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The Future of Marketing Lies with the Futurists

The Future of Marketing Lies with the Futurists

Steve Heisler

illustration of yellow pyramid against blue background, eye imagery throughout

To stay ahead of the technology curve and better anticipate consumer behavior, marketers can look to the work of futurists—and become one themselves

Part of The Year Ahead 2020 special web issue

Brian David Johnson isn’t a soothsayer, but he has a sense of what the future might look like. For years, he has served companies as the resident futurist—a discipline of research that compiles the work of economists, analysts, social scientists and anthropologists to gain a sense of where the world is headed, then recommend directions in which executives can steer their work to induce the desired outcome. As the chief futurist at Intel, for example, Johnson studied technology to guide the creation of microprocessors that would remain useful and relevant 10 years in the future, as the technology required 10 years to build.

Today, Johnson teaches the tools of futurism at Arizona State University as the school’s futurist in residence, and has authored books including Computing and the Devices We Love and Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian and a Futurist Journey Through Steampunk into the Future of Technology. He spoke to Marketing News about how marketers can adopt a futurist mindset, the downsides of following trends and the timeless nature of a great story.

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In your words, what is a futurist?

A futurist is a person who is trained in long-term strategic foresight, or a person who is using the tools of foresight and futuring to get a vision for the future. There’s almost a century-long tradition of these sorts of processes, procedures and tools. A data analyst would use certain data models or an economist would use different macro- and microeconomic approaches. Same thing with futurists. It’s a set of tools for being able to pull together a broad, disparate amount of information and be able to, at least for me, develop possible and potential futures in a specific area. Then as an applied futurist, I turn around and do back-casting: What then needs to happen?

What value do futurists bring to companies?

Brian David Johnson
Brian David Johnson

The way that you change the future, whether it be for an organization, for an average citizen or for the United States government, is you change the story that people tell themselves about the future that they’re going to live in—stories that get people thinking differently about their future. And if you can do that, people will make different decisions—different purchase, education or policy decisions. More broadly, that’s what marketers do. They craft a story. They craft a vision.

What I do for companies and for people is think about the thing that comes after the thing—not just getting blinded by the next big thing. My job is to get organizations to the other side of the hype, of what everybody thinks is going to be a big deal. Then you can become the disruptor. You can actually be disruptive because you’ve got much more of a long-term vision.

What are the first steps to becoming a futurist?

There are programs where you can be trained and get a master’s degree. There are some consultancies that do this, but I generally push people toward universities because there’s a bit more academic rigor to it.

I would say if you want to pull it a little bit easier, the next would be to start learning the tools of foresight [like] future-casting. I work with social scientists, ethnographers and anthropologists to get an understanding of the people doing the modeling. Everything in business begins with people and ends with people. I go to the scientists to [then] say, “What will these people be like? How can we make their lives better? How can we solve a problem for them?”

Next, I look at technology. You say, “OK, what will technologically be possible 10 years from now? How can we use this technology to make people’s lives better, healthier, happier, more productive, make them laugh more or make them better entertained, make them more secure?” I look at cultural history. History doesn’t repeat itself, it’s just the language we use to talk about what’s happening because we don’t have the language to talk about the future. It’s important then we [also] look at economics to say, “What would the world look like 10 years from now?”

Finally, and probably the most important part is what I call “data with an opinion.” It’s going out and talking to people, understanding that people build the future[-focused] organizations. It’s called the Delphi method, a tool of going out and talking to panels of experts to get an idea. Because if you want to find out the future of social networking and technology, people at Facebook, Google and Twitter may not know for sure, but their opinion matters because they’re going to put their resources, money and people toward a certain type of future. Find out what that is, then use those disparate inputs to start thinking about what that future could look like.

You’re not doing all the futures, you’re just picking an area. You can’t boil the ocean.

Brian David Johnson, Professor of Practice, Arizona State University; Futurist and Fellow, Frost & Sullivan

Should a futurist be judged on how correctly they predict the future?

