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Shaping the Discourse: A Conversation with Prof. Peter Wippermann

In his 30 years as one of Europe's trend research pioneers, Prof. Peter Wippermann shaped the thinking of many management boards. Now retired, Peter is still the person to turn to if you want to understand the broader patterns of societal change. When I was a consultant at Trendbüro some 15 years ago, one of my memories is of Peter spending the early hours of the morning working through a stack of newspapers and magazines. You would later find clippings on your desk with a brief note. It was his typical understated way to offer an idea. In his public keynotes, Peter took a different tack. His sharp and incisive delivery galvanised audiences. When I approached Peter for an interview, I was interested in his retrospective view. But being the trend researcher that he is, we spent just as much time looking ahead.

After a successful career, you have recently retired, but not entirely. You have been involved in Otto group’s recent study on circular economy and ethical consumption and you seem to be still quietly commenting on recent developments.

When you've been active for so long, you keep getting interesting requests, such as the one from the Otto group. But apart from occasional consulting gigs for old clients, I'm not really involved anymore. I keep an eye on the latest developments, of course, and post about them on LinkedIn. What fascinates me is what’s been going on since November, when artificial intelligence became the focus of discussion. This is a development that goes back a long time and represents an increase in rationalisation. Whenever money and economic benefits are at stake, all parameters suddenly change. The creation of Beck's beer with artificial intelligence was a strong signal for me. The technology was used to drive everything from the recipe and packaging to sales and marketing. The finished product was then sold online as a limited edition. It was amazing to see something like this being realised within a few weeks.

Yes, that's incredibly efficient...

.... and it eliminates many jobs along the way.

It reminds me of 25 years ago, when the internet took off. It was obvious that it would change a lot, but not to what extent or in what way.

The media today is buzzing with news about Apple’s new virtual reality device. When you consider that in 2007, at our Trendtag (Trend Day), we held a conference with 40 avatars in Second Life, you get this strange feeling that things are being developed, reach a technological-economic limit, then recede into the background, only to be re-evaluated years later. If you look at Meta and now Apple, and if you follow the discussion about AI and the development of avatars in China, then it becomes apparent that technological diffusion happens slowly before it hits the mainstream.

Sometimes those developments need an accelerator, like the pandemic. I'm thinking of video conferencing, which was around for decades before becoming firmly integrated into the work environment.

The exciting part is that, due to such extreme situations as the pandemic, companies had to adapt rapidly by using new media, implementing new work structures, and ensuring new types of security and economic processes. All of this took place in only two years. Now, if you look at hybrid working as something that is here to stay, you can see two different speeds at play: A slowly approaching new technology, like virtual reality video conferencing, and its lagged acceptance in society.

We tend to think that technology sets the pace and that if something is technologically possible, it will be accepted and adapted. What we sometimes fail to realise is how dominant culture is as both a driver and an inhibitor of change.

I remember the time when trend research began to be relevant for companies. This coincided with the founding of the Trendbüro in the 1990s, not long after Germany was reunited. It was at this time that the World Wide Web suddenly became popular. The idea of restructuring companies for the Internet spawned the New Economy, which created an optimistic, almost euphoric mood. Marketing was at a point where there were more products than consumers, so consumers suddenly became more interesting. Brands became detached from the actual product and culturally charged. Advertising shifted focus to below-the-line, i.e., marketing activities that were playfully on the edge. It was precisely this cultural element—knowing what was happening with consumers and the needs and demands in different cultural scenes—that led to the acceptance of trend research.

Did this growing acceptance of trend research play a role in founding the Trendbüro over 30 years ago?

No, that developed slowly. At that time, I had an agency with Jürgen Kaffer called Büro Hamburg, an agency for communication design. We produced a magazine for Philip Morris called Übermorgen (The Day After Tomorrow). The basic idea of Übermorgen was to make the American view of the future tangible. And from this idea, which is ultimately nothing other than what we call content marketing and storytelling today, an event named Talk With Tomorrow developed. As part of Talk With Tomorrow, we invited a handful of participants to visit Futurists in New York. I invited Matthias Horx, the later co-founder of the Trendbüro, to host this event. We flew over and met Faith Popcorn, the “godmother of trend research”. That inspired us to bring trend research to Germany and Europe. And with it came the idea of no longer just asking questions and counting answers but rather observing and processing things journalistically. This led to the launch of four publications: a trend books, a brand icon book, a trend lexicon, and a little theory booklet to say, "Hello, there's something new, and it's totally exciting for business and for society.” It’s interesting to note that Philip Morris was the first company to engage in this ethnology of everyday life, followed by big brands like Unilever, VW and Bertelsmann, allowing us to establish a small company in a very short time.

