The ‘Cult’ure of Trends

The ‘Cult’ure of Trends

By Oliver Adams, Senior Creative Strategist, FIRST


We live in a cultural landscape dominated by the “cult” of trends. 

Clients want in. Agencies and consultancies oblige with the annual trend report. We’ve been guilty of it ourselves.

But there’s a problem.

It’s getting harder to separate the meaningful insight (people turning to TikTok, X, and Reddit for search and news needs) from the frivolous fad (NFTs anyone?), let alone think about what it could mean for your business or your clients.

But for us who are in the business of communication, finding those meaningful insights is the whole point. We don’t read trend reports for fun (well, I know some who do). We read them so that we can understand the world a little better and make work for our clients that performs a bit better. 

So, how do we do it? How do we spot and separate the meaningful from the mediocre? And more importantly, join the dots between what we are observing and the work we are actioning.

Let’s start with a definition.

What is a Trend, Exactly?

If we’re getting all Merriam-Webster about it, there’s a lot of talk of movements, developments, and directions.

“a general direction in which something is developing or changing”


This is a good place to start. Developments and changes take time. And for me, at least, it’s less about what is currently ‘en vogue’ and more about real societal changes, the shaping of culture, or the development of mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors. 

Needless to say, some trends can bear more weight on the stitches that hold a societal fabric together than others. And that’s OK. Matt Klein, Redditt’s Head of Global Foresight, puts it perfectly here whilst writing for Contagious.

“Trends once meant meaningful social change: an emerging and defining collective thought, behavior, value, or attitude. A shift in society. But today, ‘mermaid-core’ is being named a top trend for this summer.” (1)


So what’s happened? Is feeling the need to emulate mythical beings from the deep simply the result of what Matt says is the true meaning of the word trend? A shift in society?

The -Core-ification of Culture 

The first step in attempting to understand what is happening today comes when we look at society itself.

Today, trends come and go like a yo-yo. When you think you’ve grasped it, it’s gone, and there’s something else wobbling up the string towards your anticipating hand. Fashion is faster, food is summoned on a six-pence, and people slingshot into DM’s instead of sliding. News cycles are shorter, and new streaming services shows are a-gogo. 

We seem to have bestowed upon ourselves a life of intense frequency but with decreasing meaning, as Ruby Carter of Truant fame echoes here:

We’ve become more incessant about a piece of content’s meteoric promotional content (or hype) rather than its critical effect’ (2)


And of course, Social Media, TikTok in particular, seems to be fanning the flames of the scroll-fast, die-young aesthetic.

When typing the word ‘trends’ into the search bar on a research platform we use here at FIRST, over 50% of the resulting articles featured the word TikTok in the headline or article summary. From Vanilla Girl to Girl Dinner trends, the #picklechallenge trend to the barefoot trend, Tomato Girl to Cosy Cardio. It seems that every micro behavior, no matter how insignificant, is labeled a trend, given a prefix (-core, -sleaze, -chic), and thus quickly becomes a performative part of internet culture, particularly more prominent in the world of fashion and style

“The -core-ification of trends promoted fashion to have more cultural capital in contemporary discourse, in the same way music and its pop charts do. Trends and fashion are no longer just consumed – it must perform”(3) The Thing About Trend Forecasting, Miscellania, July 2023


And perhaps it’s the performative necessity that in itself is making it harder and harder for both brands and agencies to work effectively in this space.


(1) –  Matt Klein, ‘Trends Have Lost All Meaning, 2023, Contagious
(2) – Ruby Carter, ‘UNCLTRD #9, 2023, Truant
(3) –  The Thing About Trend Forecasting, Miscellania, July 2023

Too Much Broadcasting and Not Enough Forecasting

If you’re an agency, how do you navigate through the surface layers of micro-fads and find the substance that can make your work more meaningful? If you’re a brand, how do you spot the performative from the purposeful? How do you avoid being the only pineapple head at the party? How do you know if you even want to go to that party in the first place?

It’s probably too easy to sit here and say ALL trends today are “garbage trends,” and we should avoid bandwagons at all costs, but the downside to that is less experimentation. One person’s bandwagon could be another’s runaway steamtrain laden with gold.

