Sexy Signals are Bullsh*t

Meabh Quoirin, CEO and Co-Owner, Foresight Factory‍
Meabh Quoirin
Youth with a flare

We all know a sexy signal when we see one. It’s brand new, it's articulated brilliantly, and it seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Maybe it’s a technology dominating the headlines, a curious consumer behaviour shift, or a seemingly inescapable buzzword that everyone’s talking about. Like magpies, we are naturally drawn to the new and shiny, and FOMO makes us feel compelled to get involved. But shine without substance is a distraction, not an opportunity. 

Take NFTs for example. In 2021, NFTs were inescapable, and everyone from Coca Cola to Taco Bell, Mattel and Clinique jumped on the bandwagon. They pedalled their offerings to the mass market, hoping to drum up interest by leaning into perks like community and exclusive ownership. And they made a show of entering the NFT world with headline-grabbing moves, such as when Visa bought a CryptoPunk NFT avatar for $150,000. 

Yet, when you chip away the glossy exterior, there’s simply not enough evidence that NFTs align with consumer demand or brand capability – at least, not yet. First, they cost a lot of money to create, and they are expensive to buy. A speculative asset like this is a hard sell, especially in times of austerity, and the volatility of the crypto market makes people even more hesitant. They are also arguably too complicated for the average layperson to understand. Our 2022 data shows that 70% of consumers in Great Britain have either heard of NFTs but don’t know what they are, or haven't heard of them at all. Even among digitally savvy Gen Z, only 14% say they have a good understanding of them. 

NFTs could well be useful in virtual worlds once those become more sophisticated and appealing for everyday use. But for now, they are abstract, complicated, and still in search of a meaningful purpose. The signal is there, but the activations are too soon. All shine, no substance. 

Of course, when a sexy signal is backed by data and rigour, and when it’s anchored in fundamental consumer needs, it can absolutely lead to transformative strategic opportunities for your business. And if the signal’s right for you, sitting on it for too long just builds risk into your business. Striking while the iron is hot can make all the difference. A useful example to think about here is EVs. They’re sexy now, but most car manufacturers were late to the party because they assumed it was just another environmental issue, no one else in the industry was doing it, and they weren’t sure about consumer demand. Clearly, a sticking point for brand is really understanding whether a trend holds true promise, or if it’s just a mirage. 

So how can you filter and prioritise the signals that matter to you and your customers? What’s the key to unlocking genuine white space amid all the deafening white noise?  

Those are the problems we at Foresight Factory set out to solve: simplifying the arduous process of unearthing the signals that will create the most scalable demand at a global and local level. AI helps us map consumer trends – i.e. true consumer demand – to commercial activity, so we can instantly see the opportunity spaces according to businesses’ target audiences and markets. It helps global brands get to strategic insights they might never have discovered on their own. For instance, we all know that people enjoy striving for goals and achievements, a desire articulated in our trend Challenge Accepted. But our data goes a level deeper to reveal that this trend is much stronger for women in the US than it is for men – a somewhat surprising insight that could lead to a new, more strategic direction for brands. 

By taking a fast track from insight to action, you can determine whether that signal is really important enough to act on, or if it’s more something to keep an eye on. Because FOMO is real, and staying culturally attuned is crucial. But not every signal warrants a strategic reaction. Businesses need the confidence to be aware of the signals around them without feeling the need to act on ones that aren’t right for them. 

In reality, few brands are prepared to be a first mover, an early investor that acts ahead of the pack. The risk for them – and it’s a big one – is that they could peak before consumer demand hits. In my experience, most CMOs are rather more comfortable as a fast follower, waiting to see if there’s real demand before making their move. They might not capture as much attention as the early innovators, but at least they’re confident that their decision has commercial viability. 

The key to using signals effectively is not just knowing whether to act, but when and for whom. So when you spot a sexy signal, ask yourself: How big will it get? How quickly could it move? Who will really care about it? Are my customers in that group? This is about aligning your business to facts, not fads, so you don’t end up chasing the wrong thing. 

A lot of signals out there are sexy. But at the end of the day, if they don’t lead to smarter decision making, they’re bullsh*t – and a costly distraction not worth succumbing to. 

Written by
Meabh Quoirin