How did you develop your offering?

At first, we were the only providers on the market. This, of course, caused friction with big market research companies. We then developed the Trendtag and invited people of significant importance to society, such as Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, who was one of our speakers in 2005. Imagine that during his keynote, half of the participants walked out of the room because they said that Wikipedia had nothing to do with media and marketing. In 2003, we invited Frithjof Bergmann, who introduced the term New Work. This shows the staying power of some developments. It would seem that after twenty years of talking about New Work, we might need a new term for it.

The Trendtag illuminated a topic scientifically and transferred it to marketing. We did it for fifteen years, setting the agenda for societal trends and defining newsworthy topics which were taken up by Tagesthemen (a German TV news program). The conference attracted 400 marketing professionals every year. You have to understand that the terms "futures" and "futurism" were very controversial at the time. Back then, it was more about understanding what happens in the present. But the popularity of trends led to inflationary use of the term, especially by advertising folks. This in turn made "futures" and "foresight" popular.

After six years, Matthias and I parted ways because we no longer agreed on content. He founded the Zukunftsinstitut to focus on far-off futures. Trends are observations of the near future of society, and that's what has always fascinated me—until today.

There are different interpretations of “foresight”, and some reject the term altogether because they see it as too passive. I use “foresight” as an umbrella term for trends and futures. And in my view, futures studies cannot do without researching trends; they are the foundation for developing future scenarios.

What’s interesting is that qualitative market research also evolved over the decades. Trend research as a discipline is already established in companies and embedded in their market research departments—at least in large companies. At big consultancies, trend research may not exist as a term, but, of course, it is there as a service. The uniqueness that we had in the beginning has really been lost over time. Today, it is one service among others. The discipline became more differentiated; there are many boutique offerings and specific services in this area. This is a good development, and we will now see what happens under the influence of ChatGPT and similar offers. In any case, this will completely change how we deal with scenarios.

Tell me more, please. How could this play out?

I believe that the search for knowledge will be organised differently in companies. Product managers, strategists, and the like will use artificial intelligence to create scenarios in the digital domain. It is critical to remember that we have a completely different situation today than more than 25 years ago, when the World Wide Web was gradually introduced into society and into business. At that time, the development was greeted with euphoria; suddenly all the companies had dotcom appended to their names. Today, we have a society that is brutally polarised into the progress-willing and the progress-refusers. Even after the New Economy collapse, polarisation wasn't as strong. Today, the search for conservative solutions under the combined pressures of climate change, renationalisation, and fragile supply chains is surprisingly popular. If you consider that the AfD (Alternative for Germany, a right-wing party) currently has more votes than the SPD (Social Democratic Party, a centre-left party, part of government coalition), you can see that something is bubbling up that had not existed in this form of polarisation in recent decades. And the question will be: Where is common ground? In marketing, it means a division into niche offers of individual products and brands and into large brands that promote reconciliation. Reconciliation as a brand identity, and by brand, I mean the whole company, was discussed a few years ago under the theme of "purpose".

We have an incredibly interesting situation. On the one hand, a crisis-stricken world drives people to retreat into their own culture. At the same time, we are experiencing both globalisation and polarisation in the virtual space. Separation from China, Russia, and India and simultaneous virtual connection mean we have a world of illusions in the digital space. And if we apply this to artificial intelligence, it will, of course, use information from the digital world as a basis and probably see physical, biological, and mental realities with a time delay and as a shimmering reflection. Being in touch with analogue reality will become increasingly difficult. This becomes a fascinating field for people who deal with change in society, whether they are futurists, trend researchers, or whatever.

