TrendWatching with Thomas Klaffke

With an eye on the future, we talk with Thomas Klaffke, an expert in identifying and interpreting consumer signals. As Head of Research at TrendWatching, Thomas explains the process of mapping out global, meaningful consumer trends and insights. We also discuss Business of Purpose, a new platform for business professionals which Thomas also leads – and what a societal shift from carefree consumerism to a more purpose-driven economy will mean for the future of brands and commerce.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Thomas Klaffke: We’re always looking through a certain lens when we look at things. When you’re analyzing different people, for example, and what their idea of the future is that really also shows you the ideologies and the belief systems that are behind that.

Adrian Tennant: You’re listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, VP of Insights at Bigeye. A full-service audience-focused creative agency, we’re based in Orlando, Florida, serving clients across the United States and beyond. Thank you for joining us. In the introduction to her 2016 book, The Signals Are Talking futurist Amy Webb writes: “The future doesn’t simply arrive fully formed overnight, but emerges step-by-step. It first appears at seemingly random points around the fringe of society, never in the mainstream. Over time, they fit into patterns and come into focus as a full-blown trend. A convergence of multiple points that reveal a direction or tendency; a force that combines some human need, and new enabling technology that will shape the future.” The fates of companies including Kodak, Blockbuster, Circuit City, and RIM – creator of the Blackberry – illustrate what happens when corporations fail to identify signals that point the way to future consumers’ needs and behaviors. Organizations that can see trends early enough to take action have the first-mover advantage, informing and shaping new markets. Our guest today is an expert in identifying and interpreting those signals that become trends. Thomas Klaffke is Head of Research for the Amsterdam-based firm, TrendWatching, where he leads a team responsible for mapping out global, meaningful consumer trends and insights. Thomas previously worked as an innovation and foresights consultant for companies in Germany and South Africa. Today, Thomas is also the head of TrendWatching’s sister company, Business of Purpose, where he’s creating a platform for purpose-driven business professionals. To talk about identifying trends and translating them into innovative, purposeful products and services, Thomas is joining us today from his home office in Berlin, Germany. Thomas, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS!

Thomas Klaffke: Thank you so much, Adrian. Happy to be here, excited to talk with you.

Adrian Tennant: TrendWatching was founded in Amsterdam 20 years ago. Could you tell us a little bit about what TrendWatching does and the types of clients you serve?

Thomas Klaffke: Sure. So TrendWatching is basically a trends intelligence firm. So our mission is to guide, inspire, but also empower business professionals to bring to market sustainable and inclusive innovations that benefit all. And we do that really by turning trends into meaningful opportunities. So right now we have around 100,000 people that are receiving our free content that you can see on the website, but also for our newsletters and so on. We have a few thousand on social media as well. And, we have around 800 clients that are using our premium platforms where, we constantly, every week, add new innovations and trends and reports and so on, it’s basically all of the content that we’re producing that, our clients have access to, including our individual, analysts.

Adrian Tennant: So, Thomas, what’s the split roughly between direct clients and agencies like ourselves?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah, we have around 40 percent agencies that are using especially premium products, for example like TBWA or Ogilvy that are using that. And then we have around 45 percent of bigger brands or corporates. So for example, we have Danone, we have Google, Phillips, these bigger companies, and venerable brands. We have of course, and also some smaller companies. And, and the last bit is, NGOs are non-profit organizations. We have UNICEF, for example.

