All brands need to be ready for digital disruption and the next generation of commerce, argues Hugh Fletcher from VML.

There is a famous song lyric: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” So, the message is clear: start living and stop planning.

But does the same apply when it comes to the business of digital commerce? Unfortunately not.

Live for today, and it’s likely that a disruptor – a technology giant or a new marketplace – will take away your tomorrow. So, a mind shift is required.

Why? Because digital businesses (and we’re all digital businesses now) have a problem. And that’s planning. Across the UK and the US, the average time that digital commerce leaders plan for is just 15.5 months into the future.

Compare this to the years, if not decades, that many of the big technology companies (like Amazon and Apple) plan ahead, and there is a case to be made that a lack of planning is allowing these companies to forge ahead and claim not only the consumers of today, but the consumers of tomorrow, too.

Sure, there are many good reasons for this – budget cycles, a focus on driving growth right now (!!!), putting out fires – but a failure to adequately prepare for what’s next will leave many businesses ultimately regretting the fact they never got around to sitting down and defining the long-term strategy they knew they needed.

Preparing for the future

To avoid this short-term mindset, VML has pulled together a compendium of 20 trends predicting the shape of commerce in the next decade.

As we peer into our crystal ball, the Tomorrow’s report relies on a number of sources to formulate our thinking, including our global Future Shopper survey, client conversations across business sectors and our in-house expertise from across the world. It is a thought-starter for all those businesses who haven’t got the time to think. 

So where do we start? While Tomorrow’s Commerce doesn’t necessarily follow a narrative, there are themes that emerge to prepare brands for tomorrow’s commerce, today.

Let’s begin by looking at disruption to the old order.

Take our first trend, “A new brand order with less brand equity”. This explores the very real threat to traditional brands when new disruptors – which bring together the right mix of personalities, products, promotions and distribution – enter the market.

A whole new landscape of retailers and brands will be spawned from the commercialization of influencers, their personal brands and their captive audiences. Of course, we’re still to see whether the likes of Prime Hydration – the energy drink launched by Logan Paul and JJ 'KSI' Olatunji – can maintain their brand equity over time, but traditional brands must be aware that this disruption will become more frequent in future.

Another theme is responsible commerce.

Consumer expectations of brands are growing: Where previously a brand, a product and a high level of availability might have been enough, a new generation of consumers is demanding more.

We found that a huge 62% of consumers want to purchase from businesses which have a purpose that goes beyond just selling products and services. And if that stat doesn’t scare brands into action, then this figure is 71% for the youngest consumers in Generation Alpha.

Growth and business success also need to be increasingly aligned with responsible consumerism. The world is awake to businesses selling to make a fast buck. People are demanding that consumers, and their mental health, be considered in how they are sold to (a trend we call “consumer” social responsibility).

Complementing this more thoughtful approach to commerce, there is also a sense of us driving towards a more equitable future, where connectivity and commerce are more accessible to all – a trend we define as “altruistic data distribution”.

More channels, more problems

There are, of course, a number of trends which reflect the challenges (and opportunities) of omnichannel commerce and the rise of new channels.

Our data tells us that almost half of business leaders believe that there are simply too many channels to effectively sell through. This is worrying, especially given the rise of channels like social commerce, voice and even the metaverse, which may not yet be fully formed, but which do require strategic attention.

At the same time, the fear of missing out (FOMO) must not drive strategic decision-making, and while plans need to be made for these channels, businesses must use discretion and intelligence when deciding which channels to invest in, rather than jumping on the latest marketing bandwagon.

The role of artificial intelligence

Another theme that looms large is, of course, artificial intelligence (AI) – be that in managing brand and content supply chain through curative AI or the creation of “digital life records”, and the impact of what we sell to whom.

It’s clear that data is the lifeblood of future organizations and AI is our means of using and interpreting it. But while talk of AI is abundant, how many businesses truly understand where it will have the most impact and how they can operationalize it?

Finally, there is also a lesson for us to learn about early adoption. Sometimes, a concept (while brilliant) is ahead of its time. Take the humble, and often ugly, QR code. Positioned, many years ago, as a revolutionary shortcut to in-depth information, the reality was often a disjointed journey with a limited pay-off.

But the QR code is back. And with scanning easier than ever via camera phones, and QR design improving daily, at last the QR code can fulfill its potential.

Adopting a challenger mindset

So what’s the overall message from Tomorrow’s Commerce? It’s simple: Forewarned is forearmed. And in this new forearmed state, many businesses must adopt a challenger mentality to the way that they plan.

We might call it “Tomorrow’s Commerce”, but why wait for tomorrow? The disruptor brands aren’t waiting – and, for that matter, neither are shoppers and consumers. They crave newness, freshness, relevance, and authenticity. No one was ever bored into buying! Engage me, surprise me, seduce me, sell me (whenever and wherever I want to buy).

Brands must use new tools and techniques – and if they aren’t there already, invent them. Embrace the principles of Creative Commerce in both the brand itself and how it’s brought to market. 

Don’t get stuck in the past. We all need to think a little more like the disruptors, because tomorrow’s commerce really is here today.