If you compare this situation with your beginnings 30 years ago, has the challenge for trend and futures researchers changed?

Yes, on the one hand, trend and futures researchers will be rationalised. And on the other hand, alongside this virtual illusionistic reality, the desire for a counterview will grow. There are always trends and countertrends. So, the further we move into the realm of virtual reality—and we definitely do that in the world of marketing—the stronger the desire for trust will become. Trust and digitality are not really linked at the moment.

Could a trend researcher's role be to identify potential areas of trust?

I think so. Trend research began by examining scene culture. It was assumed that scenes were the driving forces behind society as a whole. Brands wanted to be connected with scenes as simultaneously as possible to grow with them. That was the information service of trend research. Then, trend research focused on shifting values. We tried very early on to install the Werteindex (Value Index), a bi-yearly study based on social media listening. This research method was euphorically discussed at the time but developed relatively slowly. Today, it still doesn't run automatically and requires interpretation by people with certain special knowledge. If you consider social media research an indicator of how we will use artificial intelligence, the fact that we are currently discussing the topic of “who is asking the questions”, i.e., prompts, shows that certain people are needed to use this tool effectively. Finding and formulating these questions is something that is very close to what trend research or market research does. So, there will be a new hybrid researcher combining biological-analog with digital skills. Parallel to this, automation will happen in the virtual world, where people who deal with change, i.e., trend and futures researchers, will outsource scenario work to machines. Those who can use, master, and develop these tools will win. Others who get stuck in the old ways will "produce" far too expensively and will be rationalised.

Trend research sometimes has a credibility problem because we often work with anecdotal rather than data-based evidence. Do you think AI-generated trends and scenarios will be considered more robust and therefore it will be easier for companies to trust them?

I would say that trend research has evolved to incorporate quantification methods as well. When I work with Bonsai Research, we develop a trend and validate its relevance for different target groups or age groups. I think there are other challenges that are worth paying attention to.

My background is in communication design. Thus, I find it interesting that today, every product manager can translate her ideas into media images using AI. What you can accomplish with Adobe’s text-to-image feature was done previously in retouching and image editing. Now everyone can do this themselves from their desk. This means that unless these service providers have anything new to offer, they will be rendered superfluous. But the question will be, what do consumers long for? Do they crave super-idealistic, surreal imagery or the counter-shot? Back in the days when Viva TV existed—a TV channel for young people at a time when MTV was still relevant—their campaign idea was to show young people's everyday lives. The goal was to position Viva as a counter-shot to the hyperbolised world of MTV and thus offer a quiet observation of everyday life. This is something that is also developing today as a pair of opposites. To give you a more recent example from the media sector: On the one hand, we have Lisa, the women's magazine, which published a pasta recipes edition using AI but didn't identify it as such and appeared as a print product in retail. Think about what has been eliminated, from editing to design to photography. On the other hand, high-quality books and lovingly made print products have ended up in the luxury sector.

One of my misjudgements at the time was that I wanted to open a digital division alongside our print-based communication design. As a result, Jürgen Kaffer, Peter Kabel, and I founded Kabel New Media, one of the first digital offerings in design. We thought the transition from analogue to digital would go incredibly fast. But in fact, more paper is printed on books in England than ever before. It is critical to understand this contradiction and decide where to position yourself. Another example is a consumer study I did for Danone eight or nine years ago. What emerged at the time was that the majority of those with children were very sceptical about cow's milk as a basis for dairy products. Management, however, rejected this finding and did not believe it. If you now see how Oatley and other vegan products have developed, you realise that something AI cannot solve is ignorance within companies.

Would you say that the pandemic made businesses more sensitised to the fact that business-as-usual no longer works?

I would try to look at the question differently. In periods when society is relatively calm and has no real serious problems, interest in innovation is extremely high. The moment pressure arises—and that was the case during the pandemic—that changes. After the pandemic, the Ukraine war, and the rethinking of value chains, things have become more polarised. There are many who fear the future and, with blinkers on, try to optimise old principles. Specifically, through cost reductions, job cuts, etc. On the other hand, there are companies and start-ups that are rethinking them.

