LONDON — Consumers are headed back to black, and will be increasingly attracted to private, contemplative experiences, darkened spaces and oases of calm as they seek alternatives to an invasive, chaotic and fast-paced world.
“Calm technology,” a more Zen approach to life and a great desire to slow down and enjoy quiet moments are just some of the elements that will drive spending, according to Will Higham, the London-based behavioral futurist who helps a range of big corporations attract and sustain consumers’ attention.
Some brands, including Asics and Finland’s Space Nation, have already captured the zeitgeist of calm, the former with a “blackout” running track in East London, and the latter with an astronaut-training app. If Higham is right, there will be even more delicious moments of darkness, quiet and mindfulness to come.
“We have got enough drama in our lives, we want to be calm,” said Higham, whose company Next Big Thing advises clients as diverse as Amazon, HSBC, Budweiser and the BBC. He said the impulse to slow down — and reflect — will touch various areas of peoples’ lives, including sleep, fitness, wellness, beauty and travel. “Luxury will be about escape and quiet. Luxury travel will be about going to a place where there is no noise — a beautiful, relaxed, calm place. It will be about creating silent rooms in your house. Quiet and peace is the way to go.”
In a wide-ranging interview about future consumer habits, Higham talked about “calm technology, which doesn’t get in your face,” pillows that wake people up with gentle light and a shift to low-intensity workouts that involve walking rather than running.
He also mentioned the dimly lit Asics track, which has no finish line, no tech and no music, and is meant to get runners to focus on the role of the mind in exercise and training.
Higham also foresees Japanese culture taking center stage once again, with a shift “from K beauty to J beauty.” He said J beauty is more about prevention and ancient ways of doing things rather than addressing an immediate problem. “It’s about having a lifestyle, putting something on your skin that will prevent issues, rather than fixing something.”
Netflix is also tapping into the Zen moment with the hit Japanese reality show “Terrace House,” that involves six young men and women spending the summer together. Unlike “Big Brother” in the U.K., it’s a slow-burn experience, with no angry outbursts, humiliating scenes —or bad plastic surgery.
Higham believes Japanese culture will exert its influence in other ways, too, with a shift away from the crafty, artisanal movement that has dominated fashion and luxury goods for years, to dreams of a “techno” future, which Japan embraced in the Eighties and Nineties.
“I think slowly we are starting to get a little bit excited about the future, with people kind of going ‘OK, how would we live?’ It’s this idea of trying to visualize an exciting future, because what’s going to happen? Is there going to be global disaster? I think finally there is a tick of light that we could colonize elsewhere.”
One Finnish company has tapped into that sentiment via a free app called Space Nation Navigator that offers a glimpse of what it’s like to train for a space mission. The app focuses on three core topics — body, mind and social — and offers a combination of games, quizzes, fitness challenges and tests to develop the skills that astronauts require to thrive in space. The imagery is stunning and all of the astronauts who feature in the app are female.
Back on Earth, a host of other related trends will be emerging. Higham said he’s been talking a lot about consumers’ three big needs right now. He calls them the three C’s: Control, comfort and community.
Control is about learning, empowerment and being able to navigate new technology — and popular culture.
“It’s all of the stuff that our parents are supposed to tell us, and also the classier things in life,” said Higham, adding that about half of American Millennials consider themselves foodies. “It’s this idea of understanding what’s cool, what’s classy, learning about wine and food, and knowing generally.”
Higham added that with people losing trust in traditional institutions, constant anxiety about finances and trade wars, the rise of AI and robots, and a gnawing sense of uncertainty, people are increasingly feeling the need to take control. “We don’t have much influence over all the big things so we have to try to take a little bit of control where we can, with wellness, being in charge of our own bodies, being in charge of our own careers and businesses.”
The pursuit of comfort, he added, is a reaction to the speed of life nowadays. “We are now starting to see people going ‘Actually, I don’t mind it taking a little longer, and I want to be comfortable. So we’re seeing things like rail travel coming back, and cruises coming back a little bit. It doesn’t have to be about speed.”
Community, he said, is about forming “small trust groups,” made up of friends and family. “We used to trust experts, and professionals and governments, and big businesses to do what’s best for us.” Not anymore. “Now it’s about trusting sideways, trusting people like me,” he said with a laugh, adding that the smart brands and retailers want to cultivate this trust among their consumers. “The companies that are succeeding right now typically are the ones that are creating a ‘brand family,’ where you feel you’re part of that brand.”
He pointed to Lululemon’s in-store yoga classes and retreats, which he said make customers feel the brand is genuinely thinking about their lives, and helping make them easier. “They are not just selling the clothes. I think more and more companies need to think about satisfying needs, and not just selling.”
He said retailers also need to listen ever more carefully to customers, and adopt a “village shop” mentality.
“It’s easier and easier to listen to your customers needs today. It’s all increasingly on big data. You can find out what your customer is doing — you either ask them or you observe them. Either way, there is no excuse for not ‘getting’ your customer. Technology is actually driving us back to the old village shop mentality.
“What people want is to be able to walk into a shop and for them to know who you are and what you want. If you are a chain and you are getting thousands of people coming through the door, you can still create that feel because you’ve got assistants who care, and you’ve got big data that enables the assistants to go, ‘Mr. So-and-so, you were here last week.’ We are using content to get back to more human interaction, and I think it makes sense.”
Customer care can be cultivated in a variety of ways with a mix of technology — and the human touch. Higham uses Nike and the eyewear brand Dresden as examples.
The former lets customers test footwear on basketball courts and running tracks before buying, while the latter allows clients to design their own glasses using a modular system of interchangeable lenses and frame parts in different colors.
Higham also believes that more sales channels will emerge in the coming years. Retail won’t just be about bricks-and-mortar and online. “It’s all about the bits in between, walking into a cinema and buying something from the film whilst you’re there. I don’t see many people doing it yet — it’s the natural next step.”
He spent the early part of his career in the music industry, and remembers concert-goers buying merchandise at gigs that they would never have bought outside of the of venue.
“They would buy T-shirts and key rings and all of that because it was a celebration of that moment. They were in a particular mood, and they bought. So why not take that (idea) to a cinema or a sports event or whatever?”
That would certainly give new meaning to product placement if cinema-goers could buy the Harry Potter wand or Quidditch broomstick, the hero’s cologne, or the lipstick, jewelry and leopard prints worn by the stars of “Ocean’s 8.”
Mr Porter has already built a whole in-house brand around that idea, with its “Kingsman” luxury men’s wear collections. The clothing and accessories feature in the Matthew Vaughn films’ name, and are also sold — year-round — on the brand’s Web site. Mr Porter screens the film trailers on its site, and is the exclusive distributor of the collection.
“You should be able to go in to a film and there should be either a stand with some of the merchandise you can buy physically or just touch screens where you can buy something then and there,” said Higham. “I think this idea of being able to purchase wherever we are is going to just grow and grow.”