Discover more from thinking out loud
Trend Scanning + You
Building a values based framework to become a better strategist
If the word ‘trend’ inspires excitement and overwhelm in equal measure – this newsletter is for you. I’ve been a strategist for over a decade, and in the past three to four years it feels like a big part of the remit is just being online. This pressure of being all-knowing can be overwhelming, and the returns can quickly diminish. In an already ageist industry, one day you’re young enough to know what ‘skibbidi toilet’ is, and the next you have a family to balance and fewer hours to spend on TikTok. That’s how life works, and neither of those is something worth being punished for.
The intersection of mindset work, marketing, and entrepreneurship is endlessly fascinating to me. Earlier this year, I worked with an incredible business and mindset coach, Ben Easter, who helped me get rock solid in my values and use them as an operating system for my life. And after I did that work with Ben, I saw how enormously beneficial it is to the inner life of someone whose entire career can be constructed on being very online but also how it reinforced the compass that was always within me.
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The enshittification and meaninglessness of ‘trends’
I’ve long been curious about who we are, and how it relates to what we do and the cultural objects we create. Sometimes, it’s painfully obvious in an output (read: you can tell there was no diversity in the room), and other times it seems subtler and more insidious. Under this current of creation, there is this pressure of ‘trends’ and what they can and should mean to us as marketers and to the brands we steward.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of the internet as equal parts escape, and equal parts possibilities and inspiration. And that was the promise of the World Wide Web – whether it’s Web 1.0 or Web 2.0. Between the emergence of (highly-compelling) Web 3.0 models, and the rapidly decaying, enshittified social internet, it’s hard to know where to stand.
On the social web, any identifiable trait – from being slightly sunburnt to preferring the same breakfast on repeat is a marketable quirk. Tomato girl summer, strawberry makeup, blueberry milk nails, coquette, looksmaxxing – the speed of ‘trends’ is absolutely dizzying, and they kind of mean nothing besides selling stuff. If you’ve ever felt as though you’re responsible for digesting every so-called trend, chasing it, and turning it into actionable insight, using a values-based framework can assist in separating the signals from the noise. Better yet, it can help you move past the shame you can feel when you don’t know a trend, or can’t understand how to fold it into a client brief.
I’m personally giving you permission to not care. I encourage you to use the time you spend fretting over what’s on your FYP to hone your point of view. In our journey as strategists, we can become so wholly committed to the show and tell of knowing that we forget ourselves in the process. I hold the belief that when you’re a strategist, the sum of all your inputs – what you read, see, experience, are drawn to, and are resistant to, can form the basis of your personal practice.
The risk of living in reaction
The risk of living in an advertising culture that is focused on reacting to so-called ‘trends’ and building ‘cultural’ products in a clinical fashion is that you often end up with one of a few disparate realities:
Marketing that is exploitative of a community
Marketing that is a brand force-fitting itself into a community
Marketing that means nothing to real people
These usually are the products of forced cultural relevancy and cultural extraction. (For a long read on cultural extraction and building culturally sensitive brands, read Nick Susi’s incredible article.)
That intrinsic ick people feel reacting to work like this is because it is painfully evident that a brand has paid its way into a subculture, forcibly inserted itself into something, or just…done something because it seemed popular, and when the currency of culture is virality, culture is flattened into fleeting moments.
Resist the urge to build a cobbled-together mosaic of moments, and create something enduring. Divorce yourself from a mood board – because your mood board has itself been divorced from the original context, and following it alone is a dangerous path. The Internet is not the only literature we are allowed to consume.
In the Internet era, being a master of it all is de rigeur. The armchair (and even normal, trained, works at a research agency) trend analyst is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Oracle. Because in a time that feels so unprecedented and uncertain, the illusion of knowing is important. The Internet moves quickly, and so does the discourse cycle. It’s a way to build an entire personal brand - aggregating information and curating it. But who curates the curators and what makes what they say any more valid or valuable than anyone else?