Danone's reaction cannot be generalised. I believe that we were dealing with a company that had to change because the product, like cigarettes, was under pressure. When cigarette manufacturers could talk less and less about their products, they created evocative worlds that offered something to talk about. So, it becomes about finding like-minded people in a company who are also interested in seeing where things could go and what the different scenarios could look like. I think that you need to be much more involved in a company's search for the future within that company. And the further away you move and postulate general trends, the less interesting it will be. Ultimately, this has also become inflationary within the last 30 years. Everyone publishes a small study and says this is the future of X or Y. That has no value anymore.

How did you deal with clients that were resistant to change?

Back then, we used the term “reality tunnel”. You have to know exactly whose reality tunnel you are in. And there are different ones. Reality is a construct, after all. For example, there are companies that still think they make products for everyone. That's the case with Aldi, for example, which says it's ultimately about price. They think they have a very clear focus, and everything else is dismissed as advertising ornaments. But from the point of view of strategy development, you have to know very precisely what you offer, for whom, and where you want to go. There will be people who get it and are fun to collaborate with. But quite often you will have clients where you say, "Yes, very nice, thank you very much, goodbye." You should avoid those.

Despite all the talk, not many companies are serious about transformation.

If you look at the term transformation, it's something that has been with us for many years or decades. The term originally described the transition from the analogue to the digital world. How do we deal with the internet? How do we deal with social media? A change was supposed to give you peace of mind for a while. You could then stay the same for decades. However, the pandemic and everything that came after it made it clear that we are in a fluid process. The question companies need to ask themselves is, how agile are we? And that is highly interesting. What does it mean to be in a process where you never arrive but grow? The question is also, whereto do you want to grow? And that's a completely novel situation. In the past, you had an idea and tried to keep it alive. This doesn’t work if you are one element of society, inseparable from your environment, to which you have to react. And you have to react constantly, not just once. Naturally, this changes how businesses are organised. And there are companies that are very flexible and others that have no interest in changing as a whole, only in changing their appearance. Thus, you can see the excitement with which brands are being reworked. From three-dimensional to two-dimensional, from polychrome to monochrome. It's big fashion at the moment because you can demonstrate to everyone that you are changing. But tinkering with aesthetics says nothing about the change underneath. Think of Lufthansa, for example.

Companies have always encountered inflection points and had to reinvent themselves. Although the past offers some valuable lessons, we seem to ignore them.

This also has to do with the internal change process of decision-makers. 30 years ago, we met Douglas Copeland, who brought cohort thinking into the zeitgeist with his book "Generation X." Gen X was the first post-WWII generation to experience a break, namely that prosperity does not always grow. But if you now look at Gen Z, who grew up very differently, were socialised differently, and will influence companies very differently, you see a contrasting take on things. While the older generation tends to live by the Hamburger motto "have and hold" and doesn't want to be downgraded under any circumstances, the younger generation says they live now and want to try something new in the present. Retro, for them, is not social decline but a culture. This leads to tensions within companies that can be either used or suppressed. So, we have this polarisation both in society and in companies. And quite simply, those who want to go back won't be able to.

Let’s go back to your beginnings at Trendbüro. What skills were you able to build on and what did you still have to acquire in order to do trend research?

It was a combination of our skills. As a journalist, writer, and comic artist, Matthias Horx had a penchant for picking up stories that had to do with changes in society. And he was skilled at coining these phenomena. Being able to identify and describe a specific aesthetic direction or emerging lifestyle was a key prerequisite for the Trendbüro to become so vibrant so quickly. Analysis and pattern recognition across consumer cultures, products, and media—that was my specialty as a communication designer. So, in this respect, we combined the knowledge and skills we brought with us. Régine designed our trend books, which received awards and gave us a completely new, somewhat deconstructivist appearance. Although the Trendbüro was something new, its substance had developed over the years. With the magazine Übermorgen, we were already tracking emerging signals. We were doing trend research, even if we didn't call it that at the time. The magazine had a circulation of one million as a supplement to many popular lifestyle magazines.

As trend researchers, we rely a lot on journalists' work because they are great at spotting emerging signals. It seems many people explore changes in society without calling themselves trend researchers.

