As tired as we all may be of hearing the phrase “in these uncertain times,” messages of solidarity reigned supreme in ad campaigns this year. Brands stretched to find ways to connect with their customers, with in-person experiences ruled out as a result of the pandemic, while businesses faced novel challenges, fighting for the attention of their audiences while enduring economic uncertainty. The result across the advertising landscape has been an increase in efforts to personalize, as well as an accelerated push to digitize and innovate wherever possible.
This was also the year of speaking up for social change, with the fight for racial justice more top of mind than ever before. “This was the year of the ‘I Stand With You’ statement,” says Geoff McHenry, strategy director at Wieden+Kennedy New York. “Audiences are demanding action and accountability. Brands can’t dip their toes in on topics that matter to our audience—they have to prove their commitment by lacing their boots up for the long haul.”
Before we say goodbye to 2020 forever—and we are counting down the days—let’s take a final look back at the ad trends that defined the year, with a view toward what lies ahead in 2021.
The human connection
“We hear you. We see you. We’re here for you. We want to help you,” says RPA Chief Creative Officer Joe Baratelli, echoing the most widely heard messaging of the year. With lockdowns in place, people have been starved for a sense of connectedness, and brands swooped in to deliver. “All this has led to more compassionate, heartwarming, inclusive messaging,” says Baratelli.
Brands have had to work harder to communicate in a way that feels authentic, with the status quo no longer cutting it. “Personalization will be more important than ever,” says Scott Cullather, president and CEO at [INVNT GROUP]. “We’ll see brands leaning on tech like artificial intelligence in predictive analytics to double down on their audiences, unearth information and shape experiences around it.”
“Before, our industry was all about what to say, then how to say it, but in 2020 it seems to have shifted to who says it. No more dissociation. Endorse and incarnate your words. You and your words are now one. And behind this expectation, you can feel a sense of urgency to act.” —Frédéric Raillard and Farid Mokart, founders and chief creative officers, FRED & FARID
That need for a sense of connection created an opportunity for brands able to tap into their humanness and relate to their audiences. “2020 was all about providing a reassuring message: Although we’re caught in a very unusual situation, we’re in this together, and we as the brand are still here to provide a comforting reflection of the old normal,” says Diederik Veelo, head of innovation at Ambassadors and Founder of Cube. “Creative automation played a big part in the production process of those ads, and we saw a big adoption in the second half of 2020, allowing brands to efficiently scale up their production and increase personalization.” Veelo points out that consumers are 91% more likely to put their dollars behind brands that offer personalization, and the push to personalize has caused an uptick in data-driven experiences from brands.
“Consumers have come to expect a deeper connection with the brands they interact with,” says Katie Re, brand strategist at ArtVersion. “When you consider the recommendation algorithms found on many sites and platforms, it makes sense why consumers only want to be offered products and services that fit into their lifestyle and preferences—they’ve been trained to expect that type of experience, and they are not going to let go of that anytime soon.”
Digital readiness and innovation
Personalization and the ability to connect with consumers in 2020 couldn’t exist without the push to digitize, which was also accompanied by a need for speed and agility. Brands who were already on a path toward cloud-based communications and omnichannel presence ramped up those plans this year, taking several steps forward. “Our industry went through a shock to the system and quickly realized the importance of omnichannel readiness,” explains Richard Yao, manager of strategy and content at IPG Media Lab (the innovation arm of UM agency).
“As consumers embraced digital channels at an unprecedented scale and expected consistent brand messaging across the board, the ability to reach audiences across traditional and digital channels effectively became paramount to every ad agency”. Not only have those communications had to be 100% online, but they also had to be better and more innovative than ever. “The pandemic has expedited the 'do or die' need to create a compelling digital experience,” says Anthony Lavall, Croud's VP of strategic partnerships.
“The disruption caused by the pandemic jammed about three years’ worth of change into about nine months. Speed kills, as the saying goes, and in 2020 we all got a lot faster.” —Mike Barrett, president, Deloitte Digital’s Heat
“Whether it was dating, family trivia, Black Friday shopping or a TV watch party, these activities could no longer happen in person, so platforms were forced to develop new technology and products that enabled customers to connect,” adds Jessica Neville, strategy director at Dagger. “With this, we saw new functionalities like Instagram Live Donations, Facebook’s Paid Online Events, and advances in social e-commerce that give brands more avenues to drive business goals in a digital world.”
Some brands pushed virtual boundaries by exploring extended reality (XR), offering the next best thing to in-the-flesh interaction. “XR is predicted to be a $160 billion global industry by 2023, as brands explore fresh ways to engage their audiences virtually,” notes [INVNT GROUP]’s Cullather. “Once it’s safe to come together in-person again, hybrid will become the norm, as brands that transitioned their experiences online have seen their audience numbers increase exponentially.”
Committing to social change
“As much as 2020 was a year of digital transformation, it was an even bigger year for humanity,” says Just Global CEO Brandon Friesen. “The last year should humble us to rally around the people behind the technology and ensuring the two are working together to benefit everyday lives.”
