How does an established company imagine a new future? That was the question Fisher-Price wanted to answer when it approached our design consultancy Continuum recently. The 85-year-old children's product company noticed enormous shifts in the market, from ubiquitous data to inexpensive sensors, and wanted to write itself into this increasingly digital narrative. Immediately. But how? What kind of story would the company need to tell itself, its customers, and its future customers? What would it retain from the past? And how might Fisher-Price best present this vision?
These are issues any company wrestling with an uncertain future should confront. Based on our work with Fisher-Price, we came up with three steps a brand should follow to craft a vision that is both forward-thinking and realistic.
It’s not surprising that companies struggle to introduce innovative new products and services. Especially for established brands, there are very real organizational and business model structures in place that can make breakthrough innovation challenging—and risky. A way to overcome these challenges is to use a strategic planning model called backcasting. Backcasting allows you to analyze consumer values alongside trends in business, culture, and technology to establish an ambitious—yet pragmatic—vision for the future. Once you have this vision, you can then backcast a pipeline of near- and long-term products and services that adhere to your vision.
When taking a backcasting approach, it’s important to avoid setting a vision that is overly ambitious (or too modest). An overly ambitious vision can be compelling, but it can also be regarded as science fiction: a distant reality that is so far into the future that it’s not useful for planning a business.
To avoid crafting an unrealistic vision of the future, start by understanding your target customer—today and in the future. For instance, to remain relevant to future generations of consumers, Fisher-Price set out to understand the values of parents. Deep human values around parenting don’t expire, so whether we create experiences for parents 15 years ago or 15 years in the future, people will continue to seek close emotional connections with their children and raise them to be strong, resilient young adults. Getting to know your customers in this way is crucial to avoid a potentially dystopian or unemotional vision of the future.
You also need to look beyond in-house staffers to find experts in the fields most relevant to your initiative. For Fisher-Price, experts included technology innovators, child psychologists, and trend researchers. And you'll want to do more than interview these experts. You'll want to partner with them so they remain closely affiliated with your initiative, and continue to provide insights and credibility.
People are naturally wired to retain information told through good stories. So think about the most compelling way to communicate your story. It sounds obvious, I know. But telling a story can be more challenging than it seems. You have to know what message you want to send, then plot a narrative that conveys that message as clearly as possible. In the case of Fisher-Price, we had to communicate a vision that was both futuristic and relatable. So we settled on a short video of a family interacting with technology in everyday scenarios (when a newborn stirs in her bassinet, say, or when a parent measures how much her child has grown). The trick was to make these seemingly futuristic interactions seem perfectly commonplace.
Other ways to engage audiences and communicate a vision might be building a physical space, creating a microsite, or hosting a series of events. Whatever medium you choose, keep in mind two things: First, pick a message, and be consistent with it. Second, take as much care sharing your vision internally as you do outside your company walls.