Eurostar is calling for people to nominate themselves to star in its next internet ad campaign by sending in X Factor-style videos. Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange, O2 and Sony Ericsson all push consumers to use their mobile phones to take pictures and upload them to websites.
In the US, Nike used its 22-storey Times Square billboard as a giant computer screen on which users standing in the square could watch themselves order their trainers online. It's all part of a trend for consumer-generated content that brands are moving fast to take advantage of.
Chasing trends like this has become so prevalent that it has almost reached the mainstream, and the coolhunters of yesterday have been criticised as old hat. But losing the "cool" tag means they have also become more credible, so much so that trendspotting units have become commonplace within agencies.
Trends today are less about crystal- ball-gazing and more about identifying changes in consumer behaviour as they are happening. "The future is actually unknowable: we don't take big bets on something that might happen way in advance," Damien O'Malley, the executive planning director at McCann Erickson and the head of the agency's Pulse division, says. "We look at how we can spark ideas so clients can take advantage of something that is just starting to emerge now."
Schuyler Brown, the director of trendspotting and research at Euro RSCG Worldwide, says the business itself has changed. "We have to work to make our insights more actionable," she says. "We are not sitting at a distance and pronouncing like we did ten years ago. Now clients are demanding a strong link to the implications of what we tell them and how they should act as a result."
The problem for clients is reacting quickly enough - wait too long and you run the risk of looking old-fashioned or, worse, wasting millions on a fad that doesn't last. Remember all those low-carb product launches from last year?
Being able to tell the difference between a trend and a fad is another essential part of a trendspotter's armoury, though it's probably one of the most difficult parts of the job.
A trend is something that taps into the broader culture, while a fad is often easily adapted into lifestyles and then just as easily dropped, the spotters say.
Marian Salzman, JWT's director of strategic content, says that body tattooing is one such fad. "It's been around for a while but it's not going to stick," she says. "You have to be careful in this area because of how long it can take clients to react to something with a product launch. Blueberries are being talked about at the moment as the greatest source of health, but by the time a client gets around to launching a blueberry product, everyone will be talking about something else."
The situation is not helped by the fact that trends themselves are moving faster than they used to, according to Zoe Lazarus, the joint head of Lowe Counsel. "Things that were progressive just a few years ago are now firmly in the mainstream," she says. "Conscience consumerism was considered leading edge not so long ago but now Innocent and Green & Blacks are already successful brands."
On the other hand, being able to move quickly is less of a problem if trends are used to tailor ad campaigns rather than to prompt product launches.
For example, Orange's latest "blackout" execution uses the current trend of escapism to good effect, Lazarus says (see box).
Agencies use a variety of methods to pick up on these kinds of trends, but most rely on a few full-time staff plus a global network of part-time trendspotters who feed observations and experiences back on a regular basis. This network, the spotters say, is what differentiates a trendspotting division from a traditional planning department, which, by its very nature, ought to be aware of consumer culture. Having people dedicated to spotting emerging trends is a luxury, but it enables the agency to go beyond traditional market research. "Focus groups are great but they just back up what you already know," Lazarus says.
As well as using the spotting networks to come up with general trends, agencies are becoming increasingly inventive when it comes to analysing specific groups for particular clients.
"For Levi's, we created a series of slumber parties for children, which is the only way you can really get into their heads and find out what they are thinking," Salzman says. "Or we might throw a dinner party which is really a market research event.
"We did one project for a clothing company where we went to small towns and asked women to tell us what they spent their money on, but we made them talk to us in front of their best friends so we could make sure what they were telling us was the truth. Market research relies on what people say, but what they say often bears little resemblance to reality."
Brown says her techniques involve getting people to do things rather than talk about them. "We might invite a group of teenagers to come away for the weekend and do things like make their own clothes. That's the only real way to get into their minds," she says.
So what are the experts predicting will be the next big thing to affect brand behaviour? Both McCann and Euro RSCG say the concept of age in marketing is undergoing a shift.
"We're doing a study on intergenerational trends between mothers and daughters and the information flow between them," O'Malley says. "It used to be that mothers passed their likes and dislikes on to their daughters but now it's the other way around.
"There will be big implications for financial services companies, make-up brands, anyone that targets women will need to look at the kinds of messaging they use or the tone they take."
"People are living out of sequence," Brown adds. "Grandparents are having second careers and the Olsen twins are multimillionaires in their teens. What does it mean for marketing when age becomes irrelevant?"
WHAT THE TRENDSPOTTERS PREDICT
ZOE LAZARUS, RICHARD WELCH - DIRECTORS, LOWE COUNSEL
While space has long been recognised as a key value of luxury, this idea is being taken to new extremes as consumers seek ways to disconnect from a crowded and overconnected world. There has been a growth in "sanctuary spaces" - private members clubs, national parks and travel to remote places that use the fact there is no phone reception as a positive. Orange used this in its current campaign, which acknowledges that one of the best things about having mobile phones is the ability to turn them off.
The age of chance
From gambling to the growing popularity of non-linear lifestyles, people are recognising chance as a positive agent of change. The appeal of chance is fuelled by a desire to escape increasingly safe, stable and structured lives and by a perception that the world is becoming increasingly chaotic. Consumers are increasingly attracted to products - such as the iPod Shuffle - that embrace an element of chance in the design, ideology or delivery system.
