The global director of Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, the world-spanning marketing communications agency’s in-house futures think tank, advises brands on how to move at the speed of culture
Emma Chiu lives in the future. As the head of Wunderman Thompson’s intelligence division, she spends a lot of time thinking about how the patterns and shifts she detects today will be translated into significant movements tomorrow. Every year, the agency releases a report called “The Future 100,” a trend almanac that charts a hundred trends across different sectors including culture, tech, beauty, and health. The insights from the report, which is freely available, are targeted to brands that want to rise above the noise and make a real impact in the world today.
SM Supermalls invited Chiu to speak, along with Outliers author Malcom Gladwell, at its Tenant-Partners Summit celebrating the 65th anniversary of the company. Chiu shared her observations on the joyconomy, where despite the ongoing economic and environmental crisis, people are choosing joy. She noted opportunities for brands lie in being able to re-enchant their customers and providing opportunities for play across all ages.
Vogue Philippines sat down with Chiu at the Conrad Manila to talk about understanding patterns, the joyconomy, and whatever happened to the metaverse.
Hi, Emma! You’re a trend forecaster, but you’re also called a futurist, which seems like a really cool job description. What I want to know is, how did you end up with this career, what was your path?
So my degree is in graphic design. And I started off as a designer, and I kind of fell into editorial because I’ve always had a passion for English as well. My first job in trends was at The Future Laboratory, and there I learned a lot about understanding trends, the difference between different generations and understanding how different elements can impact culture. What was interesting is that everyone came from very interesting backgrounds. So they were fashion designers, journalists, graphic designers. It’s just this very design-led way of looking at the world which adds to the way you think about trends, you don’t just think about it in an academic way. Even though that’s important, you’re also thinking about how trends look. If you’re looking through any of my trend reports, even if you flick through it and you don’t read a single word, you can get a sense of what the trends are like.
Being a graphic designer, the natural path would be becoming a creative director, but I always knew that wouldn’t be my natural career path. But I didn’t know where my career path would be. So I was very lucky with my first job at the Future Laboratory.
Even the name sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel. What decade was this?
This was 2011 to 2012, so I was there just over a year and then I took a year out to travel the world. But I loved working so much. I couldn’t imagine not working. And then as soon as I took the time off, I couldn’t imagine going back to work. So that’s the funny thing of being in whatever context, you’re just really embracing it. And then I moved back into editorial, and I became an art director at Monocle magazine—which is why I’m usually on the other side of shoots. Being there for a few years made me realize I still enjoy trend observations and I’m so interested in what people are up to and what they’re like, on a broader bird’s eye view of the world. And that’s what my job allows me to do, really see the world in a way where I don’t need to be biased in any way.
One thing we tend to try not to be too much of is negative. So we try to approach trends from a positive way, even if there’s difficult things happening. It’s something we need to observe, but there’s always positive elements that stems from difficult times.
So for example, the climate crisis, right. How would you spin that to a positive?
I think the climate crisis is a great example. There’s so many elements of it where it feels like it’s something so big and out of our control that we can’t really do much about it. But what we’ve learned is that every little step matters. Even small contributions can mount up to something larger. My role can be quite instrumental in this area because the kind of clients that we have are quite large corporations and these large clients, I am able to speak to them and suggest broader, bigger changes, whether it’s environmental or societal. I have the opportunity to make suggestions, asking them to take steps into adding more good into the world.
When we think about sustainability, often it’s about doing less bad. But now we’re learning that less bad isn’t good enough. And we need to actually think about injecting more good into the world. So how can we do that and be quite creative in finding solutions? Imagine pitching this to a big company. For them, they don’t know where to start. And they’re like, well, that means we have to change everything, our manufacturing process, supply, it really goes down the chain. We’re not expecting to change everything in one go.
Because I work in the futures division, that falls under strategy. So helping them plan a long term strategic plan in terms of how they can be in five and 10 years, it’s quite exciting to be part of that journey with them and to check in every so often to be like, are you still doing this? Are we on course?
Can you give an example of a client who kind of followed those steps through?
A lot are in their early stages, but we have Unilever, one of our big clients. And for them, even incorporating things like inclusive products is something that they’re looking into, and we worked with them to create a deodorant that is accessible for people who have different limb disabilities. So the way we have designed the packaging makes it accessible for certain people who have different types of disabilities. It has a little hook, so you don’t need to grab it, basically. Being able to influence packaging and design in that way is quite exciting for us. And they all start off as small scale projects that they tried in a specific location, but I think it can ladder up into something bigger eventually, and a lot of things do take time and patience.
