What’s Driving Consumers: 5 Questions With Ford’s Sheryl Connelly


Looking Further With Ford 2018 trends outlook report

Ford Motor Company’s resident futurist Sheryl Connelly has been forecasting consumer trends with a blend of qual and quant insights for the last few years. She uses a global survey of consumers to inform her opinions and then shapes a trends report which the company started sharing publicly in 2012.

Let the debate begin about Connelly’s choices for the 2018 Looking Further with Ford Trends Report, her sixth annual outlook that takes the pulse of consumers, reads the economic winds and parses what it all means for marketers, and not just Ford. Her top 10 trends are a fascinating reflection of consumers’ mindsets as we adapt to the accelerating forces of cultural and political polarization, technological obsolescence and disruption and digital ubiquity.

The current mood, Connelly finds, is a general feeling of consumer anxiety, even as economies strengthen and incomes and job opportunities grow around the world: more than half (54%) of adults participating in Ford’s global study this year said that they feel more stressed than they did a year ago.

Sheryl Connelly - Ford Motor Company futurist“This moment in time is unique in its anxiety and its sense of being overwhelmed,” Connelly told brandchannel. “And it’s not a specifically American point of view. The UK, India and Spain, for instance, have their own issues, too.”

But that doesn’t mean a feeling of hopelessness or paralysis, as Connelly states in her 2018 consumer outlook: “Shifting global priorities, rampant political upheaval, and a spotlight on social inequity have upended the status quo and left many disoriented. But out of the chaos and conflict, a new energy and creativity is motivating people like never before. From compassion and guilt to heightened activism, most adults believe their actions have the power to influence positive change.”

Key data points from Ford’s new global research report:

  • 39% of adults say they do not mind sharing their personal information with companies, but 60% say they are frustrated by how much of their information has become public
  • 76% of adults around the world say they find it creepy when companies know too much about them
  • 52% of adults say they believe artificial intelligence will do more harm than good, but 61% say they are hopeful about a future of autonomous vehicles
  • 68% of adults say they are overwhelmed by suffering in the world today, and 51% say they feel guilty for not doing more to make the world better
  • 81% of adults say they are concerned about the widening gap between the rich and the poor
  • 73% of adults say they should take better care of their emotional well-being
  • 54% of adults globally say they feel more stressed out than they did a year ago, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, that number is even higher, at 65%.

And the top 10 consumer trends coming out of the research:

The Edge of Reason: “Across the world, people are overwhelmed by the change affecting everything from politics to pop culture—and consumers are hungry for inventive ways to cope and adapt,” the report said. Case in point: 80% of U.S. adults surveyed find that people are increasingly intolerant of opposing views.

The Activist Awakening: 52% of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 surveyed by Ford say they expect brands to take a stand on political issues. “Thanks to the culture of polarization, consumers are being jolted out of complacency. Individuals are debating the change we need, unafraid to topple the conventional wisdom and expectations.”

Minding the Gap: “Worldwide, the spotlight is on inequality. Activists and entrepreneurs are experimenting with new ways to improve access to quality education, increase productive employment, close wage gaps and provide everyone with affordable access to basic living standards and infrastructure.”

The Compassionate Conscience: 76% of adults Ford surveyed globally believe their actions can influence positive change. “With an omnipresent news cycle, consumers are more aware of the challenges people face across the world—and more reflective of their role in society.”

Mending the Mind: “Slowly, consumer and institutions are realizing that you cannot have a healthy body unless you have a healthy mind. As such, mental health and well-being are coming to the forefront as issues that individuals, governments and companies need to address.”

Retail Therapy: “Many consumers are on the endless hunt for something new and different—and they’re rethinking how material goods and services can bring them happiness.” For instance, 66% of adults globally between the ages of 18 and 29 think that the experience of shopping is more enjoyable than the actual purchase.

Helplessly Exposed: “Big Data claims to be able to interpret our behaviors, which in theory should help consumers—yet it also can come with Big Bias. Consumers are ramping up the pressure on companies to be accountable and act responsibly.”

Technology’s Tipping Point: “Virtual reality, artificial intelligence and autonomous technology are here, integrating into our daily lives. Across the globe, humans are asking: what does the onslaught of intelligent technology mean for us as a society, and will it make a more positive impact than we thought?” Interestingly, 52% of those surveyed by Ford believe artificial intelligence will do more harm than good.

Singled Out: “Are marriage and parenthood still the desired norms for happy living? More and more people are rethinking commitment and fulfillment, with more choices at their fingertips and longer life spans to consider.”

Big Plans for Big Cities: “By 2050, roughly 75% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas. To capitalize on the full potential of cities—to keep them happy and healthy places to live—we must be smart and mindful about planning.”

