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“Stop Being Terrified”: Marketing’s playbook for 2021

Last week our CMO, Sarah Shilling sat down with Duncan McCrae of Marketing Gazette – to talk about the challenges that marketers have faced over the past year and those they will face in the coming year. Here’s a brief summary of the key points but, if you’d like to listen in to the full and fascinating discussion, click here and subscribe to our Unthinkable Marketing podcast series.

The use of the word unprecedented rose to unprecedented levels as COVID-19 stretched consumers, governments and corporations almost to breaking point. As well as representing a global health crisis and a threat to both individual health and our collective way of life, the pandemic has been a catalyst for change. Some flourished; some floundered. Businesses with a strong digital component found themselves well placed to serve the changing needs of consumers, while the remainder struggled to pivot product offerings, digital footprints and ways of working.

 Much of what marketers learned in 2020 will still hold true in 2021 but will need to be systematised and optimised for both the continuing health challenge but (hopefully also) the fledgling recovery.  The discussion centred around three broad areas of challenge:

  • How to turn operational changes that were adopted out of necessity into long-term ongoing working practices.
  • How to communicate to consumers in a time of heightened vulnerability and increased cultural sensitivity.
  • How to keep up with consumers’ rapidly changing mood and wants.

From pivot to norm

2020 was the year of the pivot. Brands quickly shifted to online: for their sales and deliveries and for remote working. Many will have done so thinking that it was a temporary measure that was needed to ensure their survival, but the truth is somewhat different.

The pandemic forced many of us into remote working for the first time. Even now, nine months in, many of us are still just about getting by, working on the dining table, sharing dodgy bandwidth with homeschoolers or flatmates and coping with feelings of isolation. But, home working is here to stay and employers will have to ensure that long-term practices and support structures are in place to make that an ongoing part of their employment landscape. The same with online shopping. Its one thing implementing a short-term pivot but when the short-term starts to evolve into the new normal, brands may need to up their game. Our recent piece on the need to reinvent the home delivery handover moment as a key piece of brand engagement is a key example of this.

As part of this process, brands will also have to struggle with reduced marketing budgets. To succeed with smaller resources and a more challenging landscape will require real ingenuity. One example, is by focusing on getting more use out of the resources (e.g. data) that you already have; another is ensuring that all departments within your organisation are aligned around the same thinking – rather than trying to market products that people don’t want, refocus product development to create products you know they will want.

Brands with an opinion, win

Over the past year brands have been confronted with the need to make a stand. Movements like #blacklivesmatter and #stophate4profit asked brands to decide which side of history they wanted to stand on. In a climate where silence was viewed opting for the status quo, did they want to participate or not, and what were they going to say? Those wavering about jumping in were often put off by small, but vocal reactions against some of those who had already done so – accusations of tokenism and band wagon jumping were rife. Even those who were clear on wanting to participate tied themselves in knots about what to say and how to link messages in with their longer-term brand strategy and positioning.

“I remember there was a study conducted by Lloyds Banking Group in 2018 which found that between 2015 and 2018, the representation of ethnic minorities and advertising in the UK had actually doubled. But more than 30% of black and Asian people in the UK still felt they were underrepresented. So I would say don’t worry too much about tokenism worry more about making it the norm? Because for too long, they have been under-represented.”

Duncan McCrae

So, our advice, paraphrased from Trevor Robinson, CEO of agency QuietStorm is for brands to stop being terrified. It is far better to have a voice, an opinion, a point of view, then to air it in public. Yes, there will probably be some dissenting voices – that is the nature of today’s social media driven conversation –  but people perceive silence or blandness as timidity or commercial interest and there is nothing less appealing.

“I read an interview with the CEO of Ben and Jerry’s, and he said what they were doing, isn’t a marketing ploy. This is something that we care about. That is the thing: If you think it’s important to you, if you think it’s something you care about, then say something.”

Duncan McCrae

There’s no substitute for knowing your customer

“As a marketer, if you don’t first take the time to understand your customer, why did they think a certain way, then all the time, effort and money you spend trying to market something to them, is going to be very limited in its? Going forward what a lot of marketers are really going to need to focus on is great empathy.”

Duncan McCrae

Understanding the challenges faced by consumers through rich and robust consumer insight is key. Those challenges have changed at an unprecedented rate over the past year and so your insight programmes need to be both continuous and in-depth. It will be absolutely crucial to invest in the latest techniques from sentiment analysis to neuroscience, if you are not to base your product development and marketing strategies on either a partial, or outdated understanding of who your customers are and what they want.

Welcome to the future

If 2020 was the year of safety; 2021 and beyond will be more about risk. When the pandemic first hit, everyone gradually converged around the same solutions – in terms of pivoting to online and adopting very similar messaging content and tone. Now brands will have to find their own voice, rooted in empathy with their core customer base. Courage will also be needed to carefully evaluate last year’s short-term fixes, to identify the ones with long-term legs and to invest in making them permanent. The time for timidity is over: the future belongs to the brave.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at UNLIMITED.