The term "trend" has fallen dramatically from its glory. No one wants to be a trend researcher these days. People's titles must contain futures or foresight, or at least strategy. But it used to be different. And it was also the case that a journalistic approach was always key to our work, not least because journalists reported on what we did. And with Trendtag, we tried to create, illuminate, and validate a topic that was relevant to the marketing audience and had media impact. A well-chosen theme not only gave us a push in the media, but the knowledge gained also elevated our consulting work. A particularly notable example is the topic of Swarm Intelligence, which we introduced very early on when social media became popular. A topic that was super interesting but way too far ahead was Posthuman, i.e., the entry of genetic engineering into society. That was too much future. What we always tried to do was bridge the gap between today and the future and answer the question, What's next? What is the likelihood that this will be accepted? Why will this continue to develop or increase?

That’s the challenge, isn’t it? Not only forecasting a trend, but also its timeline. In retrospect, some of the trends we explored (when I was part of the team from 2006 to 2008), for example self-optimisation became pervasive years later.

These topics did not appear out of thin air. One of the ideas of trend research is naming, i.e., the coining of a phenomenon. What I was particularly successful with was the topic of Ich-AG (Me, Inc.). The term was first published in an interview and then had an incredible career, up to Ich-AG funding, which was government support for start-ups and the unemployed. The term was even voted Non-Word of The Year. The naming of the Ich-AG was, of course, a stroke of luck. Many other terms were very short-lived. We once did a women's typology and named a segment New Sluts. I was almost beaten up by women in Austria because that clearly connoted being a sex worker. In Germany, by contrast, there was a slut cookbook, for example, so the term expressed a certain kind of nonchalance. Such terms disappear very quickly.

What other projects or publications are you particularly proud of?

Setting New Work as a trend topic in 2003, I think, was pretty good. All in all, I’m glad we did the Trendtag with the support of our media partners, SPIEGEL and Horizont. Although the conference cost an insane amount of money due to the high U.S. speaker fees, it was worth it as they looked at society differently than we do in Europe and Germany. In addition to the Trendtag, I am pleased that we launched the Werteindex in 2010, which continues to be published by the new Trendbüro in Munich (Peter sold Trendbüro in 2012) with their partners Bonsai and Uranos.

If you were to set up a trend consultancy again, what would you do differently?

I would certainly no longer launch a trend consultancy. Having explored the topics of the circular economy and ethical consumption as part of the study for the Otto Group, if I were starting out again, I would set up a consultancy for the circular economy. How do you approach such a complex topic? It's not easy to switch from a linear growth logic to a circular economy, and I find that exciting.

It might seem quite niche now, but it will soon transform businesses and the economy.

Yes, I'm sure of that. At the moment, the discussion revolves around how we deal with plastic globally. We know that there is a lot at stake, including the interests of oil-producing companies and countries. Nevertheless, it must be done. Dealing with plastic differently is incredibly difficult because it is just so convenient. Why am I so interested in this? I grew up when “Here today, gone tomorrow” was youth culture. Take something, throw it behind you, and look ahead. The economy still works that way today. The focus is on more of the same to achieve economies of scale. Businesses have only slowly started to think about introducing sharing and circular concepts. Making things repairable or reusable is very gradually gaining traction. In my youth, that was regressive thinking. Back then, there were repair shops for women’s nylons. That wasn't progress. Wearing new nylon stockings once and throwing them away was the future. As an idea, it has harmed the planet and its people. Change will be incredibly difficult, and consulting services will be needed to get the transformation done.

About Prof. Peter Wippermann

Peter began his career as a typesetter and later worked as an art director at Rowohlt-Verlag and ZEITmagazin. Together with Jürgen Kaffer, he founded Büro Hamburg in 1988, a communications design agency. In 1990, he conceived the event series "Talk with Tomorrow" for Philip Morris and was the lead editor of the magazine "Übermorgen". In 1992, he co-founded Trendbüro, a consultancy for social change. In 1993, he was appointed professor of communication design at Folkwang University in Essen, where he taught until 2015. In 2012, Peter sold Trendbüro to Avantgarde in Munich and worked as an independent consultant until his retirement in 2022.


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