What do companies like Disney, Colgate-Palmolive, Mars Wrigley, and McDonald’s have in common? These are big, enduring brands, of course, but another thing that binds them is the fact that they have a foresight function.
Indeed, to get ahead of trends, some of the biggest brands in the world are investing in future thinking. And often they recruit experienced market researchers for the role.
So, what does it take to establish a successful foresight function? And what skills do market researchers need to have if they want to get into this exciting role?
To answer these questions and more, I recently invited Joanna (“Jo”) Lepore, Global Foresight Associate Director, North America, at Mars Wrigley, to chat with me as part of our educational event series Outliers.
Watch the recording below or scroll further down to see our key takeaways.
What is foresight research?
Foresight is an emerging function within high-growth brands focused on bringing future thinking into the organization. It differs from traditional market research because foresight’s mandate is about the long-term view. Foresight leaders bring insights meant to influence company strategy 5 to 10 years from now, so they often look at macro trends with a long horizon.
But contrary to what some may believe, foresight is not about prediction. As Jo explained during our conversation, the real benefit of foresight is that it can help the business think about the future and be open to different possibilities.
“In foresight, we talk about multiple futures as plural, preparing your company to think about different scenarios that might play out,” Jo said. “Ultimately, you're trying to guide the business to make the right investment choices…You're steering them in a specific way, and ideally, you're steering them in the right direction.”
Ambiguity is part of the journey
As you might imagine, foresight leaders don’t always get things right. The multiple futures they share with their team don’t always work out in a neat and linear manner.
Jo explains, “You don't have to be right all the time. What you're trying to do is help your business to think differently about how the future can play out.”
For Mars Wrigley specifically, it’s not about being on a treadmill heading to a specific set future.
“We're a part of leading the change in the world,” Jo explained. “We help the business to embrace that, and to create the future that we want to be a part of.”
Foresight requires different skillsets
At its core, foresight is about building a deeper understanding of human themes that can help bridge the gap between the brand and the consumer—a gargantuan task that requires tapping into a lot of different skillsets.
It also involves using various data sources from both primary research and secondary research, landscaping, and distilling what you learn.
“You're building skills around thinking about blind spots and wild cards and alternatives and different scenarios,” Jo reiterated.
Foresight is about being anticipatory, she said, and identifying the signals of change that are going to evolve the industry or the category that your business operates in. From there, you need to be able to connect all those signals to what your business is ready for as well its ambitions in the longer term.
How market research teams can get started with foresight
Jo offered some specific tips for companies who don’t have a foresight function yet but are exploring launching one.
Tapping into existing expertise within the company is a good start. But it’s also very useful to engage external partners and academics, especially those coming from industries outside of yours.
"I'm a huge advocate for collaboration in the industry."
Jo encouraged people to proactively reach out to foresight leaders like herself to talk about frameworks, best practices, and resources.
“I'm a huge advocate for collaboration in the industry—inside of the insights industry, and particularly foresight because not a lot of companies have a dedicated foresight team, or they don't have dedicated foresight skills and capabilities.”
Ultimately though, when it comes to how a foresight function operates, you need to find a model and approach that works for your company. Once you’ve taken a close look at how foresight operates across the spectrum, come up with what you think is right and most relevant for your company, and what your company is ready for, Jo said.
In terms of the day-to-day of a foresight leader, Jo admits that it involves a lot of reading and thinking about the future.
“Foresight 60 to 70% reading,” she said. “And I'm not even joking. If you love reading, it's great.”
If you enjoyed this conversation with Jo, check out her podcasts “Future Reimagined” and “Looking Outside.” Jo is also a frequent speaker at market research conferences, including IIEX and MRMW.
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