Animal Crossing has taught us marketers need to be less practical, more sci-fi

Want to get ahead? It’s not so much about predicting the next trend, it’s the second or third consequence of that trend that really matters. That’s why marketers need to take a systems-based approach to the future.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote: “it is easy to predict an automobile in 1880; it is very hard to predict a traffic problem.”

Asimov’s point is that the real foresight means looking not just at the obvious extrapolations of the present day. We also need to look at the second- and third-order effects of those extrapolations. The car brought with it not just a new mode of transport but a whole host of non-obvious social and economic changes.

Thinking in this way allows marketers to spot the threats and opportunities posed by the Covid-19 crisis, or any major event, and to move beyond the obvious. That’s important because the obvious is what everyone else is doing.

Systems-based thinking (thinking about the consequences-of-consequences) can explain some of the more unexpected winners during the current crisis:

The rise of Animal Crossing

Never one of Nintendo’s flagship franchises, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has not just sold wildly ahead of expectations, but also driven a strategic rethink from the company, pivoting from mobile gaming on iOS and Android back towards their Switch platform. It wasn’t hard to predict that people being stuck indoors might lead to a spike in gaming. But Animal Crossing’s singular success was driven by subtler forces. The second-order effect of social isolation was people gravitating to games that replicated the experiences they couldn’t have under lockdown. Animal Crossing provided a uniquely Covid-friendly experience of calm, wholesome, escapism in the (virtual) great outdoors.

Looking forward, possible third-order effects might include businesses like Nintendo pushing deeper into the mindfulness and self-care territory to complement their existing forays into physical and cognitive fitness. There are obvious opportunities too for digital experiences that replicate all the other things not possible in lockdown, from sports and music events to eating out (Nintendo’s just-launched Pokemon Café Mix game is a step in this direction.) And looking further ahead, Microsoft Teams is already pioneering ways to provide more immersive shared social spaces, paving the way for a next generation of technology to deliver these experiences.

The return of suburbia

Rents have dived in many US cities, suggesting the beginnings of a flight out of big cities to the suburbs and exurbs. The trend of the past few decades of increasing city populations may be in reverse due to job losses, increased social unrest, increased crime in some areas, shortages, and price gouging. Restaurant and retail closures, indefinite remote working, and lockdown also mean that many of the attractions of city-living are no longer there. But on a more positive note, the next level of consequences might be a reshaping of those communities, with what were once ‘bedroom suburbs’ providing new opportunities for local small businesses as new residents spend more time in their neighborhoods and less time in their cars commuting back to the city. There are already signs that the shift back to the suburbs is leading to a new generation of ‘boomerang kids’ and a spike in home improvements. And these changes will have implications beyond individual homes – a wave of investment in infrastructure, in everything from highways to the power grid, might need to follow.

A spike in cosmetic surgery

One of the things that puts people off cosmetic surgery is the time spent recovering, wrapped in bandages, unable or embarrassed to go outside. Lockdown presents the perfect opportunity. The secondary effect of social isolation is that all the things that are restricted by social commitments suddenly become far more acceptable. So across the world, time in isolation has meant more people going under the knife. So far this has been purely reactive, but we would expect beauty brands to take note and bring to market more accessible home kits to take advantage of this phenomenon at a lower price point. Use of DIY and counterfeit Botox products are already on the rise despite the risks. Videoconferencing software’s digital touch-up features maybe provide a safer option. There is also a potential feedback loop here with evidence that video conferences increase anxiety about facial appearance, and lockdown therefore creating new demand.

How you can start your systems-based approach

The trick of course for of these things is to spot these trends before they happen, not just to diagnose them afterward. The process for doing that is simple but powerful. Start by listing out the immediate consequences – the big, high profile things that you see happening already or can easily predict.

The good news is that this bit of the job has already been done for you. There are lots of resources available that means you don’t have to start with a blank piece of paper. Here’s an open-source document one that a colleague pulled together with input from clients across multiple sectors which lists out first-order effects, groups them into broad themes, and then explores their possible consequences. These themes stretch from the personal impacts of Covid-19 – reduced mobility, greater social isolation, and poor mental health – to the impact on businesses and the economy.

Next, take those themes and think about what the secondary effects of those changes might be. So, if the theme is that people will travel less to avoid infection, the second-order effect might be an increase in demand for virus-free travel options. If we think again about what that might mean, it might suggest an opportunity in ‘micro-mobility’ – cycles, scooters, and other things that enable lone travel within cities.

From there the process is all about persistence and imagination – pushing the second and third-order consequences to sweat all the ways these consequences might play out. This means getting the right brains in the (virtual) room and bringing together diverse points of view.

Our workings led us to a wide range of possible opportunities from B2B platforms for the resale of inventory and raw materials in response to unpredictable swings in demand, to a growth in demand for sex toys – evidence of which indeed emerged as the pandemic went on.

The endpoint is a spider’s web of possible futures, anchored in what we know now and pushing out towards what it might mean. None of this is magic and it doesn’t guarantee perfect foresight but like all such techniques what it does do is throw out well-founded hypotheses to investigate further. What other evidence might there be that lets us qualify this as an opportunity? How does it fit with our wider strategy, assets, and capabilities? What is the size of the prize if we act on this? What is the risk if we don’t?

The good news for brand owners and innovators is that simple approaches well-deployed can be the difference between surviving and thriving in times like these. The even better news for those with the discipline and process to make it happen is that many will not.

First published in The Drum.

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