Adrian Tennant: Thomas, you’re the Head of Research at TrendWatching, what does your role entail?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah that’s right. That means that I’m basically responsible for all things regarding our research system. So we bring out lots of content on a daily basis. So we need a really strong research system that covers everything that really funnels in all of the content needs that we have. So a year ago we started building a new research system that has basically three elements. One of them is our internal team. So we spot interesting innovations, trend signals, and so on internally. And we actually also integrate people that are not in our core content team, but also, sales unit or in operations, because we just also want to create that kind of innovation-enthusiastic culture. And then the second element there is our insights community, which is called TWIN: TrendWatching’s Insights Network. And here we have around 800 people from all around the world that are either also working within the trend industry or that are just interested in that. And they’re sharing basically on an online platform all of the interesting innovations that they can find, industry trends, all sorts of signals, and they’re sharing that with themselves, and also of course with us. And we’re using them basically tapping into that pool of that community as well. And then the third one, which is the most important one, is that we’re also tracking websites, blogs, newsletters ourselves, partly the third-party tools, but using some kind of algorithms, a little bit of AI that helps us filter through all of the noise, sort of checking around 2,000 to 3,000 sources. And then we’re kind of using that also to catalog all the different things that we get in and I am responsible for that part of the company basically before then gets to in the analysis where, we’ll also play a role, of course.

Adrian Tennant: Thomas, how do you characterize a trend?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah. So the three elements that I think are always really important when it comes to trends is guidance. So a trend should give you guidance with regards to the future and what is to come in the coming years. The second element is inspiration I think. So you should get inspired by that trend. It should kind of trigger new ideas, new thinking basically. And the last one I think is usefulness. So you should be able to kind of directly get some value out of that trend in terms of building a new product or it helping you change or improve your strategy, things like that. And at TrendWatching, we always try to have a good balance of these three elements. And we recently also introduced, for us a new element, which is impact, which is really about building a better world through trend-driven innovation, basically.

Adrian Tennant: In the context of trends, what kinds of timelines are you typically most concerned with? Are you looking at trends that could have an impact within say the next 12 months, one to five years, or five to 10 years, or even further out?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah. So most of the trends that we also kind of release or website, or that we release on a very frequent basis are trends that are in terms of timeline and valid for like the next two to three years, I would say. And so it’s kind of like a medium range. Internally, we call them sub-trends basically. And we have another level, which is something that we’re actually currently working on and updating, which we call megatrends, which are the bigger consumer shifts that are, in terms of timeline, like five to 10 years or so. And then we have another categorization, which we call drivers of change, which are the major shifts basically. So here it’s more kind of climate change, for example, or urbanization. So these bigger topics that are influencing life in the 21st century,

Adrian Tennant: TrendWatching’s innovation-led approach is quite different from traditional market research. To anticipate what people will want next, you believe rather than surveying customers, it’s actually more productive to look at what businesses are doing in response to consumers. Can you explain why?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah. There are a couple of things to that. So this one quote that I like to share always by William Gibson, who is a SciFi writer, which is: “The future is already out there. It’s just not evenly distributed.” So, you know, nowadays with the internet of social media, with the whole information flood that we have, basically, I think there’s just so much happening out there. Especially also with the entrepreneurial era. You have so many new startups popping up all around the world. I think if you are really looking – and this is what we’re doing, we are really looking at the global scale – you will find interesting things, everywhere, like interesting innovations that are already on the market or making it to the market that are about to be on the market. So that is one element. And then the other thing that connects to these two elements that I mentioned earlier, that make good trends, I think, which is inspiration and usefulness. So when you look at trends, with the lens of lots of different innovations, you immediately get lots of cool ideas as well. You could say that everything is a remix. Creativity is not something that just comes out of nothing. I think it’s always good to have a couple of pillars or different kinds of signals that you can look at that can inspire you too, with new ideas. And usefulness is the other thing. If these products, if we can showcase our clients, that there are already companies out there that are bringing that to market, there are all the people working on this at least or working on kind of aspects of that trend and that, you know, tells them that there’s really something there. That gives them a little bit more proof maybe.

Adrian Tennant: Yeah, that makes sense. So let’s talk about how you identify trends and implement them. Could you explain your framework for purpose-driven innovation?

