Surfing the wave: how social media can be used to power product innovation

Consumers today are increasingly exploring new food and drink ‘trend routes’ that cross cultures and countries to deliver the hyper-regional, authentic experiences and ingredients they seek. It’s by analysing these routes that FMCG brands can identify which new experiences will become the hot new trend, and which will eventually be nothing more than a fad.

The pace at which a trend moves and gathers momentum is largely dictated by conversations on social media. Consumers across the globe can take to the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Weibo to share their experiences and opinions of a product or ingredient with their social circles. And, like a pebble thrown into a lake, these experiences and opinions ripple outwards. With millions of ‘pebbles’ thrown every day, the ripples soon become waves that, as they grow, quickly become mainstream. These waves represent trends; and brands are like surfers, hoping to be in the right place at the right time to ride them and take advantage of their momentum and power.

Social circles

Fundamental to this trend acceleration is the ease with which consumers are now able to share their views. An oft-quoted study suggests that the average Facebook user has 338 friends. Twitter claims that on average, 6000 tweets are shared every second. Once you factor in the popularity of more recent additions to the social media pantheon such as Instagram and Snapchat, it’s clear that consumers’ social circles continue to grow ever wider. As a result, social media now allows anyone to share their thoughts – often at the moment they occur – to increasingly wider groups of people located outside their local community, country, and even continent...

Having noted the opinions and experiences of their peers, as shared across social media, many consumers today are sufficiently affluent to be able to try out new brands and products for themselves. And of course, having done so, they too will share their opinions and experiences with their online social circles. The ripples become waves and in this way, a trend is born.

Hyper-local and authentic This use of social media is having an additional effect that is equally significant to the creation of trends. Proud to be on top, or even ahead of, the trends they see developing across their social circles, many consumers – especially millennials – are demanding greater authenticity from brands, and are often willing to pay a premium for it. They want to be seen as taste-setters, validated for ‘being there at the beginning’. This puts brands under pressure to innovate. Remaining relevant to this audience means ensuring that their experiences are sufficiently authentic. For this reason, we’ve seen an explosion in recent years of hyper-regional, incredibly specific products, largely inspired by other cultures. By way of illustration, the popularity of matcha - in everything from tea to ice cream - demonstrates how a trend originating in the East can become mainstream in the West. In line with a wider fascination with health and wellbeing, for example, the UK is seeing the emergence of a trend for fermented drinks offering digestive benefits. Conversations are taking place on social media around kvass, a Russian drink made from rye bread, and ayran, a yoghurt-based drink from Turkey. Similarly, Indian dairy desserts such as kulfi and gulub jamun are also being widely discussed by UK-based tastemakers, suggesting that a previously untapped category may soon become the next hot thing in cold desserts. Kvass

Centella asiatica

Across the Atlantic, the ongoing obsession with all things Korean – and ‘K-Beauty’ in particular – has led to a growing number of conversations around the ingredients used in the skincare regime, such as centella asiatica, ginseng, camelia and proposis. If it wasn’t for the overall K-Beauty trend, it’s highly unlikely that millennials would be discussing the antioxidant qualities of Asian perennials.

The fact that these discussions are happening in the first place - and are spreading - is not only a sign of the shift toward more authentic and hyper-local products but also a perfect example of how social media acts as the key catalyst behind a trend’s creation.

Pace of change

Fuelled by social media, trends are being created and gathering momentum faster than ever before. So fast, in fact, it can often be hard for FMCG brands to keep up. It’s important, though, that they jump on the right trends at the right time. Unlike a seasoned surfer, who has built up decades of knowledge and experience to determine which wave to catch, brands and innovators need more immediate tools at their disposal by which to make their judgement calls. These brands should harness technology to identify emerging trends earlier and prioritise which ones to activate based on their predicted growth.

In our next article, we’ll look at how brands can stay ahead of trends. And how they can distinguish between trends that will persist, such as the now mainstream matcha, and those, like the cronut, that have come to be regarded as a flash in the pan.

Hugo Amos is chief strategy officer at Black Swan Data.

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