Cover Story: Ready, Set ... Go

Walk the NACS Show with Purpose using our guide to spotting the season's biggest trends

The time of year has come ... to be one of the few people wearing sensible shoes in as Vegas.

But really, as you walk the NACS Show or any other industry event, do you know what you're looking for, or how to look for it?

The next big thing is lightning in a bottle--as precious as it is elusive. To avoid milling around hoping said bottle falls from the sky, it's important to understand what makes a trend a trend--and the likelihood of you making bank on it.

"A trend changes every single day, says Christine Keller, who tracks trends for a living. "It's like a tornado, and what's really going to stick--it's hard to say. But if you start plotting trends, marking them and seeing them move, it's a little bit easier to see."

Keller is director of the trend practice at CCD Innovation, an Emeryville, Calif.-based consultancy with clients in the CPG and foodservice realms. Keller and her colleagues follow trends an help their clients turn them into tangible products based on the strength of the trend and the client's tolerance for risk.

In short, they put method to Cronut madness, sense to sriracha mania.

Keller shared with Convenience Store Products the steps involved in tracking a trend and determining if it's right for one's business, as well as how to navigate a show filled with people promising lightning in a bottle. Armed with that knowledge, we applied her advice to c-store product trends in the hopes of helping you take some ideas to the bank at the NACS show and beyond.

The Anatomy of a Trend

There are two parts to CCD Innovation’s trend analysis: plotting it on a five-stage trend map based on its prevalence in our culture, and then defining the “anatomy” based on its “drivers,” “resonators” and “activators.”

But first, the map—which really looks more like a spectrum. Stage one is the inception of a trend, when it appears at artisan shops and fi ne-dining and ethnic restaurants and is talked about among those whom Keller calls the “passion players.” Stage two comes when the trend pops up in gourmet food magazines and specialty retail stores.

“A small group of people who are really pushing ideas are exposed to the trend at stages one and two,” says Keller, who adds that some trends stop at stage two—not that it means it was a failure (more on that later). Those trends that persevere arrive in stage three once they show up at chain restaurants and on the Food Network. Stage four occurs within mainstream women’s magazines, and stage five is when the trend makes it to quick-service-restaurant menus and traditional grocery stores—mainstream ubiquity.

“Some clients like to look at stage one, but most clients, particularly CPG, will start looking at things in stage three because that’s when it starts to show signs it can catch on in the mainstream,” says Keller.

Beyond its placement on the map, a trend also has an anatomy that helps you understand its audience and longevity. That anatomy has three parts:

  • ­Drivers are the sweeping social and cultural platforms that propel a trend. Health and wellness, flavor, indulgence and convenience are all drivers, as are smaller elements such as sustainability.
  • Resonators are the reasons why those drivers are important to the consumer. Health resonates because it’s important; adventurous flavors resonate because they are fun; sustainability resonates on a level of personal identity and responsibility. “Why are consumers catching on to this, what’s the need that they’re having, how are they internalizing it and using it in their lives?” Keller says of resonators.
  • Activators are the people and companies that bring trends to the public. Each stage has activators, be it Guy Fieri in stage three or General Mills in stage five.

From here, you can begin connecting the dots between a trend and its many drivers and resonators.

“The more drivers and resonators a trend has, the stronger it is. And then those activators start making it come alive and move down the map,” says Keller. (See the charts below for a visual example of trend mapping and anatomy.)

How long it takes for a trend to go from stage one to five all depends on its activators and resonators. Keller cites the example of açaí. It took about 10 years for the superfruit to hit the mainstream, starting with $435,000 in sales of products featuring açaí in 2004 and skyrocketing to $130 million in 2011.

But the average pace from stage one to five is accelerating, thanks to technology and our culture’s desire to share, pin, post and tweet. Craft cider took two years to leap from stage two to five, propelled by major brands expanding what resonates for a wide spectrum of people: the gluten-intolerant, females wishing for an alternative to beer, and craft-beer drinkers desiring a less hoppy yet high-quality alternative of their own.