The return of traditional values
In an age of excessive informality and disposable culture, there is a renewed appreciation of traditional values. Reality TV and an increase in antisocial behaviour have all contributed to the perception of a decline in civilised behaviour. The result is a renewed appreciation of old-fashioned values like good manners and respect. From porcelain to picnics, cricket to the return of the tie, traditional bourgeois culture is once again appealing to consumers.
The rise of a polarised world
In all areas of life, including religion, politics, art and identity, we are witnessing greater divisions. Fuelled by a rise in issue-based politics, people are keen to identify themselves as standing for a particular set of beliefs. Brands such as American Apparel and Divine chocolate are associated with causes - enabling consumers to support those causes through purchase. Brands are also recognising that the fact that not everyone likes you can be a powerful strategy, as exemplified by Marmite and PT Cruiser.
SCHUYLER BROWN - DIRECTOR OF TRENDSPOTTING AND RESEARCH, EURO RSCG WORLDWIDE
The metamorphosis of me
Advances in medical science and technology and the widespread availability of pop psychology have made self-improvement a hot topic. Self-realisation has been a human pursuit since the dawn of time: today we have more tools than ever, but we are still novices at using them.
Move over DIY, today's consumer is looking for expert advice. We've had enough of trying to download, program, and tailor-make our diaries, lives and jeans. People are looking to experts to sort everything from their cosmetics ("doctor" brands) to their career paths (life coaches).
Emerging from a period of strident individualism, people are looking to collaborate. Collectives are all the rage with the creative classes. Community has evolved from geography-based (neighbour-hoods, universities), to ideas-based (chatrooms, private clubs), to agenda-based (the rise in charitable organisations). It's no longer good enough to just be a member, each member needs to pull their weight in the pursuit of a common goal.
Numeric age is irrelevant when you can no longer tell the difference between a well-kept 50-year-old and a hard-living 30-year-old. As societal rules loosen, people are living out of sequence, making it nearly impossible to make assumptions about the age and life experience of pretty much everyone. The Olsens had an empire at 17. Demi has Ashton. The key to maintaining youthfulness is to embrace an "anything goes" attitude.
Last summer's box-office cinema hit Napoleon Dynamite reminded us just how much we love to love nerds. In a world where expertise is admired, nerds have become the poster children for passion. They study, obsess, are oblivious to social conditioning and formalities. They are raw in their ability to be themselves and we love them for it. It's never been hipper to be square.
CAROLINE CHANDY - DIRECTOR OF TRENDS AND KNOWLEDGE GROUP, PUBLICIS
Through technology, we are living more acutely by sharing our own experiences, however mundane, more immediately, more directly and more often - like sending video clips on our mobiles. This makes communication more "real" than ever before, as no-one is filtering the captured event. It's a move from recording memories for our own benefit to sharing experiences with others in real time.
As technology grows more intelligent, it becomes more sensitive to our needs and thus our interaction with it is subtler. We have also become distanced from the process of making it work, especially with the growth of intuitive technology like iris recognition. A good example is using your mobile to access information.A trial done by BBC Coast and HP allowed walkers to download walks on to their mobiles by flashing their phones at barcodes on plaques along the coastline.
The power of enigma
We can know too much. We've moved from deconstruction and laying everything bare to construction, creating an enigma, a story, an interest. Mystery is attractive and seductive. Compare Claudia Schiffer with Jordan, Sarah Brown with Cherie Blair. The answer for agencies is to tell an enchanting story that delights - the Maynards monster is one example of this trend in action.
The Freddie Flintoff phenomenon
Smart all-rounderness will succeed. We are tired of gimmicky extremism and are looking for amazing relevance. We have too little time so we look for multi-functional products that will perform on a number of different levels. So fast food has to be gourmet-quality, face creams must detox and purify and protect as well as offer beauty.
More brands will take the position of Victorian factory owners, using their power (financial and cultural) to greater effect and making a bigger impact. It's putting something back but letting everyone know you are doing so. Some brands are already doing this by getting involved in grass-roots sports activities.
MARIAN SALZMAN - EXECUTIVE VICE-PRESIDENT, DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC CONTENT, JWT
Pornography is going mainstream
Pornography may be the most extraordinary business of our age and we haven't even begun to approach the limits of demand or supply. But allowing it into the mainstream has prompted many people to look for a more robust moral defence. So where does that leave advertising? Probably playing both ends against the middle.
Faking reality and faking celebrity
Thanks to Big Brother and its progeny, we've got a taste for voyeurism, and we want more. But the truth is, you can't fake celebrity. Our job now is just a little bit harder. We're selling to people that we have trained to be cynical - and media savvy.
Personal control freaks
Strange to say in an era of rampant overeating and lack of exercise, but consumers have come to expect a lot of personal control. They write blogs about products they're thinking of buying or companies they'd like to destroy. Luckily, they still have a lot of patience for clever and entertaining advertising that's useful or relevant to them.
Most products are objectively better than they used to be, but that's not the point. The signs are that people are less delighted by brands and their promises. The endless stream of "brighter, better" products has created a permanent inflation of expectations. We overpromise and hype at our long-term peril.
The timelessness of China and India
Many of the people who rate themselves as spiritual feel closer to Buddhism than to Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Modern Chinese and Indian culture is cool, too. The advertising industry hasn't yet figured out India or China. We all too easily fall into facile stereotypes that are barely more evolved than Charlie Chan and Peter Sellers. They are exotic and appealing. The challenge for the advertising industry is to find better ways of tapping into the timelessness of those two lands.