For more insights on the data and analysis, we spoke with Connelly about what she’s seeing and what it means for consumers, Ford and other brands:

Sheryl, how would you summarize the difference between Ford’s first public trends report in 2012 and this latest research that you’re sharing?

This is our sixth annual report, but I’ve been doing it for 14 years. They’re near-term and easier to call because they’re microtrends. But this report is decidedly different from the reports that we’ve put forth in the last five years, a true reflection of where the world stands right now. In 2012, the world was still reeling from the global recession and there was a lot of uncertainty. What I found surprising was how widespread that feeling was [now].

Ford 2018 consumer outlook research - trend - Edge of Reason

To what extent is this current anxiety a result of feeling bombarded with political news and other people’s views across traditional and social media? 

We don’t know what anyone else is thinking because we’re so polarized that we’re unwilling to engage in debate. I made as purposeful an effort to be as balanced as possible. Some people say ‘At last world order is being restored and it’s long overdue.’ And some people feel it’s the beginning of the end and are wallowing in anxiety and discontent.

We’re overwhelmed by the changes taking place and it’s left us feeling uncertain. But three-quarters said they believe in the individual’s ability to bring out change. Engagement is at an all-time high and there’s awareness and desire to become educated in matters that are important to them. It’s really driving how we live. I’m more conversant on politics, for example, than I’ve ever been before.

Ford 2018 consumer trends outlook - Activist Awakening

Your latest research finds that a majority of adults between 18 and 29, with smaller percentages for older cohorts, believe that brands should take a stand on political issues. What should CEOs and brands do?

This is really the question. This is a difficult one. Companies that have a clear set of values are in a better position than others. Ford is an example. I don’t think of us as a very political company, but in early January when there was a move to ban some immigrants (from entering the U.S.), Ford made a statement that it goes against what we stand for.

Ford 2018 consumer outlook - compassionate conscience

One of the trends we identified is The Compassionate Conscience. That’s about the good work you do in a community. This calls out the trend from the past year that we’ve been witness to some horrific tragedies like the hurricanes, and the coverage made it impossible for many people not to respond to the problems of others.

Ford Australia global caring month employee volunteers 2016

How is “The Compassionate Conscience” playing out at Ford?

There’s an ongoing conversation about what kind of role do we play at a company like Ford and how we stand on those issues. For example, [Ford Executive Chairman] Bill Ford put a volunteer corps together years ago and it gives people license to step away from their day job and do community service. He amped that up with the Bill Ford Better World Challenge, (a global grant program) where he asked individuals to suggest solutions—he personally contributes to it—and a global caring month of volunteerism in September. We’re also embedding this into our culture with “30 Under 30,” asking Ford people to nominate themselves to create best-in-class community engagement initiatives. This next generation of Ford philanthropic leaders receives mentoring from our leadership team.

Ford 2018 consumer outlook trend - Helplessly Exposed

Let’s talk about the “Helplessly Exposed” trend—what’s going on there?

Privacy is always about give and take. I’m happy to share my information with a business as long as they’re transparent about it. Like having my credit card information on Amazon: I can be on any computer in the house and I don’t have to hunt down my credit card. But there’s risk in keeping that information somewhere on the world wide web.

There are patterns of behavior and things that we do where we’re not always mindful they’re being collected, such as algorithms on a search engine. By improving search efficiency they’re building a profile about you that biases the information you receive, and no one tells you that. That feeds into the “Edge of Reason” because that echo chamber is so loud.

2018 Ford consumer outlook trend retail therapy

“Retail Therapy” is another interesting trend as it’s more than just “treat yourself.” Can you shed more light on that?

Everyone talks about how bricks and mortar (retail) is dead and online is the key to the future. But [Apple senior vice president of retail] Angela Ahrendts says only about 35% of purchases take place online, and she believes there’s a movement afoot to bring people together and now they think of the Apple store as a space that’s a town hall or place of community and not always geared to sell something. They want to bring people together who have an affinity or shared passion or teachable point of view, such as classes about how to better use the camera on your phone. I found that fascinating.

Three other brands have a similar take on it: Restoration Hardware, which has turned showrooms into places to lounge; Nordstrom Local [where they do your nails and serve you coffee while you wait for garment alterations]; and Ford’s Hub in New York City. Another interesting thing is that it’s all about the brand experience—it’s a new way to engage.

Also not as obvious in Retail Therapy is the notion of “the hedonic treadmill”—that we all have a baseline of happiness and a natural resting state on that scale. If you win the lottery you’re never going to be as happy as you hoped, for instance. We often turn to shopping to elevate that hedonic level. I’m fascinated by that. Gamblers would have a similar kind of thing. That’s what brands are trying to do: extend that fascination people have with a new product.

For more, visit FordTrends.com — and get more insights in our Q&A series.