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10 marketing predictions for 2021

Dec 22, 2020
14 MIN. READ
ICF Next experts share trends and changes we expect to see in the year ahead.

As an eventful and challenging year comes to a close, our experts share their thoughts on what marketers should expect from the year ahead. In short, optimism that 2021 will be better than 2020 reigns supreme. But that doesn’t mean that 2021 is going to be all smooth sailing.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we expect disruption and transformation to accelerate. Businesses and marketers will still need to be flexible and nimble to respond to rapidly shifting landscapes. 2021 will be a year with clear winners and losers: As the global economy recovers, brands that fail to adapt will be left behind while those that do will reap the rewards of their efforts.

Read on for what our team expects in the year to come:

The most important word in a CMO or CCO title is the one that starts with O

Patti Temple Rocks, Senior Partner, Client Excellence

One thing we know for sure about 2021 is that “normal” is not coming anytime soon. That means CMOs and CCOs will continue to pivot their strategies quickly and often. As 2020 has proven, many will do this quite well because they are pros at the M and C of their titles. But by focusing on the O of their titles in 2021, those leaders will make the greatest difference of all. Why? Because this is what it means to be an officer:

Officer (n.): one who holds an office of trust and authority. 

We are in a period of deep distrust—the government, the media, universities. Even once bulletproof public health institutions are viewed with skepticism by many. While this is indeed troubling, there has never been a better time for businesses to earn our trust. But it won’t be because we “do” marketing and communications well. It will be because we do “officer” well and use our authority to lead with empathy and integrity and, in turn, build trust.

Every business is now in the business of healthcare

Mary Carter, Managing Partner, Healthcare

Even as vaccination news unfolds at a breakneck pace, there is no doubt that the pandemic thrust every company into a whole new reality.  It used to be that the business of healthcare was the business of insurers, healthcare providers, and biopharmaceutical companies—all seeking to improve health outcomes for consumers. That paradigm is forever changed and we’re only just beginning to realize all of the potential implications in a post-COVID-19 world. 

In short, every company is now in the business of healthcare. Regardless of industry, every company is grappling with health topics like never before: consumer health, employee well-being, safe shopper experiences, and no-contact engagement to name just a few. Health will take center stage as a shared responsibility when it comes to delivering experiences of any kind. This brings a new level of scrutiny, to be sure, but also opportunity. Expect the basis of competition to change as consumers and employees bring forth health as a primary decision driver in making informed choices—whether about purchase or employment or investment. The companies that succeed will be those that integrate and differentiate based on critical health considerations.

Reinvention of the journey map will be the difference between accelerated success and a slow, painful cycle of contraction

Grant Toups, Managing Partner

From customers to employees, nearly every journey map has been fundamentally altered by the events of 2020. From COVID-19 to an unprecedented awareness of systematic racial injustice to the most polarized election in modern time (at least in the U.S.), the way we interact with essentially everything is different. 

More than ever before, we work and learn from home. Our family and work lives have collided and grown together like a complex web of vines. We engage with friends and family differently. We decide what to buy differently and make those purchases in fundamentally different ways. Groceries and takeout are delivered to our doorstep by intermediaries. New products enter our lives in many ways but rarely ever in brick-and-mortar stores anymore. 

And this all matters for one critical reason: Nearly every dollar that nearly every company spends on marketing, technology, and communications is built on strategies based on stakeholder journey assumptions and data points that are now imprecise at best and fundamentally flawed at worst. 

Companies that adapt and welcome new ways to drive participation between their brands and stakeholders will thrive. Those that attempt to go back to “normal” risk a slow, continual cycle of market erosion and business contraction until they are fully disrupted by a competitor.

Data scientists become data artists

Emily Merkle, Partner, Analytics + Data Science

2020 was a year like none other, resulting in dramatic changes in consumer behavior and brand relationships. For example, e-commerce experienced four years’ worth of growth within one quarter. This while the percentage of the U.S. population traveling was cut by more than 60% between January and April. These shifts fundamentally altered the makeup of why, what, and who purchased or interacted with businesses, resulting in the breakage of many businesses’ predictive analytic approaches and algorithms.

To a certain—and yet to be determined—extent, these shifts in consumer behavior will alter behaviors and expectations for the foreseeable future. We’re simply on a different track now. 2021 will not return to the 2019 “normal” and the trends seen in 2020 will not be fully predictive of the future like those that could be relied on in the past. With no playbook for this level of change, companies are going to look to analytics and data scientists for help. But this is going to require a new breed of data scientists: an artistic data scientist. A data scientist who uses creative thinking in how they apply predictive modeling, uses historical data and new data elements. This will require them to know the building blocks and fundamentals—what makes for a sound modeling practice—and to use different techniques to adapt to the new environment. Not all data scientists are going to survive; those that can’t adapt their learnings to the new state of analytics will be passed by. The new breed will write learnings in pencil instead of pen and continually modify their approach. And the companies with the wherewithal to hire these individuals are going to flourish.