Just being able to see where the consumer pulse is at, there’s a lot more authority in terms of asking companies to change certain ways or even continue certain ways they might be doing something that’s great already. And it does align with where people are at now, even the next generation, what their interests are, what their values are. It’s really important to be able to share this information in a way that feels accessible, in a way that people can really understand and digest it, and have time to innovate within that space as well. It’s not me telling them exactly what to do, but giving them opportunities to work within an open space.
In editorial as we are at Vogue, we usually report on what’s happening or interpret the emerging trends that we see. But your work is in forecasting and prediction—how do you go from looking at what the kids are doing nowadays to something that is future oriented?
In order to really understand the future, it’s important to understand what’s happening now, but also to map out trend lines. And I’m sure it’s something similar that you do because you need to look at the past, to understand why things are happening now and identify different patterns. And then, based on these observations and understanding and patterns, help predict what will happen next. I think predicting people’s behavior is, I don’t want to say “easy.”
Because people are predictable.
In some ways, yes. There’s things that people from different generations stick to and that comes from the way they’ve been raised. You know, culture, surroundings, the access they have to information. With the younger generation, they have information at the touch of their fingertips 24 hours a day. In that way, you can understand where things could be leading. And it’s no surprise sometimes when digital natives suddenly want to be completely digital free, suddenly they’re going to want dumb phones and Nokias, and it’s because they want to try something different. A lot of things that are happening aren’t surprises.
Trends—as we know in fashion—are cyclical.
Exactly. I’m sure you see this a lot in trends that you’re observing that completely loops back to certain times and you take inspiration from the past. You learn from it, but there’s also a lot of innovation in technology, and how that can be making certain things more creative, more innovative, and just a bit more open and diverse. When you’re thinking about what things will be happening for years to come, because often people ask, can you guarantee that will happen in 10 years? Not really. Because who would have guessed a pandemic would happen–and that completely changed a lot of things.
A lot of things that we forecast in five to 10 years actually accelerated because of the pandemic, and a lot of things completely changed because of the pandemic. I think there could be bigger forces and factors that come into play that can really change trends. But that is the point, trends should be quite nimble as well. There should be a level of flexibility within it. But broader themes should remain quite consistent, I would say. Certain themes that we’re seeing in terms of people wanting a sense of positivity and joy, that’s really just human nature. It’s a big part of what keeps us going, of what makes us want to work towards and work hard towards a really positive future. So these types of themes are macro trends.
Again, it’s something that’s innately human, but I really love powerful movements that are happening because of the people, [such as] certain feminist movements or inclusive movements that we’re seeing that’s being addressed, or things that were once taboo that’s now openly talked about. I feel very fortunate to be living in this age, to be part of this conversation and to talk about trends in this context, because it’s no longer the select few who have a voice, it’s everyone. And with that, everything is more amplified.
So this movement towards joy, or the “joyconomy” which you talked about at the SM Tenant-Partner Conference, it’s not a new thing because, as you mentioned, it’s part of human nature. Has there been an acceleration of this movement? What led to this?
I think there’s just been a massive need for it. At the onset of the pandemic, campaigns and adverts that were trying to offer a sense of hope and joy had a lot of backlash, because people thought it was really insensitive during this very difficult time that people were going through. And so ads were very sensitive, had a more subdued tone and were more empathetic. But then no one would have guessed the pandemic would last like two to three years. It’s unusual for humans to go through such a big change for that extended period of time on a global scale as well. So having gone through that, they almost need this emotional release of positivity and uplift.
So that’s why we talk about joy, but it’s not just about joy. We have a report called “Reenchantment.” People want to feel enchanted again, they want this element of joy, delight and surprise in their life, that perhaps they neglected for a few years. Everything had to be known, you didn’t want any surprises at that time. Whereas now it’s like, we wouldn’t mind a dose of surprise, and you can see this in consumer trends with things that were on people’s bucket lists, something they will do when they retire, they’re doing it now because they just don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. One of my colleagues says, “I don’t think twice about if I want something, I’m gonna buy it.” And it’s that sort of millennial approach.