Thomas Klaffke: Sure. Yeah. There is a little bit of a story to that I have to say because at TrendWatching we actually developed our older methodology called trend-driven innovation in around 2014 or 2015. There’s also a book about it, but all of that thinking is based on the idea of the expectation economy. So really people want more things, different things, they desire new stuff. And if you look at it more critically from today’s perspective is it is maybe based on a sort of carefree consumerism ideology, and in constant pursuit of growth, which in today’s world might not be so fitting anymore. And throughout the last couple of years, what we’ve seen like actually using that trend-driven innovation methodology is that we’re seeing a move more towards what we call the purpose economy, to really an economy that of businesses that solve the big problems that we have. So we’re in the midst of evolving our or framework, with this new thinking. And that’s why we call it purpose-driven innovation methodology. And the idea here is that you still have, on the one hand, three pillars that we look at. One is as you were already saying, as a quite innovation lab is innovations, then we look at, what we call basic human needs. So what kind of basic human needs is this innovation really satisfying? Because basic human needs are never changing. They’re quite certain, it’s something. So, as an example, like, convenience there or safety, it’s very general kind of principles. And the third pillar is drivers of change. So these big, major shifts that are happening like urbanization or climate change. So we bring these three things together: drivers of change, innovations, and basic human needs. And out of that, we look at what are some consumer expectations that are emerging from that. So for example, you could ask yourself like, “Okay, if consumers are using this product, or are seeing this, ad, what would they expect from other companies after that?” So these are the kinds of questions that we ask and the new framework that we add to that is the impact bit basically. And here we’re using two kind of things that are quite known, which is the UN SDGs – UN Sustainable Development Goals – these 17 goals for sustainable development in the world, that we’re using as basically a like a purpose filter. So on the one hand we are mostly looking at innovations that relate to these 17 UN SDGs, and are then looking at all of these other elements. And on the other hand, we also use another framework, called the eight sustainability principles. It’s from a bigger work, by a Swedish sustainability expert called Karl Henrick Robert, which is called the natural step framework. And he talks about these eight sustainability principles that are basically rules that you have to abide by in order to provide sustainable innovations or bring sustainable innovations to the market. And we use those basically as a filter when we teach our clients our methodology. And when we go from looking at trends and turning them into innovations or into opportunities and these, principles are these rules, you could say, for example: don’t extract from the earth, don’t produce harmful substances, don’t recreate nature, don’t overwork people, everyone’s voice should matter, help people to self-develop, don’t discriminate, and celebrate diversity. Now of course you won’t find a lot of, innovations right now that really, check all of those boxes, of course. Yeah, this is also not what we want to do. Like we don’t want to completely say that we have these rules, we have these even SDGs and that’s where we should focus on totally. But we’re using it more as like a mental exercise to think differently about what we’re doing and what the impact of our actions will have. And just doing that already helps you come up with, I think more creative ideas also, but also most importantly, ideas that are really fitting to, I think today’s the world into this, purpose economy.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages.

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Thomas Klaffke of TrendWatching. Thomas, in addition to being the Head of Research for TrendWatching, you also lead its sister organization, Business of Purpose. Why was the organization created and what does it do in relation to TrendWatching?

Thomas Klaffke: Yes exactly. So Business of Purpose is basically our sister brand. It is mainly right now focused on building a community of purpose-driven business professionals. We currently have more than 1,200 members from all around the world in over 60 countries. And we’re getting together also in an online space, just sharing insights about purpose-driven business. The idea behind that was that we saw this move to this purpose economy, but, we also saw that as still quite a lonely journey for lots of business professionals in that field. The status quo of business is, I think, still not fully aware of that maybe, or it’s just kind of waking up to those ideals and we just wanted to create a space for people that are interested in this to exchange new knowledge and ideas. So what we have is this community, but we also organize events and things like that. And then we have a monthly newsletter and a podcast, where we discuss interesting new purpose-driven business, practices also with companies that are doing things a little bit differently.

Adrian Tennant: Over the past decade, many new brands have adopted a direct-to-consumer business model rather than seeking shelf space on retailer shelves via traditional distribution. Due to lockdowns as a consequence of the COVID 19 pandemic, many consumers were forced to purchase essential and non-essential goods online. In response, we’ve seen more retailers implement omnichannel solutions integrating online ordering with collection in-store or curbside pickup. Thomas, what do you foresee the evolution of retailing looking like over the next few years, and are there any emerging trends that point us toward interesting scenarios?

