Another year, another “marketing trends” post! It may be cliche, but pausing every once and awhile to take stock of the current marketing landscape and predict where it’s heading is a great way to stay ahead of the curve.

It’s also a different lens through which to explore current events – and if you’re like many of us, you’ll take whatever extra insight into this mind-boggling year that you can get. So without further ado, here’s how the crazy events of 2020 and early 2021 have impacted the marketing world: 

2020 Was the Year of Brands Talking the Talk….

As COVID-19 threw life out of balance and several ongoing issues hit a tipping point, brands found themselves in an interesting position. In the eyes of many consumers, brand neutrality and distance from divisive topics – a previous best practice in marketing – was no longer acceptable.

In March, the gravity of COVID-19 opened the door for brands to connect with their customers on a deeper level as we collectively shared our confusion and grief. Brand managers became a little more raw in expressing their vulnerability and compassion. At the same time, they became more transparent out of necessity, sharing the measures their businesses had in place to protect employees and customers from the virus. 

COVID changed the relationship between brands and customers, creating a more deeply felt set of consumer expectations. So it’s no surprise that by the summer of 2020, as calls to address police brutality and systemic racism hit a point of urgency, people began expecting their favorite brands to take a stand with them. Many brands rose to the challenge, openly sharing their support of the Black Lives Matter movement and donating money to racial justice-based initiatives.

Once upon a time, most brands shied away from participating in potentially polarizing conversations. This year, more brands than ever have realized that it’s far more important to stay loyal to your core audience and your own values than to avoid making waves with a few. 

….But In 2021, We Expect Brands To Walk the Walk 

While brands took some important steps in 2020, it’s safe to say we’re all fatigued by lip service. That sentiment came to a head just this week, when riots at the Capitol building turned up the heat on social media platforms and their role in the spread of misinformation and political division. In response, social media platforms from Twitter to Pinterest stepped up their efforts to shut down hate by banning some of the key people responsible for the riots.

Other brands, take note: 2020, our year of lip service, is behind us. In 2021, customers expect to see concrete actions that actually demonstrate the values brands espouse. High priority concerns include: 

  • Inclusion and diversity – Making inclusive statements is one thing, but people want to see their favorite brands making diverse hires, targeting diverse audiences, and amplifying diverse voices. 
  • Green initiatives – Taking climate change seriously has never been more important, and consumers are cottoning on to the fact that big industries create the brunt of the problem. People are tired of being told to shower less or recycle more like they’re personally responsible for preventing environmental catastrophe. While those little initiatives may help, in 2021 you can expect to see more people calling them what they are –deflections — and demanding accountability from the corporations and industries who hold the keys to protecting the planet.
  • Labor issues are top of mind – As hundreds of millions of people lost their financial safety net in 2020, the stock market boomed and the rich grew richer than ever. And this time, everybody noticed. It’s likely that one of the first steps in addressing the wealth gap will be a long-overdue increase in minimum wage across the board. Prepare for this, and be ready to demonstrate how you value your employees.

Fake News Fatigue = More Emphasis on Brand Expertise 

Google and low-quality content have been like oil and water for quite a few years now, and Google has repeatedly noted that Expertise, Authority and Trust underpin most of their ranking factors. This didn’t change in 2020, but the influx of fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation about matters of public health did add more gravity to Google’s need to prioritize the most accurate, useful and expert-driven content. 

In 2021, expect Google to continue to refine exactly how they determine the expertise and authority of a piece of content. Your brand can stay in their good graces by making sure every topic you write about is tightly connected to your area of expertise, and that all of your content is written or vetted by a subject matter expert. 

Temporary Marketing Fixes Become Long-Term Strategies 

As businesses shut down and millions of people fell into the rhythm of working from home, the marketing world adapted. And on more than a few occasions, both customers and marketers started to say, “You know, this way…actually works better.”

We sincerely hope that we’ll see a return to normalcy in 2021; and if we do, don’t expect some of the tried-and-true pandemic solutions to go away. The following marketing tactics may have started as stopgaps for many brands, but they’re well on their way to becoming long-term staples: 

Virtual Events, Classes, and Livestreams – As we all continued our lives virtually, in-person classes, conferences, and trade shows moved online. When the pandemic is over, some of those events will move back to their traditional setting – but many of them won’t. In many cases, not being tied to a particular location opened the door to exciting new audiences across the globe.

Consumers also appreciated the new array of options, which often cost less than traditional events (and certainly less than a plane ticket). When venues open back up, some brands will likely explore the option of making virtual events permanent. The reach and cost-effectiveness of doing so is simply too compelling to ignore. 

UGC – User-Generated Content or UGC has long been a buzzword, but as marketing budgets were trimmed and content ran dry, many brands started treating UGC as more of a necessity than a trend. Repurposing fan content let them connect with their customers and continue releasing a wide variety of enticing content. Any brand that made UGC a habit in 2020 will likely continue this strategy in the coming years. 

Podcasts – Over on the consumer’s end, of course, people faced a different problem: there wasn’t enough content to consume! With production schedules halted and people spending months indoors with nothing to do, we all started to get desperate; after all, there’s only so much Love Island one person can take.

Once the well dried up on movie and television streaming platforms, many people turned to podcasts. Shows ranging from true crime to entrepreneurial have been on the rise for the past few years, but in 2020 podcasts saw a sea of new converts as people tuned in for the first time or experimented with new genres and favorites. Brands who found footing in the podcast world can continue to reap the benefits of podcasting throughout 2021 as people turn casual listening into a permanent habit. 

Shorter Planning Schedules – Planning content out well in advance? Not on 2020’s watch. Most marketers try to schedule their long-form content at least a few months ahead of time, but the volatile events of 2020 had us all throwing our content calendars out the window. Content marketers started shaping their workloads more the way a journalist would, which let them respond to current events in a timely way. This working style will likely become more of a mixed bag in 2021 as marketers build in more room to execute their “business as usual” content (knock on wood). 

Getting To Know The Customer…Again 

If there’s one thing all of the trends in this post have in common, it’s that marketers spent a lot of time in 2020 getting to know their customers over again…and then again…as the world changed in ways we’ve never experienced before (in this lifetime). Our changing landscape has led to a shift in platforms, behaviors, and values – often in permanent ways.

Using the experiences of your friends, family and coworkers as a guide, continue to take the pulse of public sentiment on an ongoing basis. You can assume your customers are feeling a similar way as your tribe – but you also don’t have to assume; you can ask! Check in with your customers regularly so you can adjust to their changing needs. Never be afraid to embark on the discovery process all over again because, well, that’s what we’re all doing right now.

May you and your business have a safe and happy 2021!