Fall is upon us, as are the season’s storied traditions: cooler temperatures, falling leaves, football games, and pumpkin spice everything. Pumpkin spice lattes. Pumpkin spice cereal. Pumpkin spice beer. Pumpkin spice cheese. And no, I’m not kidding about that last one.
Have you ever wondered why? There’s a simple answer: trends — cultural commodities that threaten to take over our wallets and our culture.
Trends are ideas, habits, and practices that enjoy a moment of popularity. As consumers, we’re all intimately familiar with them. Trends are what makes last year’s bell sleeve tops seem slightly passé this year. Trends are what make it likely that you know someone who recently bought an electric bicycle, or is now more closely monitoring their carbon footprint. Trends are therefore a key driver of popular culture. Even if you don’t care about trends or don’t consider yourself a trendy person, you are subject to them, because they are the dynamics that propel change in consumer culture.
I spent the last three years traveling around the world to interview more than 70 professional trend forecasters: people whose job it is to not just anticipate but also to shape cultural trends. I sat in their conferences, went to their offices, and heard about many fringe developments in the works. Some of what I heard about seemed far-fetched — like a company that will allow you to virtually “mate” with a celebrity of your choice and raise a VR baby. But some things I heard about years ago — like gender-neutral toys or plant-based meat — are on their way to becoming mainstream.
Predicting the future has nothing to do with looking into a crystal ball or reading tea leaves. It involves making sense of the culture and using those insights to persuade companies to move in a particular direction.
As long as people imitate what other people do, trends will spread. Social media can accelerate how trends travel and catch on — that’s why we have a word, “trending,” to describe the quickest version of these processes.
But trends are not just a natural occurrence, nor are they just driven by tech platforms and algorithms. Trends are also a business, a way to profit off cultural change. Having the ability to know which way trends will go is valuable, because it means you can anticipate and get ahead of cultural change. Moreover, being able to start trends and shape where consumer culture goes is even more desirable. Everybody may want pumpkin spice now — imagine the windfall that could come with knowing what the next pumpkin spice will be.
That’s why companies seek out professional trend forecasters. Businesses across many sectors, including food, fashion, marketing, home goods, and technology, want their insight on how to make sense of a swiftly changing culture.
Industry insiders explain that pumpkin spice reminds us of Halloween and Thanksgiving. It tastes great with both sweet and savory staples of autumn like apples and root vegetables, and its flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon warm coffee, chocolate, and carbs. Pumpkin spice is also literally seasonal. Even though it feels inescapable now, in a few short weeks the shelves give way to peppermint and gingerbread.
Like it or not, pumpkin spice has come to mark and help define fall. That’s why all of us should care about trends — their costs as well as their perks.
Sure, it’s exciting to see new styles or taste new flavors. Life is about moving forward and evolving, whether through, say, CBD or Peloton. But constant change is more than exhausting. It’s expensive, to our psyches, our wallets, and the planet. It makes it harder to hold onto traditions because we’re too busy chasing the next thing. And it makes culture feel homogenous when the same thing seems to appear everywhere.
So if you’re already sick of pumpkin spice everywhere, just wait. This season will pass, and so, too, will the spice blend’s prevalence. Something else is sure to soon take its place. Don’t believe me? Remember what happened to bacon.
Devon Powers is the author of On Trend: The Business of Forecasting the Future and an associate professor of Advertising at Temple University.