Ubertrends in Marketing with Michael Tchong

6 Oct 2008

Renowned trend-spotter Michael Tchong of Ubercool.com reveals some of the ubertrends that will shake up the marketing scene over the coming years, with a focus on the online arena

Serial entrepreneur and trend-spotter Michael Tchong reveals some of the ubertrends he predicts will implode the marketing scene over the coming years.

Everyone needs to be more acutely aware of what’s taking place in the consumer lifestyle in order to better leverage the future for new product development, better marketing strategies and alo for their own personal career. That’s one of the key messages from Michael Tchong — trend-watcher, public speaker, entrepreneur and ‘early wave rider’ — who will address the Marketing Institute of Ireland’s (MII) 29th National Marketing Conference on 5 November.

While Tchong is currently enjoying a very successful, though somewhat gruelling, public speaking career — he is in the process of completing 45 engagements this year: Bali, Oslo, Manila, Hong Kong, Seoul and Beijing are some the locations he has been speaking at over the past few months — he is careful not to just impart a series of messages. “I don’t like to preach without practising what I preach. Rather than telling everyone sitting in the audience ‘you should do this’, I think I should lead by example.”

Putting his money where his mouth is has probably been best exemplified through the establishment over the past 25 years of a series of companies — and he’s not finished yet.

Tchong has what he considers to be the perfect background for trend-spotting, having worked both in the advertising and client side of the marketing business. He started out in the agency world, working with the likes of Doyle Dane & Bernbach and Chiat/Day on brands such as Apple, Intel, American Tourister and Polaroid.

Tchong then worked for a large publisher of children’s books and magazines, before becoming vice-president of a software company, which he says was the first to ship a desktop publishing programme in 1985. “That was riding the wave early and that led me to found Mac Week, the first to address the volume-buying market that would ensue because of the popularity of the Macintosh. Although, I now tell my friends that clearly we were 21 years too early in supporting the Mac,” he laughs. “That’s how long it’s taken for it to really explode. I ride the waves very early!”

His publication was bought by Ziff Davis in 1988 and Tchong spent the next four years working with Bill Ziff, “a billionaire who really knew how to sell ad pages”. “That’s when I became a serial entrepreneur. I founded four more and I’m currently working on my sixth start-up, so I’m obviously a glutton for punishment.”

He didn’t fare well in the downturn in 2001, as most of his clients were from the dotcom arena. “So I quickly lost all my business — I was doing US$65,000 a week in email advertising, just to give you an idea,” he says.

It wasn’t long, however, before he hit on a new business idea. “Throughout my career, I’ve always been about innovation and creativity and giving the consumer or the client the maximum bang for their buck,” he explains. “When I had to reinvent myself after the dotcom downdraft I became a trend-watcher because I thought that would use my sensibilities — being able to detect emerging markets — and talent in a positive way for my audiences.”

Tchong established Ubercool, ‘a next-generation marketing services company that publishes and produces trend-setting media and entertainment properties’. One aspect of Ubercool is Tchong’s own speaking services. Now he is working on his sixth start-up under the Ubercool brand. “All brands are looking for creative ways to engage with the consumer. And I would like to come up with a solution for that. I’m working on something that I hope everyone will agree is a very fun and creative way of coming up with new marketing solutions.”

The concept is around branded entertainment, which he believes is set to explode. “One of my ubertrends is ‘time compression’. It’s a huge one because everyone is getting busier, we’re multitasking, we don’t have time any more. And this is only going to get worse. I believe very strongly that we’re going to have to deliver not just entertainment but we’re also going to have to deliver information with that entertainment, or — and it’s an old term from the early Nineties — infotainment.” These events, he says, will be driven through social engagement circles online and will target trendsetters and early adopters.

Tchong says that many of the challenges for marketers in the online world have stayed the same over the past few years. “There are still issues like how do you track your online and offline engagement in a very simple fashion,” he says. “This is a challenge that we’ve always had and it remains unsolved today. And that’s again why I like to do start-ups that actually solve these problems because the brands are overwhelmed — marketers too are suffering from time compression.

“Despite the fact that we talk incessantly about the superiority of online marketing, we haven’t really gone beyond much more than making it an electronic version of direct marketing and that we need to change. These are the things that I see as the challenges, and in the next-generation start-up you can’t just have a great product, you can’t just do great marketing. You have to have great marketing, great products, superiority of reaching the consumer — you have to do everything and that is what it’s all about in this day and age of heightened competition.

“With everyone needing to cut costs, it’s becoming imperative for the marketing to be smarter and smarter and smarter. I think that the techniques are going to change rapidly. If you wake up in 2020 and look around you, you will be amazed at what has taken place. That’s because not only is information travelling, the internet has flattened the world, the consumer is more savvy and empowered and therefore trends take place far faster. And it’s only going to accelerate. The vast majority of consumers have yet to discover the joys and benefits of social networking, have yet to really understand the advantages of organised buying in the discussion forums that cater to these enthusiasts. The media companies have yet to translate that effectively.”

