Editor's comment: The power of prediction
A view from Gareth Jones

Editor's comment: The power of prediction

Times have changed since Jim Stengel got into advertising in the late 70s (fewer flares and less facial hair, for starters), but, as the former Procter & Gamble global marketing chief points out on page 16, there has been a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour in the past 18 months alone.

While this is little surprise, Stengel's assertion that customer confidence is so low that brands need to focus their efforts on 'predicting the nature of future consumer demand' is spot-on.

Google took a step in this direction last week with the launch of a service that starts the search process and displays results as users type (see page 3). The company first mooted the idea back in 2000, when, as an April Fool, it unveiled MentalPlex, a predictive search engine that answered queries without users having to type a word. The concept was so absurd (alright it did claim to analyse your brainwaves) that Google was rumbled instantly.

Now, however, Google Instant is a reality, and web users are growing accustomed to getting what they want (almost) before they ask for it. I don't want to overplay its significance, but in many ways, the service heralds the arrival of the semantic web - a new phase in which technology is used to understand the meaning of human behaviour and predict consumer demand.

In the short term, this will allow online brands and services to better cater to customers. For example, they will be able to tell whether a user searching for 'Paris Hilton' is interested in the US socialite or hotels in France and respond accordingly. Yet the potential of semantic technology extends far beyond the web. As the barriers between the online and offline worlds dissolve, the ability to pre-empt customer behaviour will become the norm. It will be the brands capable of putting consumers 'at the centre' that will thrive.