BatKid and the future of retail

By Rohit Bhargava

     Rohit Bhargava

Nearly two years ago while a 5-year-old was busy saving the city of San Francisco, it may not have been obvious just how significant this moment would be for the future of the retail industry. This crime-fighting kid's real name was Miles Scott, and aside from conquering villains and saving the Golden Gate City, he was also fighting his own battle against leukemia. Miles, like many kids, had a dream to be a superhero, and on November 15, 2013 the Bay area chapter of the Make A Wish Foundation brought his dream to life.

The event where Miles, aka "BatKid," saved the city was broadcasted on social media with the hashtag #sfbatkid in the hopes that a hundred or so people might show up at City Hall to provide an audience. It went viral. On the day of the event, an estimated crowd of 20,000 people showed up. A Silicon Valley tycoon brought a real-life Batmobile to give Miles a ride. San Francisco's mayor even declared November 15th "Batkid Day" and gave Miles the key to the city.

What does any of this has to do with the future of retail? The story of Miles Scott isn't just one about a kid having the most memorable moment of his life. It is also a symbol of a trend that is shaping the way your consumers think and is likely to affect your business strategy in the coming year, if it hasn't already.

The trend is one I call "Everyday Stardom," based on the insight that there are more ways today than ever before for ordinary people to become superstars. Fifteen-year-olds record cover songs and post videos to YouTube in order to get discovered. Brides in India create new video wedding invitations by hiring professional film crews to help them recreate popular scenes from Bollywood films. And all around us, the promise of big data requires us to think of every customer interaction as a moment for personalization.

As leading experiential brands like Disney make big bets on this type of mass personalization with their investment in their "Magic Band" technology—consumer expectations are sky high. So what does this all mean for retail brands? How is this type of expectation changing the way we communicate with customers? It is no longer acceptable to send someone an email that says "dear customer" anymore. Everyday Stardom means the bar is higher for personalized customer experiences.

If we zoom out for a moment, there is also another lesson in the connections between Batkid, Bollywood brides and Disney's Magic Band—and trends always come from these types of unusual intersections. I often describe myself as a "Trend Curator," meaning I collect interesting stories and ideas, and then make connections between them to describe trends in the marketplace.

It is easy to look at technology like 3D printing or a popular social media tool like Pinterest and declare either of those a trend. The problem with trend predictions, often, is that they start with this type of microscopic thinking. If something is new and popular, maybe it's a trend. It is an understandable way to think.

It's also dead wrong.

Instead, I believe that trends are curated observations of the accelerating present. They are always about more than a single platform or technology. Powerful trends describe not only how we are behaving or what we are using, but why we are doing it in the first place. Trends are behavioral, not tactical.

This doesn't, however, mean you can't use them actively to power your own business strategy. Curating trends is not an activity restricted to gurus and analysts. Doing it requires "intersection thinking," a skill any of us can learn. This is about thinking outside your industry or target audience. Intersections come from unique and different ideas. Ideas like five-year-old superheroes and brides getting married in India.

The world is full of these types of intersections, but we need to train ourselves to avoid being observationally lazy and learn to see them. This is what trend prediction is all about, and learning to do it can actually help you see and even predict the future.

So aside from Everyday Stardom, what other trends are poised to change the world of retail in the future? To find out, and learn more about how you can start to predict trends for yourself—join my session at the Digital Summit.

Rohit Bhargava is the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Non-Obvious and four other business books. He will be delivering a keynote speech at the upcoming Digital Summit on retail business trends and how to use them.