Exactly. You only live once, and it’s interesting because when Millennials were doing it, it felt quite reckless to older generations. But now everyone can really identify with that just because it just feels a bit closer in terms of how fickle and precious life can be. Perhaps superficially, things look like it’s back to normal, but people’s mindset have shifted. And there is this thirst for change. People don’t want to go back to normal if it was unjust, or the social societal norms were not serving certain genders or people with different backgrounds. And with that in mind, I think there is going to be a bigger shift in demand from people for government or large corporations or influential figures to do more in this space and to talk more vocally about these topics.
Going back to your Future 100 report which you make every year. There must be some overlap, or do you have to come up with 100 new ideas each year?
There are times when we come up with some trends and we’re like, wait, we’ve written about this last year already! So yeah, it does happen. One hundred is a lot (laughs). A lot of the time it is an evolution of things that have happened already. So when we talked about certain trends like sustainability, we evolved it into regeneration.
I often talk about trend mapping. It’s good to always look for threads with what’s been happening before, like in-person interactions or experiences. Again, not necessarily new, but the types of experiences and what we want from these in-person experiences could be evolving and changing, or they could not as well. And sometimes trends aren’t always about big changes. I would say, especially with the younger generation, and especially with technology, it’s harder now for trends to just stand still.
Speaking of technology, how much do you use AI in predicting trends?
I don’t, actually. One of the first questions I asked ChatGPT was “how do I explain trend forecasting to a 10-year-old?” I have two nieces, they always wonder what I do and they always joke and call me a witch, someone who can look into the future, sort of like a fortune teller. I’ve always wanted to explain to them in simple terms what a trend forecaster is, and actually ChatGPT was very helpful because they compared it to someone creating a toy for kids and how they’re trying to predict what kids would be interested in, in five years time.
But when I asked ChatGPT “what are the trends for next year?” They can’t because their database is limited to 2021. Which made me feel, okay, my job is very safe (Laughs). But it also made me think there’s going to be a lot of creative space for people where AI can assist them to a certain point, because I can ask AI to help analyze trends that I have already predicted, and help measure how successful they’ve been. But I can’t ask AI to predict what’s going to happen in the years ahead. I could, if I asked it in a different way, but they wouldn’t firmly say “this is going to happen.” So it does take an element of qualitative analysis to add that futuristic layer in.
What kind of research is involved and how do you gather data to make these forecasts?
We do have our own quantitative data team who can run surveys as big and as global as we want to. The Future 100 that will be released in January of next year will be our 10th edition. We’re going to be running some data alongside that, and we’re going to be asking consumers globally different questions about their hopes for the year ahead, expectations they have of different companies and brands, but also how they’re feeling right now. In order to make sure our trends are on the right path, we like to measure the temperature of where people are at.
So there is a quantitative side that’s important, but there is also a qualitative side. I’m someone who constantly watches the news, but I would watch the news with a trends analysis layer on because if there’s something happening in the world, it can be impacting us, economically. It can be impacting us on a sort of daily lifestyle basis in terms of how we spend. Part of my research is understanding who’s doing what and why they’re doing it and if there are behavioral income differences or even generational influences.
You say you watch a lot of news, do you also read sci-fi authors?
In my spare time I do like to read fiction. But I would say nowadays I’m also really interested in reading a lot of psychology-based books, and the podcasts I tend to listen to are based on behavior. One podcast I really enjoy listening to is Hidden Brain, and every episode focuses on different behavioral traits so why do people feel more lonely? Or why is sleep so important? I love what I do because it is basically having a really good insight into people’s behaviors. And the way I work, because it’s always connected to brands and what brands can do with that understanding, has a different sort of narrative whereas a lot of the things I enjoy doing on the side are a bit more bigger thinking and broader.
I have a report called “New Realities” and I believe the younger generation, their understanding of what is real, is going to be very different because of technology. When AR and mixed reality become more accessible, for them, reality won’t just be what’s physical, it will be that blend. Whereas older generations, they still have that differentiation of digital and analog. That is something that I’m personally quite interested in, but I can only go so far.
That’s really fascinating, it’s like an existential dilemma. What is reality, right?