Thomas Klaffke: So yeah, retail is an interesting space right now, I would say. Because, there’s a lot of things that have been accelerated for COVID. Like you mentioned, for example, online shopping of course is a big one. And it is of course now, interesting to see how things will pan out once people have more opportunity again to go out and shop But I think, a couple of things that we’ll definitely see over the coming years, or that have definitely kind of changed are that you have a lot of smaller D-to-C brands that are gaining more leverage over the bigger brands. So we will see, I think, a lot more kind of collaboration and also acquisitions from bigger brands with smaller brands. Then I think, small offline retailers will actually move even more online. This is something that, you’ve seen a lot already, probably like in what you could call developed countries, but it’s actually a much bigger trend in developing countries where you have lots of this. You know, very offline mom and pop shops, corner shops, convenience stores, where we’ve seen lots of innovations from, Latin America, for example, but also Southeast Asia where there are new startups helping them go online, basically. So that is, I think, a big move that is coming from in these regions at least. Than maybe a little bit more in Europe or in the US, North America, you’ll see I think a lot more within last-mile innovations. So whether it’s faster delivery, whether it’s automated vending machines or kiosks, and a new way of picking up your packages. Also autonomous delivery methods, I think have seen some surge and more investments over the last couple of months. So I think two other, kind of smaller trends within that are ghost kitchens, which are restaurants that basically don’t have any seating you can order food from, and you have the same thing also for groceries, which are called dark stores. One thing here is that’s kind of split in between carefree consumerism and, sustainable or conscious consumerism. And, so I think, on the one hand, we of course really liked the new convenience at these innovations bring with them, new trends, but on the other hand, it also generates more packaging waste, for example. And so I think there will also see some sort of new trends happening, whether it’s reusable packaging or biodegradable packaging, I think there’s a lot happening in those spaces, which hasn’t really come out yet. It hasn’t come into the mainstream, but, also as government regulations are shifting in the EU. They just like banned single-use plastics just I think a few days ago. So I think you will see a move there, you know, quite soon. Maybe two more things. One is that, as you see more retailers going online, I think you’ll also get more and more kind of niche and curated online stores and shopping communities, because it’s the kind of acceleration created a lot of supply of new kind of online retail and now there is still, we are going again into a phase where there’s curation happening where people are basically overwhelmed by what is out there. And you’re already seeing what we called kind of niche Amazons that are focusing on certain consumer types or certain niche markets, things like that. And then the offline sphere, I think people would just demand more from going to a store. I think the service just has to pick up and be better and one thing is the trend that we released just recently called Local Change-Makers, which is all about bigger retailers or bigger brands collaborating with local stores on the ground. This is all kind of triggered by this new way of doing retail, but it is also triggered by a big trend that we call authenticity or became a more authentic brand. And so bigger brands are trying to collaborate with smaller companies, organizations, and communities on the ground. And are using their networks to also ship their goods or sell their services. As it’s much more authentic for our global brand to collaborate with some smaller, more local, companies that really know what it’s like to be on the ground.