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Is it a trend, or is it simply trending
Once upon a time, it felt like the word trend used to mean something. A subcultural movement, a progression, a marker. The language of trends has been reduced to a leaderboard on a social media site. Most people in the ‘real’ world don’t really give a singular damn about what goblin mode means. Our media ecosystem relies on this model: a thing happens online, people write about it, we force it into being a phenomenon, and we move on.
In the past, it seemed like there was a higher barrier to entry to subculture - you’d go record digging, modify your clothes the right way, and find your way into the right parties. Now, it’s a quick Google, Instagram scroll, etc. away. Someone might even have a curated Amazon list for you – the aesthetics of a subculture get appropriated into oblivion and divorced from their original context much faster. Therefore, ideas are recycled faster, and new modes of presentation for capitalism to subsume emerge even faster.
Being an all-knowing Oracle feels like it’s half the job of a strategist. But if we’re all meant to know, no one should pride themselves on being all-knowing. As responsible marketers, we’re all producing works that are a part of culture.
“Trends” as we currently know them are really only for ourselves. That’s fine... but for as long as we recognize they’re untethered from the real needs and desires of real people." – Matt Klein, Zine
Even a banner ad can be a cultural artifact.
When the focus is placed on being the first to activate or be on a platform or act on a trend, we lose our way. And when we lose our way, so do our clients. And suddenly, we’re behaving in a way that’s authentic to who we think we should be, rather than who we are. What’s viral on the marketing side of LinkedIn doesn’t always reflect real life.
A new way of building for modern marketers
Becoming free from the trap of knowingness is the magic of living in values-based alignment. Early in my career, someone encouraged me to develop a point of view that was wholly mine. That was tightly earned and studied and informed. I owe them immeasurably. Layering an ownable point of view with a set of rock-solid values creates an operating system that’s yours to hold as a strategist across jobs, functions, and most importantly: your life.
Manage your inputs as much as you manage your outputs and watch your entire life change. One of my more controversial beliefs is that I don’t believe in reading books on marketing or case studies. I’m interested in creating new things and building new worlds.
A way to think about honing your point of view is less about fashioning one in the style of someone you admire and more about leaning into what makes you you. That’s your superpower. Every single person in this room has a different life story and perspective and that is what makes us and the way we solve problems beautiful. I encourage you to water your own intellectual garden. Develop a self-directed syllabus about something you’re curious about. Start painting for the hell of it. Go on copious walks. Dig deep and get curious. Dare to be bad at something.
My challenge to you is to build a life where you live in values-based alignment, where you have a set of interests outside work and advertising, where you get curious about everything. What if you approached things in your life with the wonder of a child or a puppy? How might the way you live change?
How to think about your values
One of the greatest challenges to me (despite building decks upon decks of brand values in this lifetime) was identifying my values and seeing them for what they are. For those curious, my values are primarily oriented around curiosity, growth, and expansion – if I cannot experience those values at work, I’m unhappy.
Think about your personal values in this framework:
Values are universal. They can be experienced anywhere, by anyone.
They are intangible. You cannot touch them.
They are internal. They happen inside of you.
When I think of trends through a values-based framework, I evaluate it through the lens of – if a trend is focused on being cruel or deceptive… why would I want a client to act that way? It seems obvious, but sometimes the hype of the next shiny thing distracts us.
Remember: sometimes, a trend isn’t a trend.
It’s just a thing that happened on the internet.
An exercise in inquiry
File this for your homework later.
1. What was the most joyful you’ve ever felt?
2. When have you felt the proudest?
3. What was the best learning experience that you’ve ever had?
4. What is your best work-related memory?
5. What is your favorite social experience?
6. What is the worst day you can remember?
7. What is the angriest you can remember being?
8. What makes you endlessly curious?
9. What do you wish you never had to do again?
Circle the words and themes that come up again and you’ll gain a framework for your inner understanding. Those are values you experienced in that moment.
Once you learn your values, you can’t stuff them into a box and throw them away – they become apparent in every part of your life.
If you’re interested in this newsletter as a talk or training for your strategy department, email me.