He is astonished by the fact that virtually no manufacturers use evangelists to champion their brands. “In fact, if they find an employee talking about their company online, they get them off. That is amazing, because this is where everyone’s brand opinion and affinity is formed. You need to be there. You need to be in the process.

“In marketing, we have traditionally relied on the frequency and reach metaphor and it is not about that. If you have a market where you know that there’s about a billion and a half people online, you really don’t care about the people who are not online today. At this point, they have absolutely no importance to you. You really need to engage with the people who are online because they are the trend-setters, the avant-garde. They are the top of the pyramid that will filter the message down for you to the bottom.

“If you harness these people, then I think you can produce the best return on investment performances for all your brandsbecause you’re depending on the consumer viral army to propel your brand. In this day and age of £2m sterling ads on television, that’s a welcome message indeed.”

He adds that marketers should not be thinking about how they make their television ads more effective or how they get their banner ads clicked on, because these are tactics from a bygone era. Instead, they need to consider whether the consumer is receptive to their message. “It’s really about being able to help the consumer who is so overwhelmed by their daily task list in some kind of fashion that would engage them and also communicate the benefits of your brand.

“I call it service marketing because that’s what it has to evolve into. We can’t just be hammering people over the head saying ‘I’m better than they are’. That doesn’t ring true any more. The consumer has become very suspicious, especially generation Y. It’s perhaps the most exciting era to be in because we’re defining the rules for future generations of marketers.”

Tchong’s objective in his presentations is to make people feel positive about the future. “I encourage people to think about their position in today’s culture and how that’s changing. And change is good because that provides a lot of opportunity. I hope that the success of the events that I do will translate psychologically into a major lift in the economy. That’s a very ambitious undertaking, but that’s what I try to do. And again, I’m always working at the top of the pyramid. I’m not really concerned about reaching everyone.”

There’s no question in his mind that some of the people in his audience feel uncomfortable about some of the things he talks about. An example is the 13-year-old Scottish girl who wrote an essay in text form on how she spent her summer holidays (first sentence: My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds). “They see it as an attack on the English language,” he says. “But the reality is, the English language has to change, it cannot stay static. The future will mean writing in an abbreviated fashion – if we write at all! That is something you need to just recognise.

“The message is, if you can understand the future culture better, you can embrace it more effectively. Understand it better and you will be much more successful in translating products and strategies for that future generation of ours.”

“It’s important that you really understand why the world is changing the way it is so that you can better fit in. That is why the whole discussion about the social engagement as it leverages off the social networks is a very important one. And people will say ‘doesn’t that engender a lot more people who are not actually interacting with one another’. And I’m going to say, no it doesn’t, because the next generation of social networks are actually going to focus on offline social engagement. Right now they don’t. Right now they’re very much optimised for online engagement. In the future, they’re going to realise that there’s a whole other dimension that we need to address more effectively. That’s why I think if you embrace it, you will be much more successful.”

He points out that titles such as ‘brand innovation director’, or ‘consumer insights’ departments at large companies didn’t even exist 10 years ago. “These are all new departments and titles and functions that have grown out of the more acute awareness of being able to monitor what is happening in the marketplace.

“I want to build the control panel that gives the marketer one singular view of their whole interaction with the consumer, both offline and online. That’s what they’re asking for. And no one has done it yet.”


Michael Tchong’s ubertrends:

1. Casual – “Society has shed its stiff upper lip and is quickly moving to a culture that’s far more relaxed, but perhaps also much more unruly as courtesy and manners become a thing of the past”
2. Digital Lifestyle – “As technology weaves itself ever more tightly into the fabric of life, the timbre of humankind is changing”
3. Fountain of Youth – “60s are the new 40s … the trend suggests that we now have to take much better care of ourselves, which is the fundamental force behind the Fountain of Youth Ubertrend”
4. Generation X-tasy – “Generation X-tasy rules far more than wanton excess. The trend is increasingly making consumers more experiential”
5. Time Compression – “Americans now take even less vacations than the Japanese, the very people who gave rise to karoshi – the phenomenon of being worked to death”
6. Unwired – “The same fundamental value that drives the Unwired trend – freedom – is also leading more people to become untethered from relationships”
7. Voyeurgasm – “Rodney King’s 1991 beating was a groundbreaking event. Not only did it capture police violence on video, but it helped propel a new Ubertrend, Voyeurgasm, which points to a future where everything will be captured by digital cameras or camcorders”
Adapted from the Ubercool website.

This article first appeared in Marketing Age magazine.

By Grainne Rothery