Updated: Jun 25, 2021
Since December, I’ve been up to my eyeballs with predictions for 2021 and trend forecasts for the next decade. I spent the first month of 2021 sorting through the forecasts and considering the long-term implications. Now I'm ready to share what I think are the top trends shaping the consumer landscape this year and in the years to come.
2020 was… a year. The world experienced the first truly global pandemic in more than a hundred years, the U.S. elected and swore in a new president, and activist causes like climate change and Black Lives Matter reached a new fever pitch.
We know exponentially more now than we did when the virus was first identified a year ago, but we are still swimming in ambiguity. Some of that uncertainty is merely a question of timing. When can we resume our pre-pandemic activities? When will it be safe to travel, to participate in large gatherings, to hug another human outside our household?
We know that the events of 2020 will have far-reaching consequences in multiple areas of our daily lives — how we socialize, how we work, how we celebrate, how we travel (or don’t), even how we make a living — but we don’t yet know which of those changes in consumer expectations, values and behaviors will become the new normal.
It’s a lot to consider on your own, so I’ve combed the trend pieces to give you my own view of the macro changes to the environment that marketers need to understand in order to effectively adapt.
These are the five trends for 2021 and beyond that I think should be top of mind for every marketer.
When I started this piece, I planned to discuss all five trends in one article, but it was … a lot. Instead I will be reviewing these trends in installments over the next five weeks.
So let’s get started with the first of five trends that should be on your radar as you plan for the future.
#1: Radical Transparency
One thing I’ve learned from teaching introductory marketing to non-majors is that for those who aren’t ‘in it,’ there is a general attitude of mistrust toward marketing. When I ask my students what they think of marketers at the beginning of the semester, many describe a villainous type, hiding behind the cloak of technology, harvesting our data and using it to manipulate our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors.
Though they understand the benefit of targeting, which means that they will see more ads on social media for products that might actually add value to their lives, they still view the back-end machinations that make this targeting possible as vaguely sinister or, at worst, predatory.
[what most of my students think marketers look like]
Because of this, I always start the class with a discussion of ethics. We talk about the responsibility marketers have toward their consumers — not just to minimize harm, but to actively do good. It may be simplistic, but I truly believe that the essential function of marketing is to find out what people want and give it to them, a maxim I’ve adopted from one of my early mentors at Diageo, who is now the head of Consumer Industries at the World Economic Forum.
Manipulative tactics destroy trust with consumers. And at a time when consumers are more emotionally vulnerable than ever, brands must actively seek to rebuild that trust by throwing wide the doors to their internal systems and committing to radical transparency about how their actions impact consumers and society as a whole.
To my skeptical students, I propose that even emotional marketing isn’t inherently manipulative if it delivers something of value to the consumer — whether that’s positive self-regard or the opportunity to participate in the social value that’s being created by the brand. Ask yourself these questions.
Is my brand giving the consumer what they want? And is this good for the consumer and society at large?
Is my message sincere? Are my brand’s actions consistent with its words?
Does the marketing address whatever cultural tension is preventing the consumer from getting what they want?
If you can’t say yes to all three, beware. Today’s savvy consumers can see right through the “woke-washing” and “green-washing” efforts of brands who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
Brands prove themselves to be trustworthy by behaving in a trustworthy way. This means an end to top-down messaging and a shift to fostering community by inviting consumers to help you shape your company’s culture.
Does this foretell the end of traditional brand advertising? Let’s look at Budweiser, which declined the opportunity to advertise in the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years and instead is investing in COVID relief efforts with a digital campaign that features healthcare and other frontline workers, a $5 million donation to the American Red Cross and the reallocation of its air time to Ad Council spots promoting the vaccine.
[this digital ad produced by Budweiser to promote COVID-19 vaccination efforts lacks prominent branding, product/message fit and recognizable celebrities — but may be the most authentic, transparent and caring way for the brand to reach its consumers right now]
This is not purely altruistic. By promoting the vaccine and funding vaccination efforts, Budweiser is investing in the possibility of bars and restaurants reopening more quickly, which is good for the brand’s sales too.
In order to effectively deliver on transparency, brands also need to ensure that their actions are consistent with the values they are voicing. Last February, Starbucks launched a new campaign inspired by social media, where transgender people shared stories of trying out their chosen names at Starbucks. The ad was touching, heartfelt and seemed to express genuine care for the company’s transgender customers. Starbucks even partnered with the non-profit Mermaids, which supports transgender youth, as a proof point of its commitment to inclusion and support.
[this Starbucks campaign featured a trans teen using his chosen name for the first time]
Sounds good, right? The campaign delivered value to society with a message of solidarity and acceptance rooted in authentic stories of actual consumer behavior — and at a time when the world greatly needed that message. Unfortunately, the social value the company hoped to create was quickly undermined as trans Starbucks employees came forward to recount the many ways in which the company had not supported their trans identities — and the many instances in which they were dead-named, misgendered or outed by the company and its managers.
I share this as a cautionary tale — and an illustration of how your internal culture is your brand.
This is not new news. Transparency has always been important, but the events of 2020 have shifted it into top priority for companies operating in an anxious world that thrives on misinformation and breeds mistrust. Consumers don’t just crave, they demand authenticity. And in a world of increasingly open platforms and nearly unlimited access to information, there is nowhere left to hide.
In the article linked above, David Mattin summarizes the imperative to companies well:
“Back when your business was a black box, the brand was whatever you painted on the outside of the box. You had control over that. People came and looked at what you’d painted, and either they liked it or they didn’t. Now, thanks to the radical transparency made possible by a connected world, your business is a glass box. People can see all the way inside. And that means that now the brand is everything they see. Every person. Every process. Every value. Everything that happens, ever.”
Does this scare you, even a little bit? Maybe it’s time to take stock of your company’s values and do a thorough audit to ensure you are actively and consistently living them.
How do you plan to step up your efforts to create Radical Transparency? Are your actions consistent with your stated values? What steps can you take today to invite consumers to join in creating your company’s culture? As always, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to start a conversation or share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below
That’s it, until next time, when we’ll look at technology-driven changes in the environment and how those changes were accelerated in 2020. (How did 2020 teach you to embrace your "metaversal" self?)
Five Trends for the 2020s, Strategy & Futures Research Unit
Forrester Predictions 2021
21 trends for 2021 | Consumer trends and business opportunities, Trendwatching
2021 Forecast: Five Forces of Disruption, Re_Set 2021 Forecast, Powered by Springwise
21 Sustainable Business Ideas for 2021, Springwise
Trends for the next normal, McKinsey & Co.
COVID-19 Trends, by Steph Smith for The Hustle
Even Amid Uncertainty, It’s Important to Outline Your Vision for the Future, B the Change
How the Lessons and Events of 2020 Can Carry Us Forward, B the Change
World Outlook for 2021, Shaping Tomorrow