Adrian Tennant: Another area of our lives that has been affected by COVID is the increased amount of working from home among people who have the types of jobs that can be done remotely. What might some of the longer-term impacts be for traditional office spaces and commuting?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah, this is, one of the trends that I like most, because it’s I think one of the biggest shifts that COVID has triggered and, there’s just so much happening in the space right now. It’s super interesting to watch. But yeah, I actually brought a couple of just signals that we usually also look at at a really showcasing the impact of this. So just recently, for example, half of London firms planned for home working five days a week. Four million Americans quit their jobs in April, which is a 20-year record. There was a recent survey, where 95 percent said they are considering quitting their jobs. Japan recently proposed a four-day workweek. This person called Marc Andreessen, who’s a very well-known investor in the US and he said that the remote work trend might be bigger than the internet. And yeah, major tech companies have also introduced, of course, homeworking stuff, and those who want people to go back like Apple, received some backlash. So there’s definitely a lot happening here. And I think especially also when it comes to younger generations, you see a shift, in terms of employee leverage against, employers. this is all not only kind of influenced by remote work there are also some other things that have been happening the last couple of years that are coming together, basically. So one would be employee activism. We’ve seen a rise of that also, even before COVID, when it comes to diversity stuff or inclusion, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on. Then we of course have more and more of the Boomer generation being replaced by Millennials and Gen Z at the workplace. Just naturally as people get older, as we have younger people just being in these leading positions. Then, I think the move towards a more purpose-driven economy, I think there’s also especially among younger people a growing feeling that hard work might not really lead to a fulfilled life as promised. Yeah. There’s generally an increasing distrust in institutions in general. And then you, of course also have increased burnout, mental health, and de-stigmatization of mental health and all of that. And for, especially also again, younger people kind of a future anxiety. This isn’t the last crisis that we will face. There will also be other crises coming in the future. So I think all of these things are basically coming together now really leading to one of the biggest shifts that COVID has triggered. So I think what we’ll see is more hybrid and remote work, and I think it will become quite established. But it also has some other long-term implications in terms of a new war for talents. Now of course anyone from anywhere in the world could get potentially certain jobs. So, there’s a lot of potential opportunities for people living in an area where they don’t really have access to these high-paying or interesting jobs, but might have the skills, And I think there’s also new competition in terms of like new perks at work and new workplace wellbeing staff. We see an emergence of so-called third spaces. So these are kind of co-working spaces, cafes for working. Different workshop spaces, basically office spaces that are geared towards specific tasks that you have. For example, creative work, for example, for deep work along with for socially engaging with others and things like that. And then, one thing that we have seen already over the last couple of years emerged as the so-called creator economy, which I think has also now been triggered even more with remote work as people assign these statistics and are thinking more about quitting their jobs, potentially thinking more about. And going, into kind of solo entrepreneurs or at least kind of starting like a side hustle, a small kind of passion project on the side. And if you’re working remotely and a new job is basically just a Slack workspace and another Microsoft login away, you could potentially also have many more on jobs at the same time. So this is something that is called fluid employment. So you’re actually not anymore just employed by one company, but by a couple of different companies, I think that will also become more normal or more mainstream. Yeah, and I think ultimately – this is, again me of course being very, very biased with our Business of Purpose community and everything – but I think it’s all again also kind of hinting towards the purpose-driven business world where, companies that offer a meaningful job, that offer a workplace where you feel safe, where you’re not burnt out and all of that. I think that will win with that because they will get more employee loyalty and that will becoming increasingly difficult to establish in a remote work setting.

Adrian Tennant: Thomas, you hold a Master of Arts degree in Future Studies. Could you tell us a little bit about what Future Studies is?

Thomas Klaffke: Sure. I studied Future Studies here in Berlin at the Free University of Berlin. And it’s basically quite a philosophical degree. So in general, it’s really about asking the question what is the future, really? What if we talk about the future I’m talking about? So it really helped me kind of lay the foundations of what I’m doing right now, but it’s a very philosophical kind of analysis of what we call the future. Not only like in this field that I’m working in now, trend intelligence, but also just in our daily life.

Adrian Tennant: In what kinds of ways did what you learned from Future Studies influence or inform the approach you take to research at TrendWatching and Business of Purpose?