No, and I’m really specific on that. Futurists don’t predict the future. Our job is to come up with a range of possible and potential futures. How I judge the work that I do is not only coming up with fact-based potential futures, but then how to make those actionable. What can you actually do? A lot of applied futurists are people working in companies, and the part that becomes really interesting is if they can not only come up with a range of potential and possible futures, but they can also give the organization very specific steps to take. Not only eight years from now or five years from now, but literally in my reports, I have something called, “What do you need to do on Monday?”

It’s not my job to be the person who stands up 10 years from now and says, “Look, I said this is going to happen and it happened.” It’s useless, right?

How should marketers speak to their supervisors about the value of futurist training?

The future is coming faster and faster. Part of my job is to get on the other side of the hype cycle and the curve, and having the ability, in a very systematic way, to take in a large amount of information and come up with a vision that is both actionable and transparent. Business leaders are seeing value because—there is that word people talk about all the time—[they’re focused on] disruption. “How do we make sure we’re not disrupted? How do I make sure that we won’t be the ones who miss this direction?”

Having that person embedded in the organization is really important, because then they can keep an eye on [the future] and report on progress. [The methodology] also starts to rub off on people when you start talking about this type of work.

How important do you think it is to pay attention to works of science fiction?

I have to confess, I am a science fiction author. Science fiction is using stories to think about and talk about the future, which is nested deeply inside of futurism. It’s very important. It goes back to our conversation earlier. We said, “How do you change the future?” You change the story that people tell themselves [and instead focus on] the future that they would live in. Ultimately, a lot of the modeling that I do is called effects-based modeling. You don’t model the product, you don’t model the service, you model the effect you want it to have. And then you can reverse engineer. That works for microprocessors. It also works for law firms and architecture firms. Ultimately, the effects-based model is a story. You’re describing what the future could be like.

There is a process that I use called “science fiction prototyping,” which is science fiction based on science fact as a way for people to explore the future and the ethical, business and legal implications. In science fiction prototyping, you’re using this way of thinking, but you’re not actually writing science fiction stories. It’s a way of understanding that human impact. It’s also helpful to keep an eye on science fiction, because science fiction is a reflection of what is going on today: how people are talking around different technologies, around their fears around different technologies. It becomes a shorthand that we use to talk about, oftentimes, the negative futures we don’t want. “Oh, that’s a Terminator future that scares me.”

What are some traits that make people great futurists?

You have to be able to pull in information—a mix of social science, technology, history, culture and economics—and also be able to have conversations with people. Now, I’m not a social scientist, but I know a lot of them. Part of [being a futurist] is having the ability to know the questions to ask and having those conversations with a cultural anthropologist who has done work in kinship, in marriage their entire career, and then pick up the phone and call an economist. Not only be able to synthesize a lot of [information], but to be able to understand it and also talk to people about it. You can never know everything. Having done it for 25 years, I generally tell people, if I don’t know, I know the person to call.

Oftentimes I tell folks that you can have a really great, 100% correct vision for what the future could be like. But if you can’t communicate it to everybody from the C-suite to the mailroom, then you’re useless.

What are some pieces of futurist content or ideas that marketers should be paying attention to?

If you would have asked me that question 10, 15 years ago, there were [only] a small handful of people doing this type of work. But these days, especially because you’ve now had futurism being taught in universities, people are starting to use it.

There’s a writer, Dan Gardner. Dan wrote a book called Future Babble. It is the first book I give my students when I’m teaching them how to be a futurist. It is an overwhelming indictment of the failures of futurism. He is an incredible journalist. He went through and showed how people got it wrong, and how many times people got it wrong. And at the end of the book, he starts talking about why. Because you still have to do [the work]. That’s the other thing I tell my students is—if not us, then whom?

Steve Heisler is staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at sheisler@ama.org.