Brand and consumers seek to recover from pandemic infidelity

Denise Holt, Partner, Strategy + Insights

The pandemic pushed shoppers online in droves, which necessitated disloyalty due to empty store shelves, backordered items, and major shipping delays. Customers were forced to stray from otherwise beloved retailers when they found they couldn’t get what they needed, or the price was triple because supply was so low. Financial strains weighed heavily on millions of people whose jobs were lost or furloughed, making shopping for the best deal essential. Add in the stress of putting their (and their family’s) health at risk by entering a physical store, and loyalty went out the window. 

In 2021, retailers will focus on customer retention like never before. How will they get back those customers who strayed? And how will they retain those who gave them a chance during the pandemic? It will be a scramble to stand out and (for some) to survive. There will be a surge of retailers testing out paid membership models with premium, packaged benefits—following moves by Walmart and Hy-Vee—in order to lock in pandemic shoppers. Consumers will have to choose wisely where their hard-earned money will go. 

Retail brands will take partnership to a whole new level by moving in together—both physically and digitally. Watch for the store-within-a-store concept to spread rapidly, as more retailers join forces to leverage each other’s customer bases and provide the one-stop shopping that even post-pandemic shoppers will appreciate (like Target+Ulta and Kohl’s+Sephora). There will be pressure for retailers to allow double-dipping in an attempt to own the customer relationship. Customer loyalty will be generously rewarded.

Connected experiences will drive long-term positive change for organizations

Dani Batty, Executive Creative Director; Katrin Homer, Principal Consultant

As vaccines become more widely available, we will return to in-person events and gatherings at some point in 2021. But this does not mean that connected experiences and virtual events will go back to the role they served in 2019. In 2021, organizations will need to continue providing connected experiences across colleagues, customers, citizens, and communities in order to meet the needs of a world and workforce that increasingly eschews travel and works from home.

In order to be successful with this internally, we believe organizations should focus on being:

  • Purposeful: Ask: How can we connect purposefully and meaningfully with our audience in an increasingly digital world? When we help our clients create events, we are continually asking ourselves: “How do we make the audience come away from any experience feeling like they’ve had an in the real moment, that they feel more connected than ever before?” If events connect an organization’s purpose to the individual's purpose, then our chances of making something meaningful have gone up tenfold.
  • Participative: If on top of being purposeful, we can also make connected experiences more participative, then we’re onto a real winner. We can do this by going beyond telling and selling. Let’s engage our colleagues by polling them, by creating real dialogue within organizations, by building communities with colleagues, and by empowering them through trust. We believe it’s never been more important to empower colleagues to excel—to fulfill their potential and maximize their capabilities. By recognizing leadership less as a role for one person to carry out and more as a quality present in each of us, organizations can multiply their pathways to success.
  • Hybrid: As we move to the next normal, organizations will need to regularly cater to more hybrid audiences. For organizations that have done face-to-face in the past, 2020 has given us the knowledge that work can happen remotely. The next challenge is to accommodate both while making connected experiences inclusive experiences, no matter where you are as a colleague.

Trust in brands will be threatened as disinformation grows

Guy Cierzan, Managing Partner, Customer Strategy + Loyalty

The era of data and information will yet again accelerate and dramatically shift in 2021, especially with respect to how consumers receive, synthesize, and act on information received across digital and social channels. Brands will look to confront and resolve the growing conflict in the minds of consumers, created by the always-on frequency, volume of information, and extra noise due to the pervasive reach of disinformation across digital and social media channels.

The impact of disinformation in 2020 was primarily relegated to political and societal fronts—driving perceptions and beliefs on citizen and community issues like elections, masks, and vaccines. In 2021, however, the impact of disinformation will spill into—and meaningfully influence—the consumer loyalty space. Brands will be challenged by a potentially erosive effect on the all-important drivers of trust and shared values.

Loyalty strategies will require agility and adaptation to address the macro-trends of trust erosion and a more hyper-aware consumer tuned into shared values with the brands they favor. Strategic shifts in loyalty communications and a renewed embrace of referral will aim to rebuild and cultivate consumer trust in order to stem the tide and corrosive impacts of disinformation. The emotional proposition needed to further elevate and strengthen loyalty will aim to reinforce areas of shared values between customer and brand, with an eye toward building more active and sustainable participation through advocacy and brand identity.  

