Established in 2006, The Lab is a local insight and brand consultancy that helps companies create new products and services and reinvigorate what they stand for. They also deliver studies that track broader trends, sentiment and behaviour across the country, including 2017’s state-of-the-nation Australia Project. We sat down with The Lab’s Partner Sarah Lorimer to hear more about The Lab’s story, and get the heads up on what they see as consumer and cultural trends for 2020.
Thanks for your time, Sarah. Do you want to start off telling us what sort of sectors and clients The Lab works closely with?
“We are lucky to work with some fantastic clients across a range of sectors. From financial services, to consumer technology brands, social media brands, sport & entertainment, and FMCG markets. We have a really broad remit which allows us to tackle problems from different perspectives. No day is the same, but people and how they behave are the common threads.”
How do you glean insights from these clients?
“It would depend on the brief. We do many different things, but I would say we often work in the world of the “why”. We do everything from ethnography — where you spend a lot of time on the ground understanding, watching and observing behaviour, looking for cues and triggers — through to more traditional qualitative approaches, through to designthinking and cracking challenges alongside the audience you’re cracking them with. We also create a lot of expert trend pieces; we use artificial intelligence and look at what’s going on in the world of social media or print media and the broader digital world, in order to create the clusters of meaning that are going on there.”
And The Australia Project is one of the bigger specific studies that you’ve run?
“Yeah, we do that every couple of years.”
Can you tell us a bit more about it?
“We do it to understand where the hearts and minds of Australians are going. And one of the ways we do that by measuring conversations: not common conversations but the big social conversations that are happening. So topics such as sustainability or gender or climate change, to see what people really feel about these kind of issues. We also measure values in terms of what matters to Australians. Fairness came up as one of the top values in our last study, which I can only see continuing as the world gradually splits further and further apart. But equally a new star, if you like, was empathy. It was the top value rising in the public consciousness. It’s interesting because this was happening even before the bushfire crisis, so we anticipate that it is even stronger now. That classic Australian trait of helping others in need — I think it’s actually having a bit of a moment. Which is interesting compared to other Western democracies at the moment, who perhaps haven’t been challenged in the same way and are actually becoming more individualistic. So whether it lasts past the crisis, I don’t know. But it’s quite an interesting moment I think for Australia. It also has big implications for how people choose to interact with brands and businesses, a human and empathetic perspective will grow in value where challenges are deemed difficult to solve.”
How do you think empathy sits — or how do you forecast it sitting this year — for SMEs?
“I feel like it’s the year for small and medium businesses. We’ve seen in lots of other consumer spheres — that push to go local, go real, the push to see people again for services that you care about and genuinely have an impact on your life. So in finance, where there’s often a lack of trust, the Royal Commission has definitely unseated things. I feel there’s a desire to actually be connected to people that understand you. And I think that’s something that traditionally has been lost in much of the financial sector. The other counterpoint to that though is that bigger business is getting incredibly clever in terms of the user experience, and AI and seamlessness. So you have to fight either battle. You either have to be the smoothest, most seamless, most easy-to-use intuitive place, or you have to be the most personal. And I think for small spheres, there’s much better scope to be personal.”
What learnings have you found from the Australia Project that are relevant to the finance sector?
“I think the biggest macro thing that will affect finance is the expectation that it’s my way, not your way. And I think that has real implications for the way financial institutions judge risk, offer opportunity, expect to charge fees. What we see is more and more start-ups coming through where there’s no fees, no geolocation barriers — so you can do stuff globally, really simply. It’s about that removal of institutional barriers to put the person at the centre. I think it’s a natural flow-on from the fact that we lost trust, transparency wasn’t there, we’re 10 years after the crisis and we don’t really feel like the big machines have changed.”
Are there any growth areas you see in finance?
“I think growth will come from people who are willing to throw the rule book out the window and democratise access to finance, debt and risk. There’s some really interesting stuff coming out of some of the start-ups. PayPoints is a mobile wallet or a card that lets you pay instantly in store with credit card reward points. Obviously here, Afterpay is the big Australian success story. Looking through all the start-ups for finance for this year, the majority are about making cross-border transfers super easy. Blockchain and peerto-peer networks are providing new ways of finance for those who are traditionally overlooked; the people who don’t meet the usual regulatory structures. And, wallets and micro-payments, particularly for SMEs, making it easier for them to get out to new markets quicker. It is all about increasing access to groups traditionally shut out by big structures.”
Do you have any recommendations for how finance brokers can keep up with emerging trends that are in the market?
“There are lots of different free resources you can go to. Futurism is really good, trendwatching.com is really good. We take account of the start-up culture and constantly stay on top of what’s coming out of San Fran, what’s coming out of Europe. I think we’re moving towards that expectation of delivering people a pathway to an end goal, as opposed to a product. And I think that’s something that will continue to grow as people want a shortcut to achieving their goals, as opposed to the traditional model of financial advice, whereby you’re looking 10, 20 years down the track.”
Finally, do you have any tips for businesses to get ahead in the coming year?
“It really depends on the business. But I do think we’re going to hit a point where people will start looking at green credentials and sustainability this year. I think we’ll see the beginnings of a mind shift in terms of questioning where things go, and how they’re done and processed. I think every business could help themselves by thinking about future-scenario planning. So often we take the past as a truth, but it isn’t necessarily. There are a lot of stories in our society; for example, that technology is going to solve every problem. Well it might not: there’s likely to be a global silicon shortage; we might not be able to physically produce more tech. So what would you do to solve something in a world that’s actually going to get less tech-enabled? It wouldn’t be a bad year to question what possible versions of the future might be, and how we might flex our business around that.”
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