I am on a Zoom call with a woman the New York Times hailed as the ‘Trend Oracle’ and Fortune magazine named ‘The Nostradamus of Marketing’. The founder of BrainReserve, a marketing consultancy based in the US, her clients include American Express, GE, Johnson & Johnson, KFC and Kellog’s to name a few.
The net is abuzz with reports of how she and her company are able to predict market and consumer trends with an astonishing 95 per cent accuracy.
While that in itself is amazing – and I plan to ask her to detail how she does that – I’m also intrigued by her name: Faith Popcorn. More specifically, her last name. But about that later.
For those who came in late, a couple of instances to put in perspective Faith’s astounding ability of forecasting trends:
In 1981, BrainReserve advised Coca-Cola that bottled water would be the next big thing. But the soft drink company did not think so at the time. Today, the bottled water market is sloshing around the $349-billion mark.
In 1988, her firm submitted a report to Kodak where she made it clear that the future of film is digital. The then seemingly unassailable leader in the film business, refusing to see the writing that was developing on the digital wall, pooh-poohed the report and fired her team.
The rest, as they say, is history.
A few more predictions to underscore her skills:
Years before the term telemedicine was being bandied around, she announced that ‘digital doctors’ would become increasingly popular. People, she said, would rely on embedded computer chips, swallow-able trackers, and sensors on the skin that would send medical data to doctors based remotely to make a diagnosis.
Faith was one of the first marketing consultants who shone a light on facial recognition technology saying it would be used to monitor an individual’s mood, and would be employed to sell products and services based on individual preferences.
The brilliant trend-spotter was also the first to predict decades ago that people would be opting for ‘one-handed’ breakfasts that could be eaten on the go while caffeine- and herb-infused beverages would become popular to boost energy and performance.
Little wonder Faith is the go-to person for major corporations looking to up their businesses and stay relevant.
However, one trend she predicted in the early 80s that truly intrigued me, particularly after the recent stay-at-home period, was the one she termed Cocooning. Defining it as the "impulse to stay inside when the outside gets too tough and scary" (don’t we know that only too well now), she was sure people would prefer staying at home, relying more on cooking, home delivery services and spending quality time with family. The author of three bestsellers The Popcorn Report (1991), Clicking (1996), and EVEolution (2000) suggested this would kick in in a decade.
The timing may have been a bit off, but she was spot on with her trend forecast.
Advising many businesses on how to harness this trend, her team worked with IBM on the PS1, the first home computer, and with several Fortune 500 firms including a luxury hotel chain to develop curated lodging that included the best of one’s home environment.
Not crystal ball
How did you predict that, I ask Faith.
"I don’t have a crystal ball to peer into," says the 70-something, with a laugh. Instead, her team uses a ‘32-step methodology’ including analysing media rigourously and conducting thousands of consumer interviews to spot future trends, while constantly monitoring what her Talent Bank of over 10,000 futurists are working and thinking about. "We were able to visualise a day when [a lot of things] would be delivered and ordered on the net." To that end, she advised consumer goods giant P&G that home deliveries would soon replace supermarkets.
She lists a few ‘signals’ that she noticed in different parts of the culture: "People were tired and did not want to take disco naps and go out at midnight anymore. Restaurants were not crowded on Saturday nights. New services were springing up to help them enjoy being home – HBO let them watch movies at home…" Thanks to Internet, people, many of who had slowly begun moving into gated communities, began seeking and finding in-home services from massages to prepared meals.
Admitting that intuition does have a role to play in forecasting trends, the real indicators become evident to those who choose to search diligently, she says.
Did her parents have a role to play in shaping her career?
"My parents were trained as lawyers and they taught me how to look for clues, how to use logic…" says the single mother of two adopted children.
Growing up, she was expected to follow her parents and pursue Law. She went into advertising instead. "But [advertising] seemed so short-sighted. Why only think a quarter ahead? Why not think about what your target would want a year or a decade from now?" says Faith (who was born Faith Plotkin, but a boss during her ad days kept mispronouncing her second name as Popcorn, a name that stuck).
Sights set on the future, she quit advertising and set up BrainReserve in 1974, a marketing consultancy that offers clients services that deliver future-focussed solutions and insights. "We practice Applied Futurism – we know what’s ahead, and tell brands and businesses such as Pepsico and Comcast, for instance, how to use that foresight to serve their future consumers."
What are the challenges of foreseeing the future? I ask.
"The challenge isn’t in seeing it," she says. "The challenge is in convincing clients to embrace and act on it. Kodak fired us; Coca-Cola didn’t want to go into bottled water [at the time]; Campbell’s didn’t take our ‘goodness’ positioning forward…"
But if a few corporates looked the other way, there were hundreds who quickly realigned their company’s sails to her predictions, keen to catch the strong trade winds that were preparing to blow.
Some seven years ago she predicted that watching movies would become immersive events. The film, she said, would happen all around the viewers, a prediction that has already come true. In time, viewers would even choose their own avatars as characters.
More than five years ago, Faith predicted that virtual reality vacations would become popular (today a Google search for ‘virtual vacation’ throws up more than 420m results). Around the same time, she told an interviewer that in just a few years the average adult would work for several companies simultaneously. And from home!
Work from home, a term that became a household name in recent times, brought to mind what Faith mentioned in a report last year: that there are an estimated 5,000 undiscovered coronavirus strains in bats. Does she expect another pandemic in the near future? I ask.
