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Ford’s Futurist: Global Trends Impacting Our World

A few years ago at a TED conference, marketing guru Seth Godin had an exchange with Sheryl Connelly, Ford Motor Company’s futurist. He said that she must be very frustrated. She asked him why. Seth said that a futurist’s job is to get people to change, change is hard, and so it must be frustrating to do that inside a big company like Ford.

In that brief interaction, Seth encapsulated the audacity of a futurist – why change is so hard, and why, for a large global business, embracing it is essential for growth. It’s as much of a human truth as it is a corporate one. And it’s a fine line that Connelly walks every day.

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“I’ll be the only person you’ll run into at Ford who tells you, ‘My job is to think about anything but cars,’” she says. As a futurist, Connelly’s task is to examine five global forces – social, technological, economic, environmental, and political – put them in context, then bring that outside perspective inside one of largest car companies in the world.

“You can look at these five forces to understand how they might come together and get a purview of what will shape consumer values, attitudes, and behaviors. I think that is a really worthwhile endeavor for businesses around the world,” she says.

For a business like Ford, making sense of the forces that shape the changing world around us is invaluable. I had the pleasure of attending the Ford Trends summit where Connelly and a panel of TED Fellows revealed top findings from the 2018 Ford Trends Report at TED Headquarters in New York City. After the summit, I spoke with Connelly on the Outside In podcast.

Connelly is adamant that, despite her title, neither she nor anyone else can predict the future. “My job is to change the conversation. To have people consider outcomes that are likely or plausible. To be provocative so that you force an organization to become more nimble and more robust when it comes to strategy.”

This year’s Ford Trends Report, the company’s sixth-annual, calls out a global consumer feeling of anxiety, stress, and unrest. Political upheaval, polarization, growing economic inequality, and concerns about personal data and privacy are some of the forces at play. Many stats from this year’s report reinforce this, including:

— 75% say they agree that people are increasingly intolerant of opposing views

— 66% say they feel overwhelmed by the changes that are taking place around them

— 81% say they are concerned about the growing gap between rich and poor

— 76% say it’s creepy when companies know too much about them

But the report also hints at a growing sense of optimism and activism resulting from global discord and polarization. Consumers who were once complacent are now paying attention, getting involved, and actively shaping the future they want. For instance, the report finds that more than three-fourths of adults believe that their actions can influence positive change.

They’re also demanding a more human response from the companies they buy from. “Consumer engagement is at an all-time high. We’re more informed. We’re paying closer attention to these things. And when a brand stands for something, I think that has resonance,” says Connelly. “I do believe there is a trend among consumers to be mindful of the brands and companies with whom they do business. Because when you spend your money with a company, there’s a tacit endorsement of who they are and what they stand for.”

But standing for something isn’t always easy for brands to do, especially when a lot of the upheaval is driven by politics and policy. Forty-five percent of people surveyed said they expect brands to take a stand on politics. (Patagonia’s bold statement against Donald Trump comes to mind.) How should brands react to this consumer expectation when it’s a minefield that risks alienating a portion of your customers and employees?

Connelly admits the difficulty in taking that leap but says it is possible if brands stand firm on their values. She points to Ford’s response to the U.S. immigration ban at the start of 2017 when Bill Ford, executive chairman and the great grandson of Henry Ford, spoke out against it, saying the ban goes against the company’s commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. “We had to take a stand. I think if you know your values, you can guide that minefield a little bit better,” says Connelly.

I encourage you to read Ford’s report, and reflect on what it means for you and your business. Because this is an important moment. Amid global turmoil, stress, and uncertainty, consumers are using their purchasing power to take sides and take a stand. The companies that embrace that, rather than ignore it, are the ones that will find success in the future.

As Connelly says, “Companies have an opportunity – indeed, a responsibility – that, if you expect to have longevity, you have to make sure you build a trusting relationship with the people that you do business with.”

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