Brands take note: trends aren't trendy any more
A view from Charles Vallance

Brands take note: trends aren't trendy any more

The spirit of social conservatism that has brought back knitting, book clubs and baking now threatens to disrupt inattentive brands.

I had a meeting with a trendspotting company the other day. If I’m brutally honest, I’m not sure they lived up to their name.

They had a video of a unicyclist unicycling merrily around Shoreditch and an artist who spent her time painting graffiti in Hoxton. But in neither of these cases did I feel that a trend had been spotted. All that had been spotted were two vaguely trendy people being vaguely trendy.

I asked the head trendspotter whether there were any big trends his company had identified recently that enabled him to put his clients ahead of the game. For instance, had his ethnographic forays enabled him to predict Brexit? Imagine how valuable that kind of insight could be.

"No" was his answer. He didn’t really do any research among Brexit voters. "Why?" you may justifiably ask. That’s certainly what I did, and his reply was loaded with an irony that I suspect escaped him: "Brexit voters don’t set trends, they tend to be older. They’re less experimental and don’t live in London."

When I suggested that not living in London might be a new trend, he looked genuinely perplexed. In his world view, The Beatles or The Smiths could not geographically have happened. Nor Heaven 17, for that matter.

To some extent, you may forgive a trends company for not talking to untrendy people. It feels counterintuitive. But there comes a point when you have to face up to the paradox of the hour. Being off-trend may now be on-trend.

There are various ways the argument is being advanced. There is the increasingly widespread commentary that pits ordinary folk against "the liberal elite". I rather like this argument because it has a grain of truth to it.

There comes a point when you have to face up to the paradox of the hour. Being off-trend may now be on-trend

There does seem to be a disconnect between policymakers and the electorate, and there does seem to be an extraordinary concentration of power among an extraordinarily unrepresentative group of people. This may one of the big and most obvious trends of the moment, namely the unwieldy jumble of things that could loosely be filed under the heading of "social conservatism".

At a sociocultural level, it has probably been the most defining trend of the decade. It didn’t just lead to Brexit, it also gave the Tories their surprise election victory. Most notably, its American variant (which is a rather more aggressive strain than its UK cousin) has just put Donald Trump in the White House.

Whatever one’s qualms about its political repercussions, we should remind ourselves that social conservatism isn’t inherently political. It deserves its small "c" because people from very different ideologies can agree with its precepts (Jeremy Corbyn and Trump, for instance, are fully aligned on anti-globalism). This is why its influence is so pervasive and unsectarian, reaching parts that other trends can’t.

It is the wind in the sails of cultural success stories such as The Great British Bake Off, the maker’s movement, thrift, the sharing economy, farmers’ markets, localism and the revival of book clubs, street parties and knitting.

It’s pervasive, it’s deeply influential and it’s decidedly untrendy. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s deliberately, defiantly untrendy. It doesn’t do what it’s told and it won’t stand corrected by people who know better. It probably doesn’t do as much exercise as it should and might still have a crafty cigarette. It wheezes a bit when it runs for a bus and has never used a Nutribullet. Nor has it ever sported a post-modern Romanov beard. Those who aren’t with it find it offensive.

In metropolitan wine bars it is stigmatised, as it is in the ad industry. In fact, the reaction of our village to this new meta-trend in some ways resembles the reaction of the parents of one of my childhood friends when his older brother discovered punk and emerged from the bathroom with a safety pin stuck through his bloodied ear. They were horrified and furious in equal measure (while I was horrified but deeply impressed).

It was the new trend, it was defining culture and they didn’t like it one little bit. If they could, they would have dis-invented it. In those days, the punks were young and easy for trendspotters to recognise (the mohawks and safety pins helped).

Now the trendsetters are older and rather less visible. But they’re punking modern culture just as much as Pete Masters punked his mum and dad. And if we don’t take proper notice of them, they’ll punk the brands we work for. Because, in the words of the song, they don’t care.

Charles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP.
@thebrandedgent