The Mind Of a Brilliant Trend Seeker - Rob Sullivan
The world keeps revolving and evolving, and that’s why we keep having trends all year, decade, and century round. With the trends happening here and there, we love to see people who can actually spot trends before they happen. So, In the same way I love digging for trends and what could turn out to be the next big thing, I love exploring for curious, passionate, and the finest minds with foresight in the trend industry.
So, today I have decided to introduce my readers to someone fascinating. He is a passionate and fervent trend spotter. He is no other person but Rob Sullivan, CEO of Profecia, a research firm specializing in detecting emerging trends. I mentioned him in my previous post on “How to spot trends”. In this interview, we will be leaning more into the trend industry as Rob Sullivan talks about his passion for trends and explains his “unconventional tricks” to spot emerging, not-so-obvious trends. I hope you enjoy the read!
Rob, let's get right to the point. Why are you so passionate about trends?
My degree at university was in Economic History. I’ve always loved history. Trends, long term ones at least, often tie into history, where the world has been and where it’s going.
You often find patterns repeating or ideas get recycled with modern twists (like I mentioned on the letter this week with the desire to replicate hunter-gatherer behaviours). Sometimes technological constraints means it doesn’t come to fruition the first time around e.g. electric vehicles didn’t take off back in the early 1900s. Sometimes it is regulatory or the wrong focus like LSD research in the 1960s (less focus on psilocybin). But often the most promising unrealised things of the past come back with some variation in the present.
OR forgotten behaviours re-emerge. Paleo dieting was a great example of this.
OR the next generation reacts adversely to what the generation before did and this impacts product design, what kind of brands emerge etc. We see this with late Millennials/Gen Z and Baby Boomers to an extent today. These kinds of movements are fascinating to me. Trends are also often about psychology, if you understand fundamental human behaviours and how they repeat (e.g. everyone wants a short cut), you can spot new things coming.
Trends are a cool area to research because if you know where the Zeitgeist is going, you can build brands, launch products at the right time, set up your ads in the best way, invest properly etc. ‘Leaning in’ to that makes it way easier to get a new thing going than fighting to build demand where it doesn’t exist yet.
Plus with trends you can get so detailed at each layer - talk for hours on the macro ones like sustainability and for hours on micro ones like a new hemp strain for example.
I have a brain that likes focusing on a bunch of different things. I get bored just looking at one product or industry. Obviously I don’t go too broad, I focus specifically on consumer goods (beauty, food/drinks, pets, household durables/consumables, apparel, fitness) and DTC stuff for subscribers. But nearly every week there’s something new to write about, trends are always coming and going, new companies emerge, new product types, new packaging innovation etc.
What are your personal tips, your magic recipe for detecting trends?
There’s a ton, probably not enough space or time to cover them all. Some are very obvious but not something you consciously think about, so it’s sometimes good to remind yourself. The key with all of this is how imaginative you are. If it is on the web, there is probably some way you can use it.
To test demand for something I post in a place where I know my target audience is but make it non-salesy, for example if I want to start a supplement brand for drummers (expand out to more musician types over time), I’ll post product mockups/sketches on the drumming sub-reddit or a drumming Facebook group, if I post a bunch of times and get barely any attention on it I’ll know it's a dud or just not connecting from an emotional or needs-based POV with who I’m going after. If it does get attention, DMs, comments showing desire to buy, I can start getting initial customers from there.
OR if you have more budget you can use FB/IG ads, have some different audience sets with mockups and see if you get any pre-orders etc. An email list is cool but pre-orders are better for validation IMO.
For web scraping, I like using import.io if I don’t have to go through many URLs each month. You get 1,000 URL queries each month which resets as far as I know. My co-founder is a data scientist so if we have to do something more intensive, she writes a script for it.
Unicornads.com is a great resource for spying on ad strategies of big and up and coming brands in lots of consumer verticals.
If you want to keep tabs on brands in a particular space, you can do this in your IG feed/stories. For example, if I wanted to start finding smaller players who might be disruptive in the pet space, I’ll add a bunch of products to my cart, then buy them or abandon the cart on several sites. I’m then going to get targeted with a load of ads from pet brands, many will be smaller (I’ll also get targeted by new brands in Google Ads, display etc. if I keep doing this). From a trends-POV, then go see what kind of press they have, if they have offline distribution, search interest etc.
From more of an investing and big CPG brand POV, one really cool trick I’ve seen used is tracking order numbers. If you’re MyProtein for example, you might have been able to see how Huel was progressing by looking at the difference between order numbers. E.g. Month 1 - your order is #1000, month 2 - your order is #1,500, month 3 it is #2,400. If the difference is increasing all the time you know you have a brand that is moving quickly. I’ve proposed to a couple of big CPG brands, to ‘test’ a basket of 100 challenger brands or something, order minimally priced things 1x per month and see if there are order #s, if there are you can track it over time. This is one way how you spot those disruptors in the long-tail.
If you want to get a ‘feel’ for the layout of a market or space you are interested in - Go to the biggest relevant site in your niche. For example, I can spot a lot of new supplement brands and areas of focus on Holland & Barrett. If you look at the ‘product category’ filter they usually have on the left hand side, you can get an immediate sense of the layout of a market, pain point areas, product formats, leading/new brands. Similar thing if you went to Chewy.com for example and looked at dog food, you would notice the filters on the left show the formats, ingredients, focus areas. It had 40m visits in August 2020, how they sell and what they sell is a good proxy of the current state of the pet food space.
