CoFounder Interview with William Higham

By Tarmo Virki | interview | March 14, 2021

We sat down with William Higham, behavioural futurist and consumer trends consultant who has worked with Walt Disney, HSBC, BBC and Mindshare, and has created marketing strategies for The Rolling Stones and he is the founder of Next Big Thing.

What trends have appeared throughout the pandemic that you think are here to stay?

It’s very hard when you’re in the middle of something to try and imagine what it will be like in the future. But when you’re thinking about which trends are going to outlast any event or environmental change, such as the pandemic, I put trends in three categories, identifying which category each new behaviour falls into. I call the categories environment-specific, environment-friendly and environment growth.

Environment-specific trends arise purely because of the environment. For example, the increasing importance of hand hygiene and masks now – that is something very specific to this time. Post-pandemic there will be slightly more people wearing masks than before, but that’s likely to fade away, making it an environment-specific trend.
There are other trends that were important before and have been maintained, one of these being health in general. We have seen people become increasingly focused on their physical and mental health, which is something that is evidentially continuing.

Then there are other trends that the pandemic has actually accelerated, the core trend there being online behaviour. Many more people are now using the internet for video calls and e-commerce in areas they’ve never done before.
When you do something for the first time which is easy and beneficial, you start thinking, ‘hold on a second, I’m going to keep doing this, this is great! Why didn’t I do this before?’, and that stays with you. If it’s something that actually adds to your life, that you enjoy and helps you, then you will continue doing it, and I think the pandemic has really accelerated this.

We will continue to see growth in several trends, such as the trend of localism which has recently rocketed. More and more people are focusing on their local community, much more than they were before.
So, there are many trends that brands must look out for. But the key is to determine which of these trends are specific to that environment, and which have actually accelerated or decelerated.
For example, sharing food was a huge growing trend and that’s going to ease back a little bit, making it a decelerator. You’re not going to see a lot of peanuts on the bars of pubs anymore for a while!

In light of the collapse of the Arcadia Group, what is the future of the high street?

I think that the demise of Arcadia is incredibly sad, however, I’m not convinced that it was all down to trends, so I don’t think that spells the end of the High Street at all.
I think that shops on the High Street will continue to exist and that actually our local high streets are going to be more important over the next five to 10 years than they have been over the last five to 10.

However, the shops themselves have to change. We’re in a totally different situation now. The fact that people can buy pretty much anything they want for the same price, perhaps even cheaper online and then have it delivered almost immediately is of course going to have a huge, huge impact on the high street.
Retailers are starting to realise that they need to go back to that first step and ask, ‘what is the purpose of a shop?’ A shop used to be the only place where you could buy stuff to take home, but now the Internet can do that at least as well. So, what is the point of a physical shop?

I think now, the point of a shop is that it is a window for your products. It’s a place for you as a customer to try things out, to see what things look like, how they work, to talk to assistants and it’s also a place of entertainment and leisure, where you can hang out with your friends.
I think the future will also become more localised. The shop will be a place where local entrepreneurs can sell goods, and so, therefore, you have to really start to build a relationship with your customers as a local person.
If you just do the same thing that shops have done for the last 50 years, you’re going to fail. Shops need to understand that this is actually an exciting opportunity to create and build a culture that’s change friendly. Look to the future and consider ‘what might my customers need? Why on earth would the customer come into my shop? What can I offer them?
It’s going to be a great time for retailers as there are real opportunities here.

You work with businesses to create profit-focused, future-proof strategies – what are some changes businesses can implement today to future-proof their business?

This is something I’ve been looking at for many years, but it’s particularly important right now because so many businesses are having to think, ‘how can I prepare for a post-COVID-19 future? What is the post-COVID-19 customer going to look like?’
I don’t know of any business that isn’t having to think about how it might adapt and how it might anticipate the future. So, to try and help, I’ve thought, ‘well OK, let’s try to hone this down to what practical things you can do as a business to prepare for the post-COVID-19 future, or any future.’ And I’ve come up with four things that any business can do to prepare.
The first one is to track the trends, the second is to identify the new needs, the third is to become change-ready, and the fourth is diversifying what you do.

So, number one – track the trends. This is about understanding which new behaviours are going to last. You must track the trends and consider, ‘out of all the new behaviours that are happening at the moment, which ones are going to grow? Which ones are going to decline?’ Keep an eye on those and then determine which of those trends are going to be important to you.

Number two – identify the new needs. This is increasingly important today as the businesses that are succeeding are the businesses that are customer-focused. Right now, customers have so much choice. There are so many price comparison sites and different brands, the customer is able to take charge. The companies that can anticipate what the customer’s new needs are going to be will succeed.
I come from a marketing background and the main aim from that perspective is to solve the customer’s needs. That’s what marketing is and is also what brands and products are – they are a way of solving customer’s needs. But at the moment, with customers’ needs changing all the time, you have to be able to anticipate those needs. You have to ask yourself, ‘what are their needs now and what will their new needs be?’ And if you can do that before your competitors, you can provide that solution first. So, identify what the new needs are going to be and then adapt accordingly.

The third thing is – become change ready. We are living in an incredibly volatile era. If you look at the speed at which new innovations are coming in and people are adopting them, it really is rocketing. The world is much less certain than it used to be, definitely over the last few decades. As a result, the companies that are going to succeed are the companies that are ready for change.

It’s not enough just to say, ‘right, we know what’s going to happen in five years, so we’re going to adapt for that. It’s great if you’re ready for that, but you also have to create a business that is ready for the unexpected. Whether that is another pandemic, a new piece of technology or something to do with climate change, you need to be ready to deal with it. You need a change-friendly culture, and you need to understand how trends work to be ready.

Finally, you have to diversify what you do. One of the things we saw within the pandemic, certainly in terms of supply chains initially and then in terms of markets, was that the companies whose focus was on just one area were incredibly vulnerable.
For example, if you are an airline and all you do is fly people around the world and suddenly people can’t fly, what do you do? It’s a very vulnerable place to be. We also saw this with supply chains. If you have supply chains in China and something happens in China, you’re in trouble.
You have to be ready with something else because your market could suddenly disappear, and so we need to think about core strengths. What else are you good at? Look at all these new needs customers have, what can you do to gain revenue from those? How can you take advantage of these changes? Think about how you could diversify your offerings.

To summarise – track the trends, identify the new needs, become change-ready and diversify what you do. Four things that every company could start doing tomorrow.

William Higham and other futurism and trends speakers are available to book via The Motivational Speakers Agency.