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Gluten-free food. The Atkins diet. Paleo. These are all examples of huge trends that inspired some brilliant new products - and some terrible ones.

It's easy to see why companies turn to trends - those emerging consumer behaviors that can potentially lead to permanent change - as a source of product and business innovation. If something's trendy, it may be easier to grab the attention of the media and the marketplace. If consumers associate your brand with a trend that is meant to stay, you might be sitting on a gold mine.

But a trend can also represent a risk, especially if it's more fad than fab.

If you're looking into trends to help drive innovation in your company, hit pause. Following trends might lead to ill-conceived offerings and products that don't make sense. Beet-flavored gum, anyone?

Trends are trends for a reason, but following what's popular may not always be what's best for your brand. Here are some important tips on how to use trends for better product innovation:

  1. Get cutting-edge, creative customers to evaluate trends.

In an effort to be cool, brands often try to identify and engage consumers who are ahead of trends. But according to our in-house co-creation expert, this approach doesn't always work.

Instead of looking for trendy people for inspiration, a better approach is to engage a mix of creative people. "You need creative people who are good at generating ideas," says Stephen Benson, Team Lead of Co-creation Projects at Vision Critical. "These consumers can think conceptually within a short amount of time."

In addition to idea generators, you should also play to the strength of your entire community by recruiting those who excel at evaluating and refining what has already been submitted. The right mix of customers can help identify, assess, and improve on trends that may or may not be appropriate for your brand.

  1. Involve marketing early in the process.

Marketers typically get involved late in the innovation process. More brands, however, are realizing that marketing proficiency is required a lot earlier in the product development cycle.

"The most successful brands place consumers in the driver's seat, giving them ways to add value right from the start," writes Benson for a MarketingProfs article. Since customer engagement is required sooner than later, marketing teams can play a role in helping shape engagement strategies in the early stages of innovation.

If customers aren't associating a trend with your products, then it's probably a bad idea. Get your marketing team to run a co-creation project to test if trends come up in the process. A systematic approach to getting people's ideas will help validate your hunches whether it makes sense to develop a product based on a trend.

There's an added benefit to engaging marketing early: they can help beyond customer engagement. Since they're intimately involved in building your brand and because many of them are tuned in to social media, marketers can help separate actual trends to fads.

  1. Understand how your customers perceive your brand.

You might think of your brand as a cool young brand, but customers' perception may say otherwise. Many brand extensions fail when they don't jibe with how consumers perceive the brand in the first place. That's why it's helpful to know how people see your brand, and how their perceptions of you change over time.

Talk to your customers frequently on social media, insight communities, or other methods to get a better grasp of people's attitudes towards your brand. It might also be helpful to listen to the market at large to understand the brand perception of people who aren't customers yet.

  1. Avoid things that change frequently.

With people constantly talking about what's new in the marketplace, it sometimes gets difficult to isolate the short-term fads from the trends you actually need to pay attention to.

Sheryl Connelly, head of Ford's Global Trends and Futuring Division, uses the example of denim to illustrate how Ford tackles the issue.

"Blue jeans have been around for 150 years. That's a manifestation of a trend. By contrast, styles of blue jeans -- high rise, low ride, colored denim, skinny leg, acid wash -- those are fads, and those change with the season. If the things that we watch are changing that frequently, that's our first clue that we're watching the wrong things."

Brands can learn from Ford's approach and assess trends based on their potential to stick around. Co-creation can help with this because the process involves people evaluating top ideas. If people in your innovation community see a trend going away in a few years, they'll tell you. Tap into the collective insight of your customers to distil ideas and identify only those trends that have long-term potential.

In a world where people expect brands to innovate quickly, it's tempting to go after shiny objects and follow what many brands are already doing. But brands are more likely to come up with better ideas faster if they already have a process in place that engages the right people with the right activity.

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Kelvin Claveria

Kelvin Claveria was formerly a Content Marketing Manager at Vision Critical.

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