"Unfortunately, yes," she says, flicking back a lock of hair from her forehead. "Many parts of the world have been insulated, but new viruses have been cropping up." She lists Ebola, Sars and Mers among others. "Our lifestyle – pushing further into animal habitats, living closely with them, feeding upon them – allows viruses to jump from one species to another." To add to that, globalisation and ease of travel have fanned the flames of the pandemic.
Corona Cocooning, the mother of two believes, has rewritten the way mankind seeks and views shelters. "We’ll only leave one Cocoon for another – home for restaurant or concert hall or movie theatre…" She believes the day is not far when an ‘Immunity Passport’ would be mandatory to gain access to larger social gatherings.
Keen to shift the focus from disease to health, I ask her how AI will impact our well-being and lifestyle.
"It is massive and already happening particularly in the wellness sector," she says. She talks about devices like Lumen that can track an individual’s metabolism in real time and can make nutritional recommendations. Apps like Replika can act as a virtual friend and ‘create’ a friend for you; and Companion MX eavesdrops on your conversations and texts, and can alert you and your physician if a negative mood swing is imminent.
She has some good news for those who are busy: Hyper-realistic avatars will be meeting in the virtual world to do business and will carry on meaningful conversations with friends, acquaintances and associates constantly evolving to be more precise reflections of ourselves.
Age of avatars
"In the near future, you’ll be able to send your avatars to work, perhaps do multiple jobs at the same time," she says.
Not surprisingly, Faith is excited as she discusses AI and the future. "This communication we are now having over a Zoom call," she says, leaning forward to the camera with a smile, "this will go up a few notches. I might be able to reach out and virtually shake your hand. I could get a scent of the cologne you are using, I am using…"
She then takes it to the next level.
"Thoughts," says the trend-spotter, "will replace verbal communication and telepathic teams will become common."
Faith is not treading sci-fi territory: University of California in San Francisco scientists have already shown they can translate brain signals into complete sentences with nearly 97 per cent accuracy – better than professional speech transcription.
Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk and others, is already working on brain interface devices that will help people with paralysis to communicate. "Brain-to-brain communication without speech is already possible and Elon Musk says in the future, you may be able to record and re-live every moment of your life," she says, clearly excited about the future.
Is there a flip side to these massive disruptions? I ask.
"With face-to-face interaction disappearing and the [number] of robo-employees growing as the human workforce begins to shrink, new issues could begin to raise their heads," she feels. The role of managers will change – they will monitor not just productivity but also rely on emo-surveillance tools like face- , heart- and pulse-reading sensors to gauge the mood of workers. An upset worker will be offered counselling in real time.
Staff will be pampered and protected well, she adds, highlighting how Facebook recently paid out $52 million to moderators who developed PTSD over the disturbing, violent content they had to monitor.
Does she have a few tips for managers or marketers to spot key trends and incorporate them in their business plans?
I can suggest at least five, she says, readily.
1. Immerse yourself in other POVs – sites you don’t usually visit. If you’re male, look at Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and Refinery29. If you’re white, read Blavity and AphroChic.
2. Cultivate your own Talent Bank. Ours has 10,000 Global Futurists but you can create your own. Contact intriguing speakers, authors, academics, anyone who has an area of expertise and ask for a bit of their time to chat.
3. Tap colleagues from different arenas to solve a problem or create new ideas. Bring in thinkers of different ages, disciplines, talents, lifestyles to better represent your diverse consumer.
4. Immerse yourself in reading about the future. In addition to my website, FaithPopcorn.com, there are great forums on Reddit – there’s Wired magazine, MIT Tech Review, Futurism.com. Look for patterns... where new needs are emerging.
5. Don’t overthink it. Act! Culture is changing fast. If you hesitate to figure out supply-chain issues, a startup will beat you to it. Find ways around entrenched thinking – can you create an incubator; can you acquire a related business; can you outsource?
Personalisation will only keep growing – and businesses should be prepared to take it to the next level. She offers the example of Jaguar Land Rover working with AI to improve the driving experience. Cabin setting change based on the driver’s facial expressions. Ambient lighting and cabin colours would change to reduce the driver’s stress levels and a favourite playlist will start playing. Temperature would be lowered in response to yawning or other signs of tiredness.
As we come to the end of the interview, I ask her if any of her predictions have not occurred as yet?
"Yes," she says. "For women to achieve true equality – and even surpass men. It’s coming, but it’s taking forever."
Some trends Faith foresees for 2025
• Dark Revelry: People want to, need to, "be bad." It feels good. After this anxiety and lockdowns, it’s vital.
• Self-Hacking: We are demanding to be in control of our biology and our destiny. Implants, wearables, swallowables are part of this. Taking longevity supplements is another example.
• Childhood 5.0: The nature of growing up and being educated is transformed. Bots and AI step in and take over so many functions – teacher, tutor, playmate, friend, parent.
• The New NeighborGood: Acting locally, doing good, leading with values – that’s what matters and connects people. There’s a huge leadership vacuum and brands are stepping up. Pattern Brands cookware, for instance, delivering selfcare advice; Chipotle giving free food to healthcare workers.
A few changes in the short term to society
• Micro-dosing – using hallucinogens to work through psychological issues will become mainstream.
• The regular [Sunday to Thursday] work week is over. People will go into the office once or at best twice a week.
• The pandemic has escalated the divorce rate. Fewer people are marrying. Fewer people are having babies. We’re becoming more individualistic.
• The doctor’s office is gone. Why would anyone go sit in a waiting room after they’ve tried telemedicine?
• Binary gender will fade away very quickly. Children, Gen Z, and Millennials embrace gender-fluidity; brands will abandon terms like "deodorant for men/deodorant for women."