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The SXSW series 2019: Seven non-obvious business trends for 2020

Like me, I’m sure you read a lot for your work. But no one reads as much as Rohit Bhargava. The former advertising executive scans thousands of articles, books, social media and academic journals every year to assemble his best-selling non-obvious trends report. He’s like a living Evernote. His office is stacked with piles of print-outs and torn magazine pages, labelled and categorised with sticky notes, curated into themes and then bundled like lawyer’s evidence that support his case for declaring a non-obvious trend. He could really do with some AI.

Bhargava has been producing the non-obvious trends report since 2012. It’s a book, declared by the New York Times as a best seller. Rewriting the same book every year seems like a really inefficient way to become a best seller, but Bhargava insists his method ensures he stays current and doesn’t fall into the cardinal sin of business decision-making: making wrong assumptions.

He calls it the Haystack method: to get a good idea you generate lots and lots and lots of ideas; and then you need to curate them. “I’m a not a speed reader, I’m a speed understander”, he says (quoting Isaac Asimov).

I like his definition of a trend: the accelerating present. And it’s only by fully understanding the present that you can predict the future.

At SXSW, Bhargava boiled it down to a 30-minute blitzkrieg of anecdotes and anecdata in seven handy trends. He also paired them an idea that you can use to exploit the trend.

1. Retro trust

We’re turning back the clock to rebuild trust: Nokia launches its retro phone, we’re downgrading to analogue watches, playing records again, reviving old arcade games and bringing back nostalgic experiences and foods.

Idea: seek out opportunities to collaborate with old brands and experiences.


2. Muddled masculinity

Whether it’s being tossed back and forth between the implied threat of #MeToo, or choosing a non-binary identity, shaving your armpits or simply not being sure what say on International Women’s Day, men are confused. It’s getting quite muddled out there.

Idea: Go with it, encourage the non-conformers and celebrate the ambiguity.


3. Innovation envy

From ping-pong tables, to hot desking and hackathons, everyone is outdoing each other to appear innovative.

Idea: Play offense – don’t follow some else; find your own rationale for innovation and tell your own innovation story.


4. Virtual living

From AR, VR, digital assistants and social profiles, we’re now truly living a second life, a digital life. It’s like a parallel world where we discover new identities and new ways of behaving. Not all of it good. Trolls anyone?

Idea: Don’t pretend it’s human or ‘real world’ environment; make a virtue out of virtual.


5. Empathy

Tesco, a UK grocery store, has started a slow shopping aisle and opens early so dementia and autistic customers can shop at their own pace. The rise of loneliness is an opportunity for business – a service called Join Papa is addressing the disease of loneliness by connecting older people to ‘grandkids’. A Japanese company is doing a roaring trade with holographic wives.

Idea: Replace ‘made in USA’ with ‘made with empathy’ as a tagline.


6. Robot revolution







Idea: Lead your company into the future with confidence. Embrace robots with curiousity, not concern.

7. The ongoing power of storytelling

Sometimes brands become famous, but not in the way they are intended. Case in point: Amazon’s Hutzler banana slicer. The product itself is pretty basic, but it’s the hilarious comments section that really propelled this kitchen utensil into the limelight. Sometimes customers will define your story for you, so you better hope they give you a good one.

Idea: Find your authentic story and then tell it well.


That last trend sounds a lot like ‘finding your powerful voice’ – a sentiment we here at Anthem we thoroughly endorse.

 Vincent Heeringa is executive director at Anthem and the former publisher of Idealog and Stoppress. Follow his SXSW journey on this very blog or on Twitter @vheeringa and @anthemnz. 

Vincent won many awards as a journalist with Metro magazine and The Independent Business Weekly and was twice named Editor of the Year by the Magazine Publishers’ Association for his role in founding Unlimited magazine. In 2004 he co-founded HB Media, which was later to become Tangible Media, and is a publisher at AUT Media, the publishing division of AUT University.

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