Looking at trending words on Urban Dictionary and then cross-referencing them in Google Trends or IG/TikTok tags is useful. This can help you spot the next ‘simp’ , ‘karen’ or ‘ok boomer’ and other things to stay on top of how language is changing or being used.
For offline, if I go to certain shops a lot, I’ll look at how the shelf space is changing. You’re looking to measure facings and linear space to get a rough calculation on the share of shelf. For example, if I go to Tesco all the time (every week) I can see how rapidly a new category is taking space. E.g. if BCAA drinks have 1 slot in week 1 and the same number by week 30 or something, this is very different to 1 vs. 5 slots in the same period. I’ve done this at Boots (pre-COVID) in the UK for certain hair care products. Also look for whether something is being discounted all the time, outside of usual seasonal reductions, an indicator of weaker brand strength.
What not-so-obvious major trends do you see emerging?
I’ll focus specifically on two here that impact consumer goods and DTC. When you’re looking for big things, you want to spot things that have academic, investor, government and cultural tailwinds to them. I like a16z’s 4 tests as well for this. D’Arcy Coolican did a great presentation last year on this. Also for big things I like to think about what is inevitable from demographic changes (the greying economy is one I have been talking about a lot in my letter), economic conditions, environmental pressures etc.
We’ve discussed this before Marie but I think ‘de-stimulation’ and resetting is going to be big. I saw the Dopamine Detox subreddit come out of nowhere in late April 2020. Kind of the start of the first part of the wave. Then Netflix’s Social Dilemma has shown the cultural interest is there (more than 2x Game Changers’ peak search interest). Governments are worried about how much screen time and time on IG/TikTok etc. kids have. Investors ploughed money into Headspace ($93m series C) and Calm. I’m dubious how much actual usage of phones/screens will diminish, but the desire to do something about addiction to social media has been around a while, I think it only continues in the 2020s, plus it isn’t just tied to social media but video gaming, porn, sugar consumption, other dopamine triggers. Many massive industries involved here (porn might be the most interesting one in a way - there are significant communities on Reddit for example who oppose it). Many people will continue doing the same thing of course... but a significant minority might push back on their consumption of these things that alter their dopamine circuit, so big opportunities for savvy entrepreneurs in the space - supplements, in-person events hopefully, apparel, self-help courses, apps. Skies the limit. 👉 Interesting how this ties to history as well - ‘dopamine detoxing’ is what monks and religious communities have done for centuries, the modern-era is just tweaking it in its own way. Bare in mind religiosity typically increases during hard economic times too.
Maybe a bit more obvious but home improvement for the wealthier should see acceleration. More building of their own gyms, saunas, recreational rooms and so forth. In COVID lockdowns, home accessories were the new fashion accessories to make Zoom calls look good (status signalling). And if you’re bullish on more permanent remote work (never entirely of course but its % of total, white collar positions especially, should remain elevated) you know where home improvement will continue to go. Services for these things should see a bump because no rich person is going to spend their time digging ditches, pouring concrete and watering plants. They will pay thousands of dollars to have their yard work taken care of by others. Thus more tech products for landscaping and home renovations are likely to emerge. There is likely to be disruption in the next 3-5 years if we already have robots that increasingly take care of distribution/warehouses. Find the right products to help with a common task (retaining walls, concrete pouring, plants and creating a terrace).
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
From a business POV. There’s certain friends I have who have taken an entrepreneurial route who inspire me.
One started an MMA apparel brand that is doing very well at the moment, on track to turnover $1.5-2m in its first year. I think he is correct in assuming UFC will be one of the biggest sports in the US in the next 10 years, maybe even globally.
There aren’t really specific people I guess. But there are certain books that have stuck with me over the years. For example, ‘The Lean Startup’, all about getting a MVP, testing what works and doesn’t, guerilla marketing tactics etc.
Also really enjoyed Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’ ‘Everybody Lies’ which really cemented my distrust of surveys/polls and appreciation for search data in particular. And the importance of A/B testing for researchers and just generally collecting data from the web where possible etc.
Less business-related, I’m a keen drummer and there’s certain players who inspire me to keep getting better on drums, all the way from Travis Barker to Dave Weckl.
Can you tell us more on the tool you built? What’s the future for Profecia?
The tool me and my co-founder developed is two fold. In the first part we try to look for the most exponential queries in Google Trends, we wrote a script to do this and then just recently we added a bit of a forecasting element to it.
We trained an algorithm on 5,000 search trends over 5 years…I won’t bore you with the exact nuances of it but basically…
We now provide:
A smoothing format for the search interest (to remove noise from queries)
What the algorithm predicted the interest was (light red line)
Actual search interest (dark blue line)
A forecast for up to 6 months ahead. Dark red line.
Confidence intervals in the blue shade.
We’re still calculating the hit rate (what % of the time the trend 6 months forward stays within confidence intervals 80-90% of the time), as you can guess COVID and lockdowns complicated everything. So we are backtesting basically and seeing how well our algorithm predicted the 6 months up to the point lockdowns began in March 2020. So we can see what the ‘hit rate’ is absent a Black Swan style event.
The future is hopefully helping more CPG/DTC brands, entrepreneurs and investors however we can and to keep delivering more quality content for the Under The Radar letter to help people stay abreast of interesting developments and to hopefully get inspiration from!
Stay curious, always.
Other articles I wrote related to TrendSpotting: