography irrelevant. Businesses around the world are doing business with one another and will continue to do so. This is big. This is mega big.
Many Americans have been slow to realize this. The web has given us all access to a whole new world of markets and partners that we can and should do business with. Technology can make every business a global business.
The recession has left millions of Americans out of work, many wondering what their next move should be. Today, they can start their own global business from the comfort of their living room.
The brand that gets it: Alibaba.com
Alibaba.com is the technology platform that is accelerating globalization. (Full disclosure: Alibaba.com is a client of my agency.) It's a website that helps small and medium-sized businesses around the world find suppliers or manufacturers for virtually any product or service they might need. Alibaba.com makes it possible for virtually anyone with a laptop and an idea to find a supplier half a world away to help them build a business. The site has 42 million members, and the company has grown from 18 employees to 10,000 in a decade.
When I was first introduced to Alibaba.com, I went on its website to check it out. I clicked on an interesting-looking button that said, "Submit a buying lead." Three minutes later, I had filled out a form seeking a supplier to produce 2,000 cashmere sweaters (I have expensive taste).
What happened next was amazing. Within 36 hours, I had 27 people from real companies around the world -- China, India, Egypt, Italy, Vietnam, and Bangladesh -- sending me emails offering to produce my sweaters, to send me samples, to be my partner. If I didn't love this agency gig so much, I'd be in the cashmere business right now.
Alibaba.com faced a tough challenge in the U.S. market this year. The brand was a relatively unknown quantity to most Americans, and the very notion of finding a trusted partner halfway across the world was foreign to a majority of small business owners in the U.S.
Alibaba.com introduced itself to the American with a marketing campaign that summed up everything you're able to do on its site:
Find it. Make it. Sell it.
"It" could be just about anything.
The campaign features stories of entrepreneurs that found partners on Alibaba.com that helped them create successful businesses. An integrated brand narrative used TV, print, and online media to build awareness and drive customers to success.alibaba.com where they could watch "mockumentary" videos of the campaign characters telling their stories, delve into case studies of real-life Alibaba entrepreneurs, and learn how they can get started using Alibaba.com for their businesses.
Pervasive distrust in big corporations
Does our economic situation have you infuriated with corporate America? Do you feel like the jerks on Wall Street and the incompetents in Detroit almost destroyed this country's financial system to line their own pockets? Do you trust big banks to have your best interests in mind?
If you answered "yes, yes, no," to the above, you're not alone.
The impending financial doom this country faced a year ago had a tremendous impact on consumer confidence in America, but even greater damage was done to consumer trust. News reports have created a mass perception of banks hoarding bailout money provided to loosen credit markets in order to boost profits and fund exorbitant executive compensation packages. Despite the hope and good faith many Americans have in our new president (myself included), our government appears incompetent at best, complicit at worst.
This has propelled pervasive distrust to megatrend levels.
The impact of this is not limited to financial institutions and automakers. According to Interbrand's annual assessment of the top 100 global brands, the list's total value fell by 4.6 percent in the past year. While brand valuation is a murky science, those are not good numbers.
Yet, in adversity lies opportunity. As distrust reaches near universal proportions, a brand story based on trust can be a powerful weapon.
The brand that gets it: Ally Bank
Tired of being screwed? Now, you've got an ally. Ally Bank.
"Who?" you ask.
You know how Prince became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince?
Meet your new Ally. The Bank Formerly Known as GMAC.
The duplicity of a giant U.S. bank combined with the ineptitude of a giant U.S. car company. I'd vomit if only this wasn't such a well-crafted brand. Here's the brand's elevator pitch (verbatim from its website):
"We are Ally Bank, built on the foundation of GMAC Financial Services. And with that experience we've learned that these times demand change and a new way of doing business. So we're taking banking in a new direction.
That means talking straight, doing right and being obviously better for our customers."
The tag line for the campaign is simply, "Straightforward."
TV spots show a little girl get shafted by a banker-type guy who didn't tell her she could have had a real pony instead of a toy. "Even kids know it's wrong to hold out on somebody. Why don't banks?" the voiceover asks. Good question.
This straightforward, human tone seems to emanate from every pore of this brand. Copy on the website assures potential customers, "We won't deal in half-truths, kindatruths, or truths only buried in fine print."
Even the brand color, purple, screams, "We're not like the other guys."
It remains to be seen whether past associations can be overlooked, but my suspicion is that Ally Bank's actions will speak louder than its words over the coming years. If it really embraces the values it espouses in the way it does business, people will talk about it, and Ally will become a powerful brand. If the brand doesn't, people will talk about that too.
A global sense of urgency to fix the problems of a modern world
When I started this article, I swore I would not write about "going green" as one of the megatrends. It certainly is a big deal, but it's one that has been thrust so far into the limelight that it's no longer an opportunity to differentiate. Being green is a minimum standard.
What do I mean by minimum standard? Take the airlines. Whoever came up with the concept of frequent flier miles had a great differentiator for business travelers. It was so great, that soon everyone else in the industry followed suit and now having an incentive program for frequent fliers is a minimum standard in the industry. Every airline must have one to compete.
Virtually every brand in every category has a green story these days.
But being green is symptomatic of another megatrend that is influencing the world on a massive scale -- a global sense of urgency.
It's no secret to anyone that... well... we're screwed. The planet is falling apart. We've got global warming, pollution, overcrowded cities, not enough energy, we're running out of water, and running out of fish.
But the eco message is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Advances in technology have put fixes to so many challenges within reach. Conventional wisdom now begs to ask: Why wouldn't we take advantage of solutions available to us? Why wouldn't we digitize health care? Why wouldn't we use smart toll systems to ease traffic jams? Why wouldn't we implement technology to make our school systems more efficient?
Today, governments and enterprises around the world are rushing to play catch-up. They sense the urgency. To wise up. To get smart.
The brand that gets it: IBM
IBM has wrapped its big blue arms around the massive sense of urgency that is sweeping the globe with its campaign for "A Smarter Planet."
The campaign overview page on IBM's website sums it up:
"The technology is here.
The people are ready.
The time is now."
This looks far beyond the important-but-limited scope of coming up with new ways to conserve energy or limit emissions -- the subject of so many campaigns targeting the "think green" mindset. In addition to energy, water, and construction, IBM's "Smarter Planet" campaign encompasses solutions for traffic, cities, banking, retail, education, telecom, and health care.
But the campaign is also about aspiration. About fixing things before it's too late. It's optimistic. It's motivating. It's the kind of message that Americans swarmed to when they elected Barack Obama.
And best of all, it's tangible. Which makes it empowering.
"A less expensive energy bill. A package that gets delivered in two days instead of seven. Quarterly school reports available online. Bit by bit, our planet is getting smarter. By this, we mean the systems that run the way we live and work as a society."
This is how IBM is describing its vision for a smarter planet. It's talking about all the different ways to make a difference from a 10,000-foot view and then bringing it down to tangible solutions provided by IBM to make a smarter planet a reality.
Tactically, I think IBM is also doing a great job integrating this message across every advertising touchpoint and using social media to reinforce thought leadership. It's using Tumblr as part of this effort, a powerful, yet simple tool that I personally think has the potential to be the next big thing in social media. Think of the consumable nature of Twitter, but the ability to post and tag anything -- videos, pictures, and prose.
This is smart marketing. I anticipate that many readers of this article are deep into planning for 2010 right now. Before you close that PowerPoint presentation, I advise you to take a step back and ask yourself, "Am I missing something? Is there a bigger opportunity here?"
We live in a time of tumultuous change. That means there are huge opportunities out there, waiting for marketers with the foresight to find them and the courage to act on them. There just might be a megatrend out there waiting for you.