Heléne Olsson is the Director of Global Industry Innovation at Kairos Future, an international consulting and research company. “We try to assist companies and organisations to understand and shape their best futures,” she says. “Kairos is a Greek word which means the right moment. So we try to capture the right moment and to also let go of the moments which are no longer appropriate.” 

When to let go of things that have been tried and tested for long periods is often one of the most difficult things that companies, as well people, have to do, Olsson says. And so adjusting to what consumers now perceive to be premium could prove challenging for many brands. But Olsson thinks that the moment to change has now arrived.  

"The global trend that we are seeing with premium is that we should be talking about smartness instead.” 

The old definition of premium is gone,” she says. “It is not even ok to speak about premium anymore. Because premium has become mainstream. 

Extreme as this view may sound, Olsson has the evidence to back it up, having just completed a premium trends report for Holmen Iggesund. “At Kairos we are constantly looking at what is happening around the world in different consumer brands,” she says. “We undertake research to scope out emerging consumer behaviours, desires, beliefs and values. And the global trend that we are seeing with premium is that we should be talking about smartness instead.” 

Olsson explains that whereas premium used to be something that was seen as elite, it has now become more accessible to a broader part of the population. It therefore no longer has the same meaning. So instead of exclusivity, consumers now associate premium with the consumption of smart and sustainable products and brands that make them look and feel like they are behaving in smart way. “Smart because you have money to spend, but you spend it right, in simple ways, on authentic items. Smart because you consume in a way that gives meaningfulness to your life, where how you purchase is actually more important than what you purchase. Smart because you do good. You are a conscious consumer.” 

”You are supposed to have a low carbon impact on the planet. As a manufacturer of a brand you should have it in your DNA. Not having it is a non-question.”  

What gives people meaning is something that can clearly be very different for different people, Olsson adds. In Asia for example, she points out that premium is still largely associated with luxury and status. But in Europe, and particularly in the Nordic countries, she says it is becoming more about how we behave with each other or how we behave towards the planet or in terms of our own health.    

Sustainability however, is, like the concept of premium itself, also something that Olsson thinks brands should not be talking about anymore. “Sustainability is extremely important,” she explains. “But it is so important it is no longer an issue that needs to be discussed. You are supposed to have a low carbon impact on the planet. As a manufacturer of a brand you should have it in your DNA. Not having it is a non-question.  

Likewise, transparency is something that Olsson says now needs be a vital component of a brand. “Transparency is demanded from customers,” she explains. “You need to be transparent to be credible and to have trust. And this also relates to authenticity. Consumers are much more critical about whether something is authentic or not. So as a company, or a brand, you need to really work hard to ensure transparency. But you also need to deal with the information that the customers now have access to, and be ahead of them in terms of knowing what questions they are going to ask. What is going to be acceptable and what is not going to be acceptable.” 

Another important component of being smart, Olsson says, is the “we-making,” particularly what you do together with others locally. “This has really exploded during the pandemic, where people have, for example, questioned the need to travel. We have our cosy small homes, our local assets, which are almost like new exotic discoveries. So what you can do locally together, what products are local, and engagement with the customer on a local level is also very important.”  

In fact, being much closer to consumers is an integral part of what brands need to do to meet emerging consumer demands, Olsson says. “They need to let consumers explore and try new products and services. Consumers don’t accept anymore that you pack something and push it towards them and then they just consume it. They want to be part of the game. They want to co-create and have an influence on what kind of products they can consume, or how they can consume them. So brands need to do things together with consumers.”  

Olsson has worked extensively with the packaging industry and she believes the new premium offers many opportunities for it. “One trend we are seeing is that that we are moving towards a package less society,” she says. “That means the packaging industry needs to use packaging in a smarter way and in a way that adds value. This might involve providing new uses for the packaging for your new Apple computer. It could also involve the integration of tech into the packaging. It could give you lots more information. It could be composed of other types of ingredients that you could reuse in new ways. You need to look at a much more holistic cycle. Packaging needs to get smarter.”  

Just like the new premium itself.