2020 is NOT a Blip: Marketing Predictions are Anyone’s Guess

  • 6 Minutes
2021 may be a year of recovery following the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean marketers can dust off the old strategies and continue as before.

While we all may have taken some comfort in saying “Good riddance to 2020” last month, 12:01 on January 1st felt pretty much the same as 11:59 on December 31st.

Now we’re a couple of weeks into the new year, it’s clear that the stresses, struggles and frustrations of 2020 didn’t magically disappear with a change of the calendar. Already, the entire UK has plunged into a sudden third lockdown while the U.S. struggles to hold its democracy together with spit and bailing wire.

It’s as if setting off all those fireworks every year doesn’t actually scare away whatever evil spirits have plagued us over the previous few months. Who knew?

It’s only natural to crave a return to “normalcy”, whatever that is. Normal is comfortable. Normal is knowable. Normal is predictable. And if marketers rely on anything, it’s predictability. For our strategies to work, we need to know that what worked last time will likely work again next time.

2020 was dominated by COVID-19. Despite a shaky start to the year, 2021 will hopefully be characterised by recovery. But even if the worst is behind us, the normal we knew in 2019 isn’t coming back. Too much has changed. Consumers aren’t going to snap back to pre-pandemic behaviours and trends just because our marketing strategies expect them to.

Some new trends may soften, many are likely here to stay. Some may continue to evolve and shift until the world finally settles into a new normal. But despite the continued uncertainty, what is certain is that the new normal won’t be the same as the old one.

And that means revisiting marketing plans, questioning assumptions and planning for a future that none of the “Predictions for 2020” articles could have foreseen just 12 months ago.

Side note: this also means marketers shouldn’t rely on any research or trend data from before the pandemic. If your 2021 activities are justified by business intelligence or insights drawn partially or entirely from pre-pandemic customer data, you might want to validate some of those findings first.

So, what does this all mean for marketers looking to rebuild in 2021?

First: plan to be flexible.

While 2021 has already signalled it is going to be different to 2020, what with new vaccines rolling out and a new American president rolling in, there’s no sign of it being any more predictable. UK businesses that were hoping the vaccine rollout signalled a gradual return to business-as-usual suddenly had to put their plans on hold yet again before the first week was even over.

Second: if your 2021 priorities include increased customer acquisition – and I’m betting they do – you may need to revisit and update your customer personas first.

If your marketing strategy currently targets, say, business travellers, I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you now isn’t the time for that airport billboard campaign. That boat sailed (or rather, didn’t) months ago.

However, other less-obviously impacted personas are likely to have adjusted their content, social media and purchasing behaviours in ways that may be far more subtle – but no less important.

For example, you might want to rethink any persona you previously assumed to be digital novices or e-commerce skeptics. With many people driven to shop online for the first time during lockdown, the technical hurdle has been jumped. They’re experienced online shoppers now.

Meanwhile, according to McKinsey and Company, many other consumers expanded their online shopping habits to include more categories – particularly groceries and other household essentials.

These changes in shopping behaviour and attitudes have also impacted brand loyalty. McKinsey also reports that 76% of U.S. consumers have switched brands, changed stores or otherwise adjusted their shopping habits in 2020, with most (75%-84%) intending to continue with the new behaviour post-pandemic.

In short, the customer experience for most consumers has had a radical shake-up in 2020. How will your 2021 marketing adapt?

Of course, online shopping wasn’t the only change in 2020. Such a disruptive year has shifted attitudes, values and behaviours in all kinds of ways – many of which might not be immediately obvious. How has life changed for working mums, for tradesmen, for pet owners, or [insert your own target audience here]? And what do these changes mean for their needs, attitudes and purchasing behaviours?

Many of these changes may be quite subtle, but no less important. For example, when people are living with uncertainty, they might start spending less on frivolous items – which is exactly what McKinsey has found.

Plus, growing awareness of climate change, particularly among younger consumers, is driving a rise in ethical consumerism and an increase in make-do and mend – trends which were amplified during the pandemic when it wasn’t always possible to replace items as easily as before.

The world has changed for B2B marketing too. Businesses that have long resisted remote working have been forced to adopt the necessary technologies and processes, only to discover it’s not that hard after all. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25-30% of the workforce will continue to work from home for at least a few days per week by the end of 2021, even as the pandemic justification for doing so subsides.

As a result, images that characterised so much B2B marketing in 2019 – besuited execs shaking hands in foyers or smiling at whiteboards in boardrooms – might appear anachronistic and out of touch in 2021. How will your marketing reach and resonate with the right people when there’s no guarantee they even visit the office more than once a week, if at all?

So, if there’s one prediction that can be made for 2021, it’s that predictions shouldn’t be relied upon too heavily. Who knows how these trends will develop in 2021? Or are there new and unknown events waiting to shake things up again?

Therefore, the most important use of social media – at least in the early part of the year – may not be to acquire new customers with more of the same campaigns. Instead, social media may be far more useful as a listening post or early warning system, helping marketers to understand how their customers have moved on in the last 12 months, providing useful intelligence and helping businesses to adapt quickly to changing expectations.

Photo of Jonathan CrossfieldJonathan Crossfield

Jonathan calls himself a storyteller because freelance writer, editor, content marketer, journalist, copywriter and speaker wouldn’t fit neatly on a business card. His articles on digital marketing have won a couple of awards, but they were so long ago it seems boastful to keep mentioning it in bios. Jonathan lives in the Blue Mountains, perfecting the art of writing about himself in the third person. Find him on Twitter @Kimota.

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