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We’re not saying anything new when we say that 2020 was quite a year. And while it may be in the rearview window now, and the end of the pandemic is tantalizingly within reach, it’s not realistic to believe that everything will return to normal soon, or ever. Indeed, some of the big changes that the past year brought about will be here to stay, and this has implications for brands. That means that 2021 will represent a new branding landscape, one that has its own unique set of challenges — but also opportunities.
While people have been shopping online for some time now, the pandemic brought online shopping to a new level of ubiquity. With everyone locked inside for much of 2020, most of us did most of our shopping online, and 67% of marketing executives believe this shift to eCommerce will be permanent. What’s more, a huge proportion of that shopping was done through Amazon, a company known for how easy it is to use and how shockingly quickly and predictably it can deliver items to your front door. This means that people have become used to a simple, speedy, reliable online shopping experience — and free shipping. If your brand is to succeed going forward, your eCommerce experience needs to be frictionless, super fast, and erring on the side of the consumer in terms of customer service, ease of returns, and shipping cost.
As a brand, you need to both deliver your message to your audience and get that message to stick. With social media democratizing content creation and consumers interacting with countless discrete units of content every day, it’s never been more difficult to stand out online than it is in 2021. This challenge is compounded by the fact that a brand’s content is becoming more and more essential, as audiences demand creativity, authenticity, and engagement from their brands. For a brand to truly stand out and be remembered, you need to break into new creative territories, think outside the box, and generate new content virtually ceaselessly.
Earth-friendly, ethical business practices are no longer an added bonus for brands. As the damaging environmental effects of capitalist consumerism become more widely acknowledged, responsible policies and practices are a non-negotiable for many consumers deciding where to spend their money. This means that if your brand has a supply chain that involves poor working conditions or practices that damage the environment, you’ll be held responsible if that news gets out (and it usually does). Many businesses don’t have visibility into their supply chains, preferring to turn a blind eye because of the added efficiencies these questionable supply chain routes offer; but that’s not an excuse. To thrive long-term, you need to make sure your brand is truly green, and not just greenwashing.
While vaccines are rolling out and many countries and cities are lifting COVID-related restrictions, we’re still living in a world of unknowns. What will happen in countries with vaccine shortages, or where a large proportion of people refuse to get the vaccine? What if variants pop up that evade the vaccine and force another lockdown? What if schools remain closed, pulling more parents out of the workforce once again? What if, even with the virus quelled, consumers are still wary to re-emerge into the world, or if lingering effects from the recession causes people to keep their wallets closed? There are many, many questions. While companies can make their best guesses as to the answers, nothing is certain. Plus, the answers to these questions may be different from country to country or even city to city. Brands need to prepare to be agile, adapting not only to realities that defy predictions but also to unique circumstances in their different markets.
The global economic crisis brought on by the pandemic resulted in slashed branding budgets for many companies. This makes sense given the drop in revenue, but it’s actually a bad long-term approach — an investment in branding is what will set companies up to emerge from this low point. For those who can afford to put money into branding right now, this collective withdrawal from the space offers a unique opportunity. With fewer competitors in the advertising space, you can get way more return on your advertising dollars in terms of views and engagement. This means a rare chance to capture eyeballs and earn greater market share.
While the glut of content presents its own unique challenge (see above), the flip side is that there have never been more ways to create content. Social platforms like TikTok (and whatever inevitably emerges to eclipse it) allow brands to do truly inventive things, while new technologies offering innovative video and photo effects continue to expand the realm of what’s possible. Brands have never had more tools at their disposal for creating content that entertains, engages, and sticks with people. The best part? With social media, you can deliver that content directly to the people you want to reach.
People have been home all year, dying to leave their homes and do something — anything! And while many had their jobs eliminated or downsized, resulting in less disposable income, many more people were able to work from home without a reduction in pay, while at the same time saving up all the money they would have been spending if they weren’t in lockdown. Once restrictions are lifted, people are likely to make up for lost time when it comes to spending, especially on experiences.
The disruption and volatility we saw in 2020, and which is continuing into the uncertainty of 2021, has been difficult for brands to navigate. But it has also had the effect of throwing out the window anything that we’ve taken for granted, including which brands reign supreme in various markets. With the world still in flux, it’s no longer true that things are likely to stay as they are just because that’s how they’ve always been. As we reemerge into a new sort of normal, brands have the chance to step up, take the spotlight, and land on top as hierarchies reestablish themselves.
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that 2020 was pretty awful, and that the effects it had on the world at large will linger on long after the clock struck midnight this past December 31. But it’s not inevitable that these effects will be as awful as the year that brought them about. Rather, the lessons we’ve learned and the uncharted future ahead give brands the chance to build something much better in 2021.
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