Accessible and inclusive website design shows a commitment to inclusion and market share

Jane Motz Hayes, Partner, Strategy + Experience Design

 Zoom. Slack. Teams. Google Meet. You name it. If there was a digital tool to help connect in 2020, we used it. Be it for work, socializing, commerce, or social services, the use of digital tools this year was—to use a word we’re a little too familiar with—unprecedented. With the influx of critical services like video conferencing for work and family connection, online banking, digital therapy, and e-learning for school children came new behaviors and tools. Adapting to these has become a necessary part of everyday life as we wait out lockdowns and the arrival of vaccines. More, adopting to a digital life during a global pandemic has been key to managing work and life. In the midst of this transition, questions persist: Who is surviving and who has been left out?

The COVID-19 impact on customer and employee experiences has shown us that usability and accessibility are key to how brands show up on the internet and that inclusivity matters. As organizations continue to move their business and employees online—and, in some cases, remote-first—in 2021 they should pay attention to how their websites are designed and developed for older adults and people with disabilities. With both of these populations growing in size and affluence, brands will seek to reach a wider, more embracive audience through inclusive design. The second update to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) is coming in the summer of 2021, with 58 success criteria for designers and developers to meet. There won’t be laws in place for incorporating these standards in 2021 but addressing the new success criteria in WCAG 2.2 will be critical. It will also serve as a great way for businesses to exhibit their commitment to accessibility and inoculate against the ADA-lawsuit trend of 2020. As society prioritizes mission-driven brand associations and environmental and social causes, a proof point will inevitably be a sure commitment to broadcasting that message in the most accessible way.

Brands will invest in experiences that cut across industries to create more purpose-driven and meaningful outcomes for their customers

Andrew Kelly, Partner, Marketing

2020 has been a blur. Every aspect of our lives upended, twisted, turned around, stalled, and spun out of control. And just as some semblance of pieces befitting of pre-pandemic normalcy had been put back together, “the way things were” fell away from us once again. Every single human being on Earth has felt firsthand the impact of COVID-19, which has manifested itself in as many myriad forms as lives affected. Yet people, businesses, commerce, markets, and the global economy persevered. That’s because, in large part, businesses adapted. And they didn’t just adapt, they met customers where they were to do more than simply conduct business.

Whether it was retailers meeting humanitarian needs or hotels providing rooms for frontline workers, brands became masters of meeting the moment and stepping up to the challenges not seen in any of our lifetimes in real-time. What emerged in 2020 was an eventual fusion of brands cutting across industries to serve customers in new and previously unimagined ways, essentially tweaking or altogether jettisoning traditional revenue streams, creating innovative cross-industry partnerships, or even changing business models. While these forfeitures or sudden shifts ran the risk of alienating pre-pandemic customers, they would potentially forge deeper ties with new ones, resulting in experiences that would transcend utility and enter sustained, continuous relationships.

2021 will see brands continue to explore the white spaces offered during these disruptive times in ways that extend traditional service offerings, meld multi-industry partnerships or products, and create substantive interactions with their customers—profit or not. As we were all suddenly working/shopping/teaching/learning/socializing—and living—from home, we adapted. So too, did businesses. Like any adaptation, it will only continue to radiate to capitalize on its environment into various specializations.

Grocery brands go big on digital, data, loyalty, and personalization

Mike Sund, Partner, Strategy; Emily McMahon, Partner

At some point in 2021, it seems that a more “normal” way of life will return as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes. As we are all painfully aware, our behaviors have been altered in every way by the pandemic and associated lockdowns and restrictions. One area in which this has been most apparent has been our choices of where and what we eat. Of course, we’re eating more at home; takeout and delivery sales are through the roof. But consumers’ grocery habits have changed, too. We’re cooking more at home, trying new things, and learning new skills. Consumers have also shown an increased interest in one-stop shopping for their groceries, leading to a resurgence for many consumer packaged goods brands. Basket sizes have also increased as consumers attempt to cut the frequency in which they visit stores.

Before the pandemic, many grocery brands were already making meaningful investments in digital transformation, delivery, contactless experiences, and customer loyalty. The brands that had already laid strong foundations reaped big benefits as consumers shifted to digital during the pandemic. Many of those that hadn’t made remarkable strides in 2020 to catch up. In 2021, as society reopens, grocery brands will be pressed to respond again to another big swing in consumer behavior as shoppers will once again be willing and able to dine out, explore specialty stores, and shop more frequently.

To maintain the relationships they have built with customers during the pandemic, grocers will need to double-down on digital, data, loyalty, and personalization. 2020 was primarily focused on enabling trial and adoption of digital experiences in grocery. In 2021, we will see these brands seek to leverage the digital tools they have built in order to maintain share and grow frequency and basket sizes. For consumers, the fierce competition will be a win. For those who remain loyal, the digital tools and personalization capabilities grocers have been building will decrease friction and vastly improve both the digital and in-store experiences. Look for this traditionally staid sector to be a bounty of innovation in 2021.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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