Global trend expert Sarah Owen drives us to her favourite spots in the ancient city of Lisbon.
Trend forecaster Sarah Owen can see into the future, and she doesn’t even need a crystal ball. As the Senior Editor for Digital Media and Marketing at WGSN—a New York headquartered global trend forecasting service, Owen, formerly a editor at The New York Times and Vogue, spends her days travelling across vast distances and scouring the internet to discover the technology, culture and fashion that will shape the world in the coming years. Her findings can range from the concrete promise that bomber jackets will be a staple for Autumn 2016, to a vague hunch about Cuba—and her reports go directly into the hands of the world’s most influential brands.
Formerly the Gen Z and millennial editor, Owen is an expert at nailing down a rapidly shape-shifting and mercurial pulse, which makes her perfect for her new daunting task of seeking out and defining global trends. Between a visit to Milan and hosting a workshop in Dubai, she stopped for a few days in one of her favourite cities—Lisbon—for the annual Web Summit to learn about the future of technology from the world’s leading digital minds. She’s Mercedes shadowed Sarah Owen on a day spent trend-hunting through the cobbled streets of the ancient harbour city in a Mercedes-AMG C 43 4MATIC*. We got to glimpse into the secretive science of trend forecasting, Sarah Owen’s must-see destinations in Europe’s hottest city, and a vision of the future at large.
Tell us about the Web Summit. What were some of the most interesting revelations?
Web Summit – which came to Lisbon for the first time – delivered a few macro ideas for us to explore. We heard about designing for digital inclusion and new advances in artificial intelligence to the rise of the start-up scout and current CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) challenges. All concepts were fleshed out into our big ideas report that we publish on WGSN for clients to digest.
Many consider Lisbon to be the new Capital of Cool in Europe, and you mentioned it has a special place in your heart—what is it about the city that you and others find so compelling?
There’s something exciting happening in Lisbon. The contrast of a laid-back lifestyle mixed with a burgeoning creative scene gives it this untouched edge compared to its bigger sisters, say Berlin or Antwerp. It’s design-orientated but not so overtly that it’s obnoxious, you still feel like you can discover a few mysterious corners and boutiques without being swarmed by fellow Instagrammers or travel bloggers.
What qualities do you think a city needs to possess to produce or attract trends?
A city with a blossoming youth-centric mentality (remember that “youth” is a mindset, not an age bracket) and a love of culture, be it art, film, history or food.
But do trend-setters tend to fall into an age or socioeconomic bracket?
An easy way to look at core consumers is to assess whether they’re trend-setters or trend followers. Trend-setters live on the outskirts of industries and are the ones disrupting their creative field. Trend followers are the consumers who are design and information conscious but not experimental or innovative to get to the trend initially.
And what exactly do you define as a trend?
I think that word and definition is entirely dependent on the current landscape of when you ask. Trend a few years ago meant something entirely different than it does today. I think that’s how you have to approach trends: assess the situation you’re in today to help make a better assessment and forecast for tomorrow.
From your professional perspective as a trend forecaster, could you describe the scientific/intuitive approach that goes into defining something as “trending”?
A lot of it is pattern recognition peppered with the need for future insight or data. The combination of the two, usually qualitative and quantitative is quite powerful when articulated correctly.
Do you think the rise of trend forecasting is directly related to a need to sort through the data overload the internet has brought about, or do you see your practice as having deeper historical roots?
WGSN has been around for 18 years so I think there has always been a demand for trend forecasting, it’s just the approach that has changed. With the rise of social media and the changing consumption landscape, our methodologies certainly have evolved. There’s something valid about looking back to look forward from a historical macro point of view, but for predicting tomorrow, glancing into the future (be it two years or five) is necessary. The internet has created a lot of noise and filtering through that to analyse and prioritise the key messages is what we do at WGSN.
To your knowledge, how do WGSN’s customers then utilise the trend forecasts?
We have a variety of clients across different industries: think automotive to fashion, and hospitality to TV networks. Within those groups are different job roles therefore different approaches to utilising our content. A designer at a fashion company, for example, interprets our future trends reports to assist in concepting and creating a seasonal collection. A marketer at a CPG (consumer packaged goods) corporation may read a handful of our social media case studies to gain insight into what strategies the company could implement on their social platforms.
You used to cover millennial and Gen Z trends and now are focused on global trends—aside from swapping Coachella for the Web Summit, what else does this shift entail?
I used to be the Youth editor at WGSN for a handful of years and recently moved over to cover more digital-focused trends from a marketing and advertising point of view. I’m using the same skillset I developed as a trend forecaster but now some of the shift has my attention focused on brand best practices, social media trends, and new communication strategies.
A true trend forecaster is a pure cultural observer.
What was your education and career trajectory for this job? What kinds of skills are needed to be a trend forecaster?
I studied fashion and journalism via a Bachelor of Creative Industries and then moved on to a double masters programme in Australia. Most of my career has been spent as a journalist but I believe a true trend forecaster is a pure cultural observer with a knack for pattern recognition and the ability to synthesise a plethora of relevant information.
Is there a trend you have observed which you hope catches on, or one that you’re most excited about?
I’m keen to see how augmented reality will continue to evolve in a captivating way that adds value and convenience to consumers’ lives.
Speaking of adding value, do you see a way that trends can be harnessed towards social good?
Most definitely and it’s exciting to report on Gen Z – a generation with so many powerful voices and a keen sense of activism. These teenagers are raising their concerns on social and brands are listening and adapting. Together brands and consumers can start to impact change.
What’s your next travel destination?
I just finished up a workshop and client meetings in Dubai then back to New York before finishing the year off in North Carolina, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong and Australia for Christmas.
Wow! Well, thanks for sharing your favourite city and future visions with us, and safe travels!
*Mercedes-AMG C 43 4MATIC Station: Fuel consumption combined: 8.0–7.8 l/100 km; combined CO₂ emissions: 183–178 g/km.