Thomas Klaffke: Yeah. So one thing that you learn early on in Future Studies is that the future does not exist. The concept of something that is coming, still not there yet, you cannot actually analyze this. So we’re not actually analyzing the future. We are analyzing what we in Future Studies call present futures. So ideas of the future that are present right now that are discussed within society and politics and so on. So you’re looking at these present futures. That’s the main thing of interest that it’s basically, and that also kind of has something within that, which is that we’re basically all always looking through a certain frame, through a certain lens when we look at things. So that means that when you’re analyzing different people, for example, different businesses, different kinds of societal movements, and what their idea of the future is – that really also shows you the ideologies and the belief systems that are behind that. And really shows you kind of also yet the frameworks that it uses and that makes you just more conscious about also your own frameworks and how the world is moving forward in general. So it’s really just about looking at what is being discussed and what is behind that. There’s a lot of systems thinking, systems theory in that as well. And all of those things I think help you just to be more conscious about yourself and your own lenses and just, for me, especially when it comes to research, being able to find the exact right sources that I need for looking at certain things. If I’m interested in, for example, remote work and how this will pan out, I can potentially maybe better understand where I find these kinds of communities or these people and companies that are looking at this right now and tap into their ideas and then combine that with what we have internally at TrendWatching as the bigger framework.

Adrian Tennant: Science fiction became reality as AirCar, a flying car completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Slovakia last month, using wings that fold away in less than three minutes and a propeller at its rear. AirCar has a BMW engine that runs off regular gas. Meanwhile, Michael Cole, who’s the chief executive of the European operations at Hyundai said that they’ve made some very significant investments in urban and mobility suggesting that flying cars will be a reality by 2030. Thomas, based on what we’ve discussed today, do you think there’s a real appetite among consumers for flying cars?

Thomas Klaffke: I think there’s definitely an appetite. I mean, we’ve seen it in all of those science fiction movies, right? And a lot of things that we’ve seen in the early Star Trek movies, it’s actually coming to into reality at some point, I think, especially with flying cars, there are of course a lot of challenges also with it. There are interesting companies working on it. There are also here in Germany, we have two companies working on this. There’s an interesting company in Singapore and China. They’re also working on it. It is quite globally, you know, something that is being discussed. But you also saw, I think, Uber had much more plans than that, scrapped those plans again for their flying car or the electric air takeoff and landing plans. So I think it’s gonna be a little bit similar to what we’ve seen with autonomous vehicles, where you were also, I think a few years ago, like two years ago, three years ago, seeing also a little bit more excitement than maybe in the last two years. So we’re I think still in this kind of very like an excitement phase where lots of these companies experiment and bringing out new things, and you might also soon see the first commercial applications of that. I think like in a very limited scale, like you’ve seen also with autonomous vehicles, you know, like there are Google cars, or Teslas driving around, but I think it’ll still take a while until this becomes a bigger thing. I think what will be more interesting in the meantime is actually drones in terms of electric delivery drones. And which is also connecting to what we’ve talked earlier about in terms of retail innovations. So, last-mile delivery solutions with drones and things like that, I think are a little bit more interesting right now. But of course, like we definitely keep our eyes on that. And, we actually have an extra space for our clients where we look at the more out there niches that are emerging. In there we also have one which is looking at electric airplanes and also these flying cars concepts.

Adrian Tennant: Thomas. If IN CLEAR FOCUS, listeners would like to learn more about you, TrendWatching, or Business of Purpose, where can they find you?

Thomas Klaffke: They can find me on LinkedIn. I usually also post once or twice a week some interesting stuff on LinkedIn. So just follow me at Thomas Klaffke, that’s K L A double-F K E. And you can also find me of course, through or Yeah, we have all our profiles on these pages. There are lots of ways where you can connect with us. Feel free to reach out and happy to help anyone who is interested in the space.

Adrian Tennant: Thomas, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Thomas Klaffke: Thank you so much for inviting me. Adrian was a really nice conversation.

Adrian Tennant: Coming up next time on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Adrienne Barnes: Who are the buyers, what is the job they’re trying to accomplish? What is the information that we need to know internally, that’s going to help us reach these people? So a buyer persona to me is all of the information relevant to reaching your best buyer.

Adrian Tennant: That’s an interview with content strategist, Adrienne Barnes, next week on IN CLEAR FOCUS. Thanks to my guest this week, Thomas Klaffke, Head of Research at TrendWatching and also head of Business of Purpose. You’ll find a transcript with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at under “Insights.” Just select “Podcast”. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider following us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, Audible, YouTube, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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