Breaking: Alex Leibner joins Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve as a futurist
by Louise Burgers. Former CNBC Africa media and marketing head, Alexander Leibner, talks about how to predict the future after being appointed as a futurist to Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, a global trend forecasting company.
by Louise Burgers. Given the actual state of the world right now with the batshit crazy leaders we have in power, a global plague and the dire state of our own economy, is it actually possible to still predict the future – and does anyone care anymore, or are they too busy stocking up on face masks and building bunkers?
Alex Leibner cares. He unashamedly calls himself a futurist and, having just taken up a position as a futurist and global keynote speaker with Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, he specialises in trend predictions. Popcorn is practically the creator of consumer trends, I mean, you can’t call yourself a marketer if you don’t have a dogeared copy of her iconic book The Popcorn Report on your bookshelves somewhere. She is probably best known for highlighting the ‘cocooning’ trend fashionable in the 1980s, which endures today. Fortune magazine actually called her the “Nostradamus of marketing”.
Leibner is the former group head of marketing at Africa Business News (ABN), which owns CNBC Africa and Forbes Africa; he also headed up ABN Event Productions which managed all the group’s prestigious Africa business events. He name drops Fortune 500 business stars in his LinkedIn profile, the way the rest of us tag our friends on Facebook; and while his ‘futuristic’ photograph looks like it came from one of the more upmarket stock picture libraries when you type in ‘future’ or ‘tech’ keywords, he obviously takes his personal branding very seriously and he’s clearly very good at it.
This is what the Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve is all about: It’s made up of a team of applied futurists, offering consulting services that “deliver future-focused solutions/insights through the trends that explain and predict consumer behavior”. The company was founded in 1974 and is based in New York City and Berlin. Over the past 40 years, its clients have included, American Express, Campbell Soup, Apple, Citibank, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Danone, Home Depot, Johnson & Johnson, Nike, Pfizer, United States Postal Service, Unilever; and in South Africa, RCL Foods and Investec.
Leibner’s new role is two-fold: “My main focus will be spreading the futurist Popcorn philosophy by delivering keynotes at conferences for major corporates, institutions and organisations with emphasis on trends that are shaping tomorrow. As a follow-on to the presentation, Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve will be able to offer clients an array of consulting services to implement some of the thinking and gear their businesses for toward ‘What’s Next?’.
“Some of the more popular services we offer are TrendTreks to a cutting-edge location, where the future is leaking into the present. Alternatively, we can enter a full-blown engagement where we can provide positioning, new channel development, design-led thinking for the development of products and services in order to monetise our collective foresight.”
Banking on talent
Leibner acknowledge the “great honour” to be working with Faith Popcorn and her BrainReserve. He explains that the business comprises a preeminent group of future-focused market researchers, trend trackers and thought leaders from diverse industries. Then there is a team of 10,000 futurists, known as Faith Popcorn’s TalentBank, where Popcorn has developed a proprietary methodology for “brailling the culture” and detecting cultural changes, morphs, and radical shifts, preternaturally early. As Leibner points out, she long ago predicted the demand for fresh foods and four-wheel drives, as well as the spiritual tenor of the millennium with her trends ‘Cocooning’ and ‘Anchoring’. She was also the first to anticipate the explosive growth of home delivery, home shopping and the popularity of working at home.
Leibner will be based in Johannesburg, but lives the trend of the nomadic worker too. “Practicing what I preach, I’m embracing the Future of Work, which is being able to operate from anywhere, anytime as a global citizen. The future is fluid, with easy access to every form of communication and travel becoming cheaper, faster and more accessible.
“I will be interfacing with leading future focused companies and organisations, in Africa, and also further afield into the Middle East, Europe and Asia. As an African-based futurist, I’m in the unique position of observing some of the leap-frog innovation and technology coming out of the continent, and sharing this knowledge and insight with the rest of the world, whilst also being able to feed some of the world’s most important insights and methodologies back into Africa’s organisations that are shaping the continent of tomorrow.
“I’ve spent virtually half my life in traditional media working for some of Africa’s leading organisations, and although initially it seemed like a pivot, I feel that in a changing world, this is an exciting and organic evolution. I will be bringing much of my media and content creating skills to this space, using my on-air presenting skills to this role and applying all I have learnt in engaging at senior levels. These days, virtually anyone can be a media company, and I believe that we are witnessing a revolution (the change of one system in favour of a new system) in the media space and I am on the forefront of what is to come – looking forward as futurists do.”
When asked how he became someone who can attach the label ‘futurist’ to their business cards, Leibner said he had always been fascinated by the future and had long wanted to be a professional speaker. “Now those two dreams have come together. I feel that I am particularly well qualified with my University studies in marketing and real-life experience in media.
“I remember sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon growing up (when we still had linear, analogue television), watching an Australian show called ‘Beyond 2000’. Every week this TV show would explore the wild and wonderful world of the future, featuring cars with airbags, computers that would allow you to bank from home, wearable technology and innovations that just seemed so outside of the time we were living in.”
He describes being a futurist as someone with visionary thinking: “A futurist, especially when addressing companies and organisations, provides an opportunity to take a step back and think about the future. So often people are so busy being busy, that unfortunately very little strategic and futuristic thinking takes place. A futurist can also cast a vision of what can and will be, expanding the thinking and imagination of people who spend way too much time in their offices.”
So, can you still predict the future when history seems to be repeating itself around the world? Yes, says Leibner, and more accurately than before given the technology and tools available.
“Our technique is called ‘backcasting’. It works like this; go to the far future, describe it, (the easy part, think robots) and come back to the present. Then try to create a timeline to that future point in time. It allows you to notice all the touchpoints along the way and predict if it is going faster or slower that you imagined. The other part that makes us incredibly accurate, is our 10,000 member strong TalentBank, filled with futurists. These are the Makers, the ones who are actually working on what will be delivered in the next 10-30 years. Think gene-editing, telepathy, brain chips packed with knowledge. A futurist’s secret: Ask what is possible, what is probable and what is preferable and don’t ignore it when you see the hints of it actualising!”
Louise Burgers (previously Marsland) is the Publisher and Editor and Co-Founder of RetailingAfrica.com. She has spent over 20 years writing about the FMCG retailing, marketing, media and advertising industry in South Africa and on the African continent. She has specialised in local and Africa consumer trends and is a passionate Afro-optimist who believes it is Africa’s time to rise again and that the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will be a global gamechanger in the next decade.
– Receive the Retailing Africa newsletter every Monday and Thursday. Subscribe here.