Which trends from 2020 will continue into the new year and which will not?
2020 brought America’s identity crisis to a head. Years of divisive identity politics undermined the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Wearing a mask became a symbol of which half of America’s brain pulled your strings. Citizens needed a well-defined and coordinated healthcare strategy. Infectious disease experts were on the job until they got put in the naughty room along with scientists, journalists, and anyone else who challenged the Twitter stream of America the Great. Infections skyrocketed, concealing the human suffering behind boggling statistics. The economy cracked open. Livelihoods suffered, and people’s identities as independent business owners, successful workers, family providers, good parents, teachers, and carers shuddered. A fissure appeared in the image of American exceptionalism.
A steady pulse of black deaths and racial injustice didn’t quell the outrage at sports stars kneeling in solidarity beneath the Star Spangled Banner. Things went seismic with the murder of George Floyd under a knee. The nation’s history and heterogeneity collided. Protests erupted, demanding justice for black lives and an end to systemic racism. They were met with full force and dragged off by goon squads, clearing the way for white supremacists to walk up and breach the nation’s most hallowed ground. Elected representatives took shelter as insurgents draped the heart of the Capitol in Confederate and Neo-Nazi flags. Truth had been stolen. Democracy was now on its knees, with disinformation and conspiracy theories running rampant. Foreign enemies gave themselves high-fives while old friends in shaken alliances looked on bewildered. The most powerful nation on earth seemed unsure how to protect itself from itself.
What does this brutal account have to do with marketing trends in 2021?
Everything. Talking about trends without recognizing our underlying schisms is like diving into a river without knowing what lies beneath. In big and small ways, this identity crisis has made us question who we are, how we got here, what we believe, and what we want to do about it. We ask these questions at every level; of the nation, our communities, businesses, leaders, employees, brands, consumers, educators, partners, family, friends and so on. There isn’t an individual alive that hasn’t had their psychology shaken by these cultural quakes.
The trends that will matter are the ones that help soothe these tensions:
The fight against systemic racism will see more diverse voices and stories rise to the fore, yet these will push against entrenched biases and identities pegged to legacy narratives. Our longing for simpler times will feed nostalgia yet we will find our history riddled with open wounds. We want to be saved by science yet our spirits are buoyed by popularist crowd-warmers. We want to pierce our media bubbles yet remained hooked on platforms that divide our world into like-minded or lunatic. Our truths get buried under an avalanche of data, while media technology enables synthetic realities and cult conspiracies to spread like COVID. False idols, living and dead, are getting torn down around us, amplifying our need for shared heroes who will show us the way.
We’re rapidly reimagining how the digital and physical spaces we inhabit will allow more fluid lifestyles, but old habits and organizational norms will be hard to shake. Lockdown has us longing to indulge, though it’s undecided whether we’ll opt for memorable experiences over mindless materialism. The economy still sucks up fossil fuels and growth at all costs, battering the planet and bloating the few while leaving more people working multiple jobs to try to stay afloat. A burgeoning surveillance industry promises to make all the pain go away – to cradle us in hyper-personalized convenience and care - yet privacy concerns are rising and will go nuclear if authoritarianism and capitalism hook up. Never before have we sat on such a precipice. Little wonder we’re experiencing a mental health crisis and the currency of wellbeing is so strong.
Brands invest millions in creating worlds that pull our time, money and behavior into their orbit for commercial gain. In return, they offer the promise of something better. Now, with data and technology, brands increasingly orbit us. They are our world, seeping into every data capture crevice and moment of influence possible. Marketers have everything to gain from making this new world better. The astute among us will see the connection between what we sell, how we consume, and these struggles within. Individually, and together, we are desperate to rediscover and refresh our identity in 2021.
In your opinion, what will 2021 look like for advertisers and agencies?
