Looking ahead to 2016, Mintel Consumer Trends Consultants Stacy Glasgow and Jenny Zegler discuss the four key North America consumer trends set to impact the US market, including implications for both consumers and brands in the year ahead.

Balance or Bust - Multifaceted consumers are finding harmony by going to extremes.

“The swelling multitude of services, products and experiences available to consumers leaves them ‘wanting it all,’ especially because ‘having it all’ can nourish the many facets of their complex self-identities. TV ‘binge’ watching and other technology based activities have become commonplace, but many people seek to offset these ‘over indulgences’ with real world interaction. While people are finding they can ‘have it all,’ they desire a sense of balance in their lives, and by going from one extreme to another they aim to achieve that balance. In 2016, this equalizing behavior will become more ubiquitous than ever and, consequently, companies are responding with approaches that not only accommodate – but encourage – such a way of life.”

“Mintel research confirms consumer interest in the proliferating business models that allow them to share or to have unlimited access for one set fee. For example, around one in five (21 percent) US adults who attend live events would consider paying an annual subscription to see multiple events at a particular venue. What’s more, 21 percent of US consumers occasionally like to have meat-free days such as ‘meatless Mondays,’ indicating a need for balance in day-to-day life.”

“Consumer demand for convenience and immediacy will continue to deepen, and advancements in 3D printing and drone usage promise to deliver elevated instant gratification. Drone delivery remains on the horizon as companies like Google work with NASA to help devise the first drone air-traffic control system in the US,” said Stacy Glasgow, Consumer Trends Consultant at Mintel. “Another balance of extremes that will emerge are self-driving cars and other autonomous machinery, which will further the sci-fi prediction of a world reliant upon robots. Chaotic consumer lifestyles have already cultivated a strong need for balance, but what’s changing in 2016 is that they’re going to extremes more than ever before to achieve it.”

The Big Brand Theory - A brand’s story can make or break consumer purchases, which is driving the growth of craft, but not necessarily leaving big business behind.

“In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, consumers have exchanged the ‘bigger is better’ mantra for right-sized purchases and supporting small businesses. Aspirations have included pledges to choose mom-and-pop stores that led to a growth in farmers markets and interest in buying handmade items via websites like Etsy, giving consumers the ability to learn more about the maker or the production process. This has led to a new emphasis on craftsmanship, regardless of the manufacturer. In some cases, larger companies have more flexibility to devise new options that look and feel like the handiwork of small businesses. Regardless of the company's size, genuine stories help to form relationships that give consumers the security that products are worthy of their investment and loyalty.”

“Consumers report conflicting attitudes when it comes to judging businesses based on size. Mintel research shows 36 percent of US consumers trust big companies to do the right thing, while nearly half (49 percent) trust small companies to do the right thing. Interest in craft products has been led in large part by an explosion in craft beer and spirits. However, many US adults of legal drinking age are unconcerned about origin with 43 percent saying craft beer can be made by anyone; the company type doesn’t matter. In other categories, bigger brands offer security when it comes to long-term investments, including the automotive industry. More than two in five (42 percent) US car owners report they are loyal to certain car brands.”

“Niche is no longer a limitation, nor is it an opportunity reserved for small companies. We’ve entered an era where the power of the story and the authenticity of the connection supersedes any lofty moral aspirations, such as ‘shopping small.’ This creates opportunities for businesses of all sizes to create new enterprises that do not venture too far from the ‘soul’ of their company,” said Jenny Zegler, Consumer Trends Consultant at Mintel. “Small companies also have found ways to work together, as evidenced by the plethora of collaboration beers released by craft breweries. At the same time, we’ve seen large retailers, such as Nordstrom and Starbucks, foster relationships with smaller producers. Companies must prove that their stories, values and mottos are, indeed, true in order to forge lasting relationships.”

Eye Get It - An image is worth a thousand words – but consumers now rely on it for time savings, too.

“Consumers’ shortening attention spans and drive for immediate gratification created new advancements in 2015. Shopping has become as easy as clicking Buyable Pins on Pinterest and a growing number of products and services are showing up on doorsteps on demand. These on-a-moment’s notice services reflect consumer expectations that everything in their lives should be quick and easy. Communication is no exception.”

“Conveying messages through images dates back to prehistoric cave drawings; now, live-streaming apps like Periscope allow people to experience happenings as they unfold. Yet, the most indicative development of an image-driven culture is that people are coming to rely heavily on emojis to communicate. Not only is it indescribably fast and simple to send, receive, and comprehend an emoji, but the medium is nearly universally understood.”

“The rise in reliance on visual communication is driven by the strain of fast-paced life and consumers’ desires to make things easier. The quickness of mobile payment methods, such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet, has encouraged adoption, and 31 percent of US consumers have already used mobile payments. Mintel’s research indicates further interest in even quicker, wearable payment methods, such as wristbands, which are of interest to 27 percent of American adults, including half (50 percent) of Millennials.”

“In 2016 and beyond, we will see a rapid development in the new ways in which people are able to communicate and interact through visuals. Companies are already tapping into concepts like mobile app Inmoji, which lets users send branded emojis connecting consumers directly to information, deals and songs,” Glasgow continues. “Some of the biggest innovations will come in the form of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). In the coming year we will see the launch of several highly anticipated VR systems, including Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and HTC’s Vive. We will hear buzz around AR launches, among them Magic Leap goggles. We’ll even see holograms come alive and seamlessly integrate with the physical world with the developer launch of Microsoft’s HoloLens goggles. Brands risk being left behind unless they find ways to leverage these universally quick and comprehensible visual media.”

Pride and Persona - Companies are looking to strengthen relationships with consumers by recognizing and reflecting our more diverse and open-minded society.

“Shifts in the traditional definitions of gender, race and other formerly standard demographics are reforming our culture. These changes are increasing the number of equality-focused consumers who expect that products, advertising and corporate policies will reflect the new reality of the population. Many companies are answering the call with communication that demonstrates their support of same-sex parents, senior citizens, people with disabilities and other important groups. In 2015, Super Bowl ads showcased the important role of fathers, a few retailers removed gender-based categories for children’s toys, and transgender celebrities appeared in ads for beauty brands. There is now a movement in which companies and individual brands construct personalities in order to forge more meaningful connections with consumers.”

“Consumers are already familiar with the notion that what they buy can express their morals or support causes that are important to them. According to Mintel research, nearly one third (30 percent) of US Baby Boomers make an effort to buy from ‘good’ companies, such as those that take an active role in their community. Millennials may be the beginning of younger generations who will almost characteristically expect equality. Mintel research indicates that many US children are already embodying this value as 83 percent of kids and 88 percent of teens agree it is important to accept people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds. It is likely that communication will grow beyond traditional perceptions of demographics and lead to more prominent reflections of seniors, people with disabilities, immigrants and the less educated.”

“Bold steps are being taken by small businesses that are founded on the principles of inclusion and equality. Veil Garments offers women who wear hijabs options made from nylon fabric with Cool Dry technology. Larger companies are not standing by idly, however. Ride-share company Uber launched UberASSIST in Los Angeles that features trained drivers in vehicles that can accommodate seniors and people with disabilities. Thus, the opportunity lies with companies to define their corporate values and the stance of individual brands to reflect society. In 2016, it will become more apparent that companies need not shy away from making statements, especially those that stand to broaden their appeal among more equality-focused consumers,” concluded Zegler.