Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to trend analysis, studying the small is not always the right move.

Cultural intelligence is the bedrock of all sound decisions. If you can’t grasp the operating system – i.e. culture – what luck will you have?

So, each year countless organizations market themselves, producing trend reports to help current and potential clients track the latest in our ever-changing world. It’s presumed that by identifying ‘live video’ or ‘robot pets’ as trends, brands and marketers alike can keep up. And by keeping up with these developments, they can create more successful work.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Each year I author the Meta Trend Report, a synthesis of over 30 trend reports. By pattern matching and consolidating, we can arrive at the most prevalent, or trending trends. Increasing our ‘sample size’ of trends accounts for bias and, by calculating reliability as a proxy for accuracy, we can confidently align on what’s most influential for the years to come. It’s these larger meta shifts that are most valuable.

I prefaced my 2020 report – pre-pandemic – with a prediction.

“Two catalytic events will transpire over the next year, which will re-model culture as we know it, however, not one report acknowledged them: The 2020 Presidential Outcome and The U.S.’ Next Recession. Both will catastrophically impact all consumers (their values, interests, and purchasing decisions) as well as all business verticals. […] Culture moves on even if we’re not ready.”

While I couldn’t be less pleased to be right, this exactness demonstrates the importance of widening our aperture. As COVID-19 unexpectedly and radically concussed the economy, spiraling us into a recession, President Biden’s victory was a relief for many, but not without nuclear fallout.

The meta-analysis zooms out of an individual trend – in many cases, just a single signal, like live video – to see the larger picture.

Take, for instance, the effect of live video + casual culture + photoshop backlash + ephemerality; each signal shines a light on a more significant societal movement: the backlash of the hyper-polished and the welcoming of the raw and lo-fi. Driven by excessive social gloating and editing, distrust, deception and the broader techlash, Finstagrams (fake Instagrams) and glow-downs reign. After all, 70% of Gen Z believe what they see on Instagram is not a true representation of someone’s life.

So, as a marketer, it’s not explicitly live video that you want to lean into in order to keep up – it’s about people revealing themselves and welcoming vulnerabilities. The shift is from polished feats for clout, to serendipitous honesty for clout.

This exercise can be repeated and some more examples are outlined below.

It’s not about robot pets and co-creation (e.g. TikTok duets), but the civility of technology, incentivizing selflessness and designing for harmony in the light of divisiveness and loneliness. Absurdist Facebook groups, where members pretend to be ants and anteaters, is a piece of the much larger puzzle of understanding where culture is headed next. While we can knock the impracticality of these silly groups, the desire of adult play and identity experimentation are valuable for anyone attempting to grasp the psyches of the collective.

Similarly, it’s not just about virtual tourism and virtual reality (VR) travel, but the craving for escapism. How can we evade this nightmarish reality, even for just an hour? Pandemic anxieties, unemployment, travel restrictions and boredom are reframing escapism from a want, to a need. But there are alternatives to a headset if one wants to play with escapism. Nostalgia, momentary respite and a security blanket does just the trick.

To see Lil Miquela, the virtual influencer, as a trend just to inform one’s media or sponsorship strategy is myopic. Our fascination with Lil Miquela is truly about fakeness and our fixation upon the uncanny. Connect Lil Miquela to the sexuality promoted in Cyberpunk 2077, the pandemic-induced rise of sex toys sales, and the explosion of the erotic subscription site OnlyFans – each one an example of individual trends – and we have some juicy implications regarding our budding techno-sexuality.

Since many trend reports and firms focus on such granular levels, they mistake the forest for the trees and miss some of the most disruptive forces at play.

In addition to the meta trends, in the spirit of zooming out, this year I also identified The Overlooked. What are the most unspoken, influential trends?

It’s understandable why companies don’t lean into the darker and more complex shifts, but it’s a disservice to those attempting to understand the zeitgeist.

Take found faith. During a moment of great unknown, we seek answers. And when we don’t get what we want, we search elsewhere... or just make it up. COVID-19 was jet-fuel. Conspiracies, celestial objects, crystals, politics, spells, stans, tarot, marches, and diets all give us resolution. Peloton and veganism? That's not just about exercise or animals, that's about the idea that morale/morals + identity + community = religion, or esprit de corps – a sense common spirit and loyalty. Protest is the new prayer.

Another is the screenshot. What happens when we add diligent wokeness to our digital footprints? An impressive decade of data, photos and text is eager to haunt us amidst a raging, shaming culture. “This you?” screenshots, literally and figuratively, are outing politicians and comedians alike, now keeping us on our toes and accountable. Talking and walking on eggshells due to weaponized wokeness is unsustainable and, as a result, is swinging us towards the private, (pseudo) anonymous, intimate and ephemeral.

According to a summer study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 10% of respondents shared they “seriously considered suicide” in the past 30 days, compared to 4% who said the same thing in 2018, referring to the entire year. Isolation, unemployment, finances, uncertainty, rage, divorce, distrust, depression and fear are boiling beneath the surface.

Want to keep up with consumers?

Perhaps the most critical trend to understand is the most obvious: omnipresent cognitive turmoil. Our recovery is more than financial or physical. A vaccine doesn’t heal this.

Longitudinal COVID-trauma is where to place the chips.

VR Travel? Get real.