Skip to content

Backing the future: Conversation with a trendsetter


After 40 years working in insights, research and trend forecasting, we catch up with Unilever Executive Vice-President of Consumer & Market Insight Stan Sthanunathan to talk about what’s changed, what hasn’t and why purpose and empathy are fuelling the future.

Trends line for Stan Sthanunathan

Unsurprisingly for a man who has built a career on identifying future trends, Stan Sthanunathan admits having a little trouble focusing on the present. “I’m Mr What’s Next,” he says.

Enjoying the moment is something he’ll definitely be working on after his official retirement from Unilever on 31 May, but after 40 years in the business, it’s going to be a hard habit to break. “The industry is only about 100 years old,” he says. “So I’ve literally been part of it for 40% of its existence.” Data research and insights have certainly changed in that time, but Stan suggests probably less than you might imagine.

Answers without questions

“Until about five years ago, I would have said that nothing had really changed except speed. In the good old days, you would go door to door with pencil and paper questionnaires. Then the computer came, but it was still questions and answers. The computer just made things a little faster, a little more accurate,” he explains.

The real value add for Stan has only appeared very recently. ‘In the last five years, suddenly we can get answers without asking any questions,” he says, referring to the information now available through social listening, call centres and consumer journey tracking. “We can access information in places where people are talking about you, but not necessarily to you.”

The privileged conversations that used to take place at the bus stop, in living rooms or in the shops, are increasingly taking place online. “They were never captured systematically before,” explains Stan. “But now everything is being put down in writing. The opportunity lies in systematically mining and making sense out of them.”

And because of the way conversations are shared, Stan feels much of the information gathered tends to be more honest and consequently more valuable. “Because they are in a more natural environment (as compared to being asked questions), the feedback you get is probably more reflective of what people think,” he says.

Big data: asking the right questions about consumer privacy and information

The sheer volume of data now available has triggered all sorts of concerns about what should and shouldn’t be accessible. But Stan is not overly impressed with recent fears regarding privacy and big data.

“The good side of big data is that we know a lot about people, the bad side is that there are always some actors who will abuse it,” he concedes, suggesting that perhaps the real issue is not so much what data businesses can access, but rather what they are going to do with it.

“Consumers are asking themselves: ‘I am sharing all this personal information, but what is in it for me?’ And that is a very legitimate question,” says Stan. “My frustration is that conversations are focusing on ‘let me protect your data’ and not enough on ‘what’s in it for the consumer’.”

Another frustration for Stan is the fixation with the novelty of big data. “I just don’t buy into that, because data was always big relative to the computing power there was at the time. So when I started, we used to do manual tabulations of questionnaires from surveys among 1,000 people and that was considered big data. But now a 13-year-old can do a survey with an app and get 2,000 questionnaires analysed in five minutes… so it’s all relative.”

Stan Sthanunathan, EVP, Consumer Market Insights, looking to camera

I say losers follow trends, winners create them

Stan Sthanunathan, Unilever Executive Vice-President of Consumer & Market Insight

Focusing on creative not computing power

For Stan, human ingenuity and creativity are what really matters, and he is concerned that this is ‘going south’.

“All the computers they used to get a man on the moon had less computing power than my Apple iPhone,” he reflects. “We don’t need more power, we need more creativity.”

It is a quality that has played a surprisingly large role in the forecasting aspect of Stan’s work. “I say losers follow trends, winners create them,” he observes.

Trends: the good, the bad and the one he did not see coming

Looking back, the trend Stan is most proud of identifying was probably one of the most unpopular.

“Seven years ago, I did a big presentation at a CLC – a change leaders conference – about the bipolar world,” he remembers. “I could clearly see a few people rolling their eyes at the time, but the fact is the world has become polarised. The question now is what – as a commercial entity – are we going to do about it? We can either drive the polarisation even harder or take a higher stance and say, let’s all come together. I think there’s one brand in this world that has done a very, very good job of that… and that is Ben & Jerry’s.”

But he admits to not always having been so clairvoyant. For example, he did anticipate the huge role consumers would play in the fight against climate change. “I did see the problem of climate change on a macro level but I did not somehow equate my actions as a consumer with being able to contribute to stopping the glaciers melting,” he says.

However, consumer action does feed into the trend that he feels will define the future for business: accountability.

“The new generation is buying less, and they want to know that what they do buy matches their values,” he says, adding that businesses will increasingly have to prove that they are delivering on the claims they make. “Doing good is good business,” he says. “That’s why purpose is going to become so amazingly important.”

The purpose principle, or what have you done for me lately?

It is all linked to a trend Stan likes to call the ‘What have you done for me lately?’ movement. “Purpose is one way we can really communicate what a business has done for consumers,” he explains.

It all comes down to the universal desire for empathy – a quality that Stan feels is lacking in many large corporations. “Many companies understand their consumers at a conceptual level, but not at all on visceral level,” he explains. “Many express sympathy or understanding in their communication, as opposed to expressing connection.”

It is an idea that he will no doubt be exploring with the businesses and organisations that he will be advising in the future, as it is quite clear from his schedule that Mr What’s Next has no intention of taking his eye off future horizons. “I am retiring from corporate life, not life itself,” he says with a laugh.

Back to top