That’s actually one of the books I’m reading now, What is Reality? It’s something quite hard for me to bring to clients and say, “Hey, I’m really interested in understanding where reality is heading.” And for them it’s like, “Well, how does that help us?” So being able to have my interests and work influence each other is helpful because it makes me enjoy what I do on a daily basis.
So in 2021, 2022, there was this whole big metaverse explosion. Everyone was talking about the metaverse and wanted to get into the metaverse. This year, would you say it’s been fulfilling its promise? Where is the metaverse at right now?
Good question, because obviously the metaverse has gone through a very high up, and it went through a very big crash as well. And recently I wrote an article called “Did Marketing Kill the Metaverse?” because I really believe the metaverse is still something very prominent and important. When I speak to clients about the metaverse and if it feels really out there for them, I often say, “Look, if I took the word metaverse out of everything I’m saying, I’m just talking about the evolution of technology.” So if I replace the word metaverse with tech, it’d be very different.
I do think the metaverse is still important and whether we decide to continue using that word or not is up to us. But there was just so much attention on that word metaverse and particularly when Facebook transitioned into Meta and became a metaverse-first company and a lot of large corporations suddenly said, Hey, we’re going to have metaverse departments. The rise and fall of that was very quick. It became too overhyped before it really fully got to take off. I believe marketing teams had a helping hand in its demise, but it’s still something that a lot of people are working on. it’s just an integral part of where tech is heading.
There’s going to be an evolution of the metaverse where it’s not exclusively in these three dimensional virtual worlds, it’s going to extend into our physical worlds and that is the part which will be more accessible and more widely used. People automatically think the metaverse is about gaming and all our kids. But it’s not just exclusively for the younger generation. It can be a tool that we can all use, but having the access and also the infrastructure need to catch up. Because if you don’t have the bandwidth, you’re not going to wait such a long time to load a virtual world.
That’s really how people had envisioned the future, walking around with virtual reality goggles like Robocop.
I think Apple’s Vision Pro is a really interesting piece of technology to have as part of this ecosystem because it is a piece of technology and a product they’ve created where you look through and not at, and because of that, in the future our glasses could have these abilities. There’s a company who’s creating contact lenses, and it’s in concept stage at the moment, but where you can also bring up a digital layer in front of you, which gives your up-to-date health stats. Yeah, in the future things like this could be happening.
We’re actually becoming cyborgs, kind of.
Kind of! How often are you holding your phone, but imagine if it was something simpler, more seamless. I’m not saying that we’re going to have a chip inside of us anytime soon, but I think we will have the option of putting on or taking on and off tech accessories that are simpler. If my Apple Watch could do a lot of things that my phone does, I would just use the watch. And if my Oura ring could be doing more of that, I would use my Oura ring only. It is about convenience, it is about blending in. Eventually one day tech would be seamlessly blending in with our surroundings and not something that’s obtrusive and in your face.
Do you also warn people about the dangers and pitfalls of technology?
Absolutely. When there’s all this positive stuff happening, there’s obviously this flipside of negativity that’s coming. A large part of why a lot of the younger generation are turning away from technology—we’re calling them the new Luddites—is largely because there’s a lot of negativity on social platforms, or there’s a sort of pressure when it comes to technology that they just want to disconnect from. It is important to have that healthy balance, and that’s everything in life. So it is finding that happy medium, that happy balance of being technologically engaged, but also being aware that it’s not going to take over your life.
There’s this other layer where governments and big tech companies need to be more thoughtful about people’s personal information and data. What are they doing with it? Why do you need this much information in order for me to process something? But we are equally aware that we want convenience and not have to re-input our credit card details all the time. This goes back to the larger view of how people are taking more control of where things are heading and where the new normal is heading. At some point, the control, when it comes to personal information and data, will go back to the people. It’s just a matter of time.
With all the work you do on technology, how do you like to unplug?
My phone is always on silent. I check it when I need to check it. That’s kind of how I unplug digitally and I’ve always been mindful of that. Sometimes it is about disconnecting and just doing something outdoors and reconnecting with nature. And it’s a trend that we’ve also been spotting. So I do feel like sometimes what I’m doing is on trend (laughs).
But there is that huge thirst for being part of nature and really appreciating what is around us. The parks and rivers that we have in London, they’re something that I often visit. Every day if possible, I go for a walk. For me that’s really important to have that time and space to think. But yeah, work is something that I always do. And there’s a lot of research around how walks can make you think more creatively as well.
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