And avoiding bandwagons is harder than you might think. We’re wired in a way that makes trends, fads, and crazes seem seductive. Whether it’s a conscious realization or whether it’s working away in the subconscious, it doesn’t matter. Concepts like Social Proof (becoming interested in an event because others are) and The Power of The Group (canned laughter making something appear funnier), cited by Richard Shotten as just two of the twenty-five behavioral biases at play in his brilliant book “The Choice Factor”, can not only influence marketers to take part in or use a trend in their work but can also influence the minds of the consumer, neurologically nudging them to be more receptive to said trend. 

The trick is being able to recognize and make a set of distinctions related to the trend you’re seeing, the audiences you want to build connections with, and the values or goals of your company.

The Distinctions

#1 – The Thing *

Does the ’thing’ seem more ‘Analytical’ or more ‘Conceptual’.

Once this is understood, we can then even decide if getting involved in the trend will benefit longer-term brand vision or shorter-term results.

This might then help you make the next distinction.


*The Thing About Trend Forecasting, Miscellania, July 2023

#2 – Trend or Fad

A trend signifies a phenomenon with potential societal impact, while a fad tends to serve a more cosmetic purpose.

It’s important to understand what it is you’re looking at. Not to simply dismiss one over the other, but so you can make a better decision about how best to extract the benefits associated with each.

For example, remember the mannequin challenge? Bit of a fad, right? Anyone looking at it at the time would have been able to predict the short shelf life of the ‘trend’. A marketer, brand, or sports team would have taken part for pure entertainment reasons. You couldn’t say that making a piece of content where everyone remains very still would ladder up to a particular strategy or communication pillar. Therefore, a marketer, brand, or sports team would have made the content for use on social media, probably wouldn’t have spent a lot on production, would have filmed it on the fly as opposed to getting it properly produced, and so on.

However, looking behind the fad could have told a different story. A marketer or brand could have joined the dots between the viral success and the participatory nature of the fad. Or they might have made the connection between the artistic style and what was happening in and around filmmaking at that time and therefore the technology being used. All of a sudden, you start to see some deeper, trend-worthy qualities that could play a part in ongoing strategies or technological innovations.

It becomes not about resisting the trend because it’s really just a fad, but more about understanding what’s behind them and what it could mean for you – and more importantly your audience, which brings us on to the next distinction.

Distinction #3 – For You or Your Audience?

I mean, really, it should all be about the audience. But if we’re honest, we’ve all, at times, pushed certain ideas purely because we really want to do them.

But the question should always be asked: How does this relate to my audience and what they want?

The best example I can give relates to a certain behemoth of global football and one of the club sponsors. As the sponsorship activation agency of record, it was our job to help our client get the most out of their sponsorship rights. The year was 2016. VR was a trending technology, and the client requested we use it in their biggest, fan-facing campaign of the year. I won’t go into detail, but there were many, many concerns in doing this, ranging from budgetary (lean), to logistical (nightmare), to footballer’s on-screen talent (absent). We advised against it.

But our client stood firm, like a referee waving away protestations after awarding a penalty.

We produced a piece of 360-degree film content featuring players unboxing the club’s new kit and having a kick-around with each other. We used the entire allocation of filming days and access to club talent for that year.

I will admit the end result was surprisingly good. As I slid the VR goggles down over my eyes, it actually felt like, for a brief moment, the club captain himself was handing me the new kit and passing me the ball as we hung out in the Theatre of Dreams together.

But the real kicker was when we shipped the VR headsets and brand new kits to lucky competition winners the world over and witnessed their reactions as they went through the experience themselves. Pure joy. For them, it really was the theater of their dreams coming true. 

The pay-off to this complicated idea fuelled by a ‘trend’ was worth it. Tenfold. Looking back now, I think the client stood firm because she knew how much it would mean to a global audience who could only dream of getting this type of ‘access’ to club legends delivered to their doors.

Time to Transcend the Trend


Trends are all around us. They’re hyped up by social media, and they lure us in because we’re humanly predictable. Both of these things are staying with us (for now) so it’s about how we detach ourselves from the hype-mill and analyze what we’re seeing. 

It’s about making those sets of distinctions so that we can make better judgments about our next moves. 

It’s almost always about looking beneath the surface layer of frivolity and doing what you can to look through the eyes of your audience. 

And of course, it’s about allowing yourselves a certain license to experiment, to lean in and see what fits. As one trendsetter of yesteryear once said:

“There is something more important than logic: imagination”
Alfred Hitchcock


– Written by Oliver Adams, Senior Creative Strategist at FIRST.