In this fast-paced world we live in, it can be hard to keep up with all the changes that seem to bombard daily life. One minute one item is the hottest new technology or product to ever hit the market, and the next minute it’s colder than the North Pole in January.

When it comes to contract manufacturing and packaging, keeping up with trends can be tricky. Brand owners want to be on the cutting edge of consumer wants and needs, and manufacturers have to be able to provide it. If the analysis and follow-through proceeds accordingly, trends can make or break a product as it goes to market.

“Trends are the signposts and indicators for pointing you in the right direction,” says Robyn Waters, president of Minnesota-based RW Trend. “Tracking and translating trends effectively for your market will create products that lead to increased sales and profits.”

“Trends are a major trigger of innovation,” notes Valerie Jacobs, director of trend analysis for LPK in Cincinnati. “When we are going to work on a new product or a new initiative, we will use trends as our stimulus to help us get to the ideas as well as the consumer insights. Designing on insight is designing something that you know a consumer will want. And it makes it even stronger if you know that a consumer is more likely to want that item three years down the road as opposed to three years ago.”

Using trends to innovate and inspire new products isn’t a new idea, of course, but it is something that everyone in the industry, from marketers to brand owners to manufacturers to retailers needs to keep up front in their strategies, particularly as the price of doing business increases.

At the expense of a trend

“Fast-moving, entrepreneurial brands are always seeking any advantage available to gain market share,” says Bill Gislason, director of business growth and development for Cincinnati-based Haney PRC. “However, they are increasingly required to balance the potential gain with the reality of increased manufacturing costs.”

Gislason adds that regardless of trends impacting the current market, there is still a concern about market feasibility and the manufacturing costs associated with it.

“Regardless of how trendy it is to do something, you’re always going to have pushback from the manufacturer or purchaser that is looking at the cost,” he says.

As each new trend inspires the development of a new product, along with it comes trend baggage in the form of technological feasibility or cost. Usually, it’s a combination of the two.

One such current trend that is talked about not only for its good impact on the planet but also what making that “good” product will cost is the sustainability trend. No one can dispute that “going green” is the best option to create a healthier environment, but what can be disputed is what it will cost brand owners and manufacturers.

“Sustainability is a wonderful thing,” says Gislason, “but it needs to be tempered with the reality of what can actually be achieved — in less carbon footprint, less plastic, less of everything — and still have a better performance. It’s not always something that is achievable, but it’s a huge trend in terms of the sustainabilityinitiative.”

To know a consumeris to know the trend

To fully understand trends and to work them to a company’s advantage, both brand owners and manufacturers need to understand one critical element of what drives trends in the first place: the consumer.

“[Brand owners] are closer to their products and they’re closer to their consumers than the contract manufacturers are,” explains Gislason. “They’ve got the market research, and they’re doing the due diligence. Contract manufacturers are rarely out there doing market research studies or consumer testing. The brand owners own that because they own the brand. They have to be closer to their consumers and therefore better at understanding those trends. That’s not to say that the contract manufacturer is absent, but they are a significantly smaller player when it comes to that.”

“There is a role for manufacturers to understand trends,” adds Jacobs, “and they especially need to understand the trends that are going to affect their industry so they are ready for their clients. They need to be up on their knowledge so they can be responsive rather than reactive.”

Adding another complication to the mix, Dan Formosa, one of the founders of New York-based Smart Design, notes that these days consumers associate design with experience, and as a result, brand loyalty isn’t what it used to be. The product itself is what really needs to shine. Combine that with a focus on consumers, and it’s a whole new ballgame when it comes to new product innovation.

“Companies are trying to exceed people’s expectations because of this,” Formosa says. “One of the things we’ve been doing is understanding people’s perceptions and emotional reactions to the things we design. We can dissect people’s brains and figure out how people think or relate to something or understand what attributes are really the most important to them. Once we get a sense of what is really clicking with people, we’ll steer our design course toward that.”

“Emotional response is a huge driver,” Gislason says. “If you can get a customer to emote or understand the emotional attachment they feel to a product, it’s a powerful tool to be able to transfer to a package.”

Jacobs points out that the emotional response of consumers can help spark new product design and innovation, or simply bring a product into more modern times.

“As a trend forecaster, you need to understand that 10 years ago, the naturals trend was being expressed in a look that was ‘crunchy’ or ‘granola’, and it was really focused on a slice of the population,” Jacobs explains. “Now, it’s more vibrant, alive, and colorful, and the aspect of the naturals trend was that it needed to be brought into a very contemporary context.”

Jacobs sees other things that also will impact new product development for brand owners and contract manufacturers.

“There are other [elements] that confluence with the emotional relationships and connections with our objects that have to do with more people living in big cities — that’s a major trend,” Jacobs says. “We have to think about how we live, how we build cities, how we expand cities, and what kind of living conditions people are in. That can really affect contract manufacturers and product development in the sense of how much space do consumers actually have to live in? How big can your products be?” These are the issues, she continues, that brand owners and manufacturers need to look at to lead companies out further into the future for developing strategies or at least become flexible to market changes.

“There can be the immediate impact of trends that says what new products do we need or want that we don’t even know about yet, or how to slightly change a product to delight a consumer,” Jacobs says. “But there are ways you can look into the social and cultural landscape and suggest changes that would disrupt the market. You don’t have to change for them immediately, but you might want to start making plans to be more flexible if that future does come to pass.”

While consumers and trends play a big part in new product development for the contract manufacturing industry, if it goes wrong it can be costly, and brand owners and manufacturers need to beware of separating the trends from the fads.

“A trend is worth it when it brings a significant value to cause customers to make that second purchase,” Gislason says. “It’s that simple. If you sell something once, great, that was a fad. But if consumers come back to it, it evoked an emotion and it added some value, it got customers to come back, and guess what? Now it’s a trend. Trends have a lifespan longer than a nanosecond.”

This story originally appeared in Contract Manufacturing & Packaging, a sister publication of The National Provisioner.