Ford Motor and the rest of the auto industry have been trying to read the tea leaves for some time on how quickly customers are willing to follow carmakers, government policy and environmental activists into the electric-vehicle revolution. It’s just one big example of the importance for manufacturers of attempting to read not only the current zeitgeist but also where the consumer mindset is headed.
That’s one reason Ford has invested for several years in a “futuring” department that identifies important consumer trends and predicts their trajectories, based on an annual global survey of thousands of people in several countries, including the United States. The automaker taps into these predictions to inform its own choices about everything from interior fabric choices to future new products.
For 2024, Ford’s chief futurist, Jennifer Brace, distilled an important insight for her employer from all the surveys: “People want to connect,” she told Chief Executive. “They are prioritizing their connections with nature and with other people. And vehicles can serve an important role there.”
As today’s vehicles are capable of taking over more and more of the functions directly involved in transporting passengers, especially automated safety systems, Brace said, the opportunity will grow for carmakers to create sanctuary-type spaces inside their products. Think of the recent advertising campaigns by Ford’s Lincoln luxury marque featuring actor Matthew McConaughey entering a zen-like state of relaxation in the front seat of his new Lincoln.
“Vehicles can become this peaceful place to escape chaos for the weekend or to spend time with your family and connect with them, or to help get yourself reconnected with nature,” Brace said. “The vehicle is the new dinner table, a space where you can connect. Many parents told us being in the car with them is the only time they can talk with their kids.”
Brace said manufacturing CEOs generally can learn from this priority that it’s important to “recognize where people are at, and understand they want the ability to prioritize themselves and their family. The more you can enable that time for them, there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
Employers also should take note of one of the more striking findings from the Ford survey: 52% of the global workforce said they would accept a 20% pay cut in favor of prioritizing their quality of life. Among other things, this finding adds to data points about how the pandemic experience of remote work led Americans to appreciate being able to work at home, to the point where they considered it equivalent to a compensation bonus of 6% to 9%.
Ford’s global trends and futuring department debated how big a pay cut to use in the question it posted to survey respondents. “We wanted it to feel significant, but not ridiculous,” Brace explained. “And I don’t know if people would do this in real life. But [the result] does show there’s a real, palpable need for control. It’s been years after Covid, but economies seem out of control and the world unstable. People are looking to gain a sense of control.
“So if companies fight back on that” through, for example, policies requiring employees to return to the office, “there are some risks. That’s interesting because, five years ago, no one questioned going into the office every day.”
Here’s how Ford put the five biggest trends that emerged from its annual survey:
“Invest in me: People everywhere are feeling anxious, struggling to adjust to a changing world that feels out of their control. Eight in 10 people surveyed have come to recognize the importance of finding inner peace in an uncertain world. The question then arises: How will they embark on this journey towards serenity? Many of them have made the deliberate decision to prioritize connecting with others, let go of toxic relationships, and embrace the outdoors. They are eager to disconnect from their screens and redirect their energy towards what really matters — themselves.”
“Working for balance: Workers are reassessing what’s important. They are opting to step away from the constant hustle of career advancement and are willing to accept the potential sacrifices that come with prioritizing their own well-being. In fact, half of the global workforce would accept a 20% pay cut in favor of prioritizing their quality of life. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about their jobs. The majority report feeling connected to their roles at work but acknowledge that a stressful job simply isn’t worth it. Looking to the future provides hope, with technology being the key. Most feel that AI will contribute to a better work-life balance, and may even guide them to their next job.”
“AI wary: We are in a period of transformation. AI and ChatGPT have become household words, with individuals and businesses alike seeking to leverage their capabilities. While most people anticipate that AI will become integral to their lives in the near future, there’s an increased sense of uncertainty and confusion compared to a few years ago. The rapid pace of change has led to concerns about the potential impact of AI on others — even more so than on themselves. Nevertheless, there is a consensus that AI is here to stay and will continue to play an increasingly significant role in our daily lives.”
“The trust algorithm: As generative AI and other technologies continue to become more deeply ingrained in our society, there is a growing concern about our ability to separate fact from fiction. Recognizing the importance of transparency, over eight in 10 people believe that companies should openly disclose their use of AI. This drive toward transparency doesn’t signify a complete reluctance to embrace the technology; in fact, many envision AI as an integral, trusted support system within the next five years, serving various roles such as personal shopper, doctor, therapist, career advisor, and travel planner.”
“Evolutionary sustainability: There’s a global consensus on the urgency of addressing climate change, with many claiming to be modifying their personal habits to be more environmentally friendly. But people want a seamless integration of sustainable solutions into their everyday routines. They seek simplicity where products, services, and experiences allow them to make positive contributions to the environment without disrupting their lifestyle. While the future of transportation is moving towards electricity, some are hesitant to adopt electric vehicles (EVs) over concerns about insufficient infrastructure making charging a challenge. It will be up to companies to make sustainability an easy, convenient choice if consumers are expected to embrace it.”