Exciting. We work in an industry that thrives on innovation and doing things differently. This is needed now more than ever. The dismantling of legacy power structures will accelerate. The cultural landscape will be more colorful, with the fresh influence of BIPOC and LGTBQ talent, ideas and stories. That’s not to be naive - the underlying inequalities and injustices will not go away unless we keep up the fight.
Brands that ignored the problems they carried into 2020, and that were subsequently amplified by the pandemic, will now undergo radical change or fade away. Brave brands will take bold steps to affirm their role in our fractured lives. They will reimagine how they interact with consumers, shifting more budget away from glistening marketing campaigns that turn out not to be gold for their customers. Instead, they will reexamine their ecosystem and redesign how they leverage data to deliver performance marketing and more targeted value to individual customers. They will be more purposeful and precise in how they reinvent key aspects of their relationship with consumers. They will get smarter about what they do and why, keeping their marketing systems tuned to the data and ready to pivot when things change.
What will your clients value most in the next 12 months?
Surprise, surprise: higher profits, greater efficiencies, and more effective marketing. The best agencies will relish this challenge with transparency, accountability, and a full suite of capabilities. Clients will want a steady hand they can depend on to help guide them through changes to their technological infrastructure, people and processes, as well as creative thinkers who can navigate market turmoil ahead. They will value those who keep them true to their brand’s purpose, and milk their data to innovate across the customer journey.
Expertise in diversity and inclusion will be vital – not simply to ensure representation, avoid mistakes and blowback. Clients will need to rethink how to meet the needs of every individual that matters to their business, recognizing the diverse identities, intersectionality, and cultural complexity of their customers. Not just because it is the right thing to do – it makes great commercial sense too. This will demand next-level understanding of human behavior, marketing science, and the ability to fine-tune creativity to every individual that matters to their business.
What agency models and skills will emerge by 2022?
Successful agency models will have robust answers to those identity questions - who we are, how we got here, what we believe, and what we want to do about it. Employees will feel the agency is helping them live according to these qualities too. Dispersed talent will want to work when and where they work best, changing how teams work together. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility will be baked into the model. Agencies, like the best brands, will see themselves as part of our citizenry, helping people create the type of world they want to live in from the inside out. We will identify with these businesses and brands - they will become magnets for talent and consumers alike.
The strongest agencies will have robust marketing automation, data science, and performance media capabilities. Along with business acumen, creative chops and change management, clients will have the consultative capabilities they need to redesign and connect up their service offering. The most progressive agency models will include behavior science and diversity strategy to increase expertise in human behavior and cultural change. Purpose-built multidisciplinary teams will wrap around client challenges to shepherd legacy systems and ways of working toward more democratized and distributed capabilities. The goal will be to enable a chemistry of data and creativity to constantly flow through the organizational pipes, improve performance and step-change human experience.
As countries are entering lockdowns again and vaccines begin to roll out, how should brands look to resonate with consumers?
Our monotonous routines have us longing for novelty and fun - desperate to arrive at the new normal that was talked about so simplistically through 2020. Brands could simply keep us entertained and excited for what’s to come. But this overlooks the real risks and rewards. Customer expectations have forever changed. Business have bent over backwards to serve us during lockdown, introducing new levels of contactless convenience and value. The world is not the same. What else is now possible?
People are hoping for so much better. They want to heal and grow. Great brands can be part of our social fabric, weaving us together, strengthening our souls and enhancing our ability to live the life we choose for ourselves, loved ones and planet. Brands do this most profoundly, not when making public declarations, but in everyday ways, through business operations, marketing, data and design choices that impact our daily lives.
Start now, in early 2021. Create a marketing legacy - something that endures in culture because it relieves the tensions noted above. Brands should not just circle cultural trends and swoop down to feast on our fractures until things get better. They should make culture and shape our lives in positive ways. If you still believe in the American dream, you know capitalism isn’t a peripheral initiative. It is its beating heart, and marketing ensures its health. Every business, brand and individual has a role to play in helping us through our identity crisis. Now is the perfect time for brands to step up and play their part in creating a more perfect union, from the inside out.