While audiences have become more demanding in their expectations for fully personalized, engaging online experiences, so have they—rightly—in demanding a commitment to social justice. “No statement was a statement,” says Christy Hiler, president of Cornett. “Brands took a hard look at what they are contributing to the world beyond commerce and were forced to have a POV.”
“Black Lives Matter made many people take a stand that would not have typically done so in the past. Many brands that do not address social causes stood up to demand social justice for people of color.”—Gina Michnowicz, CEO and executive creative director, The Craftsman
2020 saw an intensified demand for accountability and transparency on the part of brands. “Before, brands may have gotten away with being silent, but consumers now expect brands to use their reach and influence to create change and take a vocal stance,” says Dagger’s Neville.
Statements alone weren’t enough, though. People challenged the brands they support to step up to the challenge of anti-racism and show their audiences real action. “Beyond the statement, what is a brand actually doing to back up their words? What are their commitments long term to combat societal issues? Who are the key decision makers at these companies, and what do they look like?” asks Wieden+Kennedy's McHenry. “These are the questions audiences are demanding answers to. The BS meter has been rising on advertising for years, but now it’s reached a boiling point.”
The brands that best connected with their customers this year were those that showed what they stand for. “Brands are more determined in finding their purpose and boldly putting it out there, and that’s great for everyone,” says Gian Lanfranco, CCO/Co-Founder at L&C NYC. “A brand with no real purpose in 2020 loses a lot of value and will probably become irrelevant by the end of next year.”
Looking forward to a brighter 2021
With the year we’ve had, optimism is the dominating feature of the forecast for the coming year. “I am bullish for a strong 2021,” says The Craftsman Agency's Michnowicz, who is banking on an even greater push for creativity and innovation from brands, as well as a hybridization when we finally see the end of lockdowns and the return to some semblance of normalcy.
“The potential is limitless to usher in a new normal, even as we partner to end the excuses of the past and make our industry, agencies and teams truly representative and inclusive,” says Jason Musante, chief creative officer at Huge. “For the first time in a long time, hope is trending. Possibility is trending. Equality is trending. Creativity is trending.”
The coming year will also likely see a furthering of the efforts towards greater digitization and personalisation set in rapid motion in 2020. “Not only will human connection become increasingly digital, but so will shopping behaviors and the ability for people to really research and compare products online before making even small or impulsive purchases. The individual in our society will likely grow more conscious and independent, continuing to be more critical of the choices they make and the brands they support,” says Ambassadors’ Veelo. “The personalization trend will have to align across the entire array of customer touchpoints, from the first awareness add to the final customer support phase, to pack the most impact.”
That impact will depend as much on who brands choose to align themselves with, as it will on what they’re putting forward. “2021 will be a time of resetting, reimagining and rethinking the types of partners they need to help drive growth and transformation,” says FCB North America CEO Tyler Turnbull. “2021 will be defined by a large shift in partnerships across our industry—and brands will continue to yearn for creative solutions that can be unleashed across their customer experiences to drive growth.”
“We’re preparing for a shift from survival mode marketing strategies to a concern for organic and internal growth. In an environment defined by indecision and fear-based advertising, it looks to us like leadership will come from providing real help to their customers trying to recover from 2020.” —Christof Meyer, chief strategy officer, Human Design
Kasha Cacy, global CEO of ENGINE, echoes the same sentiment: “Business pressures are always a catalyst for marketers to look at the partners they are working with, but the changes in consumer behavior have been dramatic this year and likely long lasting. Marketers will need to evolve their strategies and approaches, and many may find that the partners they have now aren’t necessarily the partners that will be most equipped to take them into the future.”
Creativity will be as much of a commodity as it ever has been, with heightened pressure experienced across the ad industry to dazzle audiences. “I think earned media ideas will become the most relevant creative asset,” says L&C NYC’s Lanfranco. “In a market where brands need to be part of the conversation and budgets are reduced, earned ideas guarantee impact and relevance.”
Some are also predicting a continued focus on the home base. “A big trend we’ll see in 2021 is rapid expansion of in-home services. The re-socialization of communities around the world is a sloooooooooow process,” says Craig Millon, chief client officer at Jack Morton. “While consumers are excited to get out, the truth is, they are more likely to welcome people in.”
Others are setting sights on the opposite: the comeback of the travel industry. “There will be a huge overcorrection in travel,” says Carlie Schlittenhart, senior strategist at Bakery. “Even consumers that didn’t plan trips in 2019 will be hurrying to experience somewhere different as soon as possible.”
Still, the takeaways—social, economic and psychological—of 2020 will no doubt extend into the next year and beyond, with a newly heightened awareness of the true fragility of our world. “If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that nothing is guaranteed, so marketers will be much more keen to find ways to pivot quickly and move at the speed of culture,” says Wieden+Kennedy’s McHenry.
“With heightened digital connectivity due to COVID, cultural elements can shift in an instant,” says Leah Staenberg, senior social strategist at Dagger. “Brands will be required to keep up and speak to consumers through a societal lens, or they will fall into the background.”