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Advertising Trends for 2021

We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief: 2020 is over. About the best thing that can be said for 2020 is that she found her paramour, Satan. That spot, from Match.com, resonated with people because it did seem like a nightmare year and the Dark Lord was taking selfies in front of dumpster-fires while the rest of us huddled in our apartments. The upheavals of 2020 changed digital advertising — and not just in the sense that creative agencies worldwide were all working on the same cliche-of-the-century campaign: “in these uncertain times.”

No, 2020 pushed marketers to find new audiences in virtual channels. Companies reckoned with their intensifying proximity to politics. Consumer habits lurched within an economy that kept start-stopping in response to COVID safety measures. And through the smoldering haze of Lucifer and Lady Apocalypse’s love persisted innovations in digital marketing years in the making, contributing to the forecast that Jacob Tyler is calling here and now for the trends in advertising that lie ahead in 2021.

Thinking Virtual

Advertisers find audiences in their preferred channels, and our preferred channels are now more virtual than ever, since 2020 was the year that reality became virtual reality. Consumers will continue to quarantine through 2021, so they’ll want to go to virtual trade shows and virtual annual events, join online communities and download live streaming services. Yes, we’re all pushing through Zoom fatigue and hoping unmasked human interaction resumes on the sunny side of this century. But already it seems as if the days of the webinar — where the authorities on a subject present to their viewers — are numbered

In its stead, we’ll see remote events and digital gatherings where hundreds or even thousands of people (or their beaming avatars) meet, network, and Q&A with the experts. The communications ecosystem has been reshaped, and we are interacting from around a globe that seems to have shrunk and also gotten much larger all at once.

Taking a Stand

As you may have noticed, the political climate of the US is (to put it mildly) charged. Similar dynamics are roiling other countries, as well, and since many brands are global, businesses have discovered that their response to polemics worldwide impacts their bottom line. Oatly, HSBC, L’Oreal, Soul Cycle, Jo Malone — these are all brands that, in 2020, consumers #cancelled. That doesn’t mean they’re out of business, but it does mean their business is effectively off-limits to many once-prospective clients because of a bevy of different factors. (According to one study, for instance, 29% of consumers are willing to switch brands if those brands don’t show enough diversity.)

Debate the merits of the cancel all you wish, but the underlying reasons for it trace back to issues once thought more or less outside the bailiwick of advertising: political association, accusations of racism, ties to unsavory businesses. Perhaps never before has PR been such a tightrope act, so it’s no wonder some brands are steering away from controversy altogether. Other brands, however, are embracing the polarization with their own “blanding backlash.” Staking a position amid all the lightning-rod issues, they’re paddling against what sometimes feels like a societal drift toward homogeneity and sameness.

What will prove to be the best crisis comms playbook for the near future? Only 2021 will tell.

Optimizing for People

Even before COVID, isolation was a hallmark feature of 21st century life — partly a result of the sensation a lot of us have that we’re beetling through mazes of automated inauthenticity. As a consequence, what many consumers crave when they interact with a brand is to feel like a human is somewhere on the other side of the digital marketing strategy.

Beyond just embracing the trend toward creating content that sounds relatable, brands will also seek out conversations with followers in 2021, responding to comments on their social channels and adopting a many-to-many model of communication (rather than assuming We the Business are addressing you the consumer). Remember: Isolation. People want to feel courted and listened to. And to that end, we’ll see brands infuse their content with a spirit of cultural inclusivity. The hitch? Because of how siloed consumer segments are today, brands may have to pick which culture(s) they speak to. But that’s a challenge they’ll likely learn to be even savvier about as this year unfolds.

Personalizing the Data Economy

With all that said about people just being people, today’s iteration of the Bernbach-Ogilvy schism in advertising has become a battle waged between those who think you should talk to your audience like humans, and those who think you should talk to your audience like humans … through data insights and algorithm-based feeds. 

Here’s the case for the machine learning camp: Sure, personalized content is neighborly and all, but responding to every single comment on a brand’s social media is exhausting, and well nigh impossible. Isn’t it better to at least reach people with email campaigns rather than (metaphorical) notes handwritten on stationery? 

Think of an ad for a grill served to your phone right after you’ve texted your partner, “Let’s get a grill this summer.” That may feel invasive to some, but it’ll come across as time-saving to others. And the smarter the AI, the more interactive the content, engaging customers with polls and contests and giveaways. Don’t think of data marketing as a self-checkout kiosk — rather, it’s a series of tools that tailor campaigns to customers based on their preferences. 

Or so the argument goes.

Going Green

“Sustainability” transcends simple trendiness because its entire premise is future-oriented, and we’re living through the effects of climate change every day. We did mention firebrand issues, didn’t we? Well, environmentalism is one of the fieriest, with swaths of California and Australia erupting into flames, back-to-back US administrations hopping in and out of the Paris Agreement, and businesses shifting their operations and messaging to address the threats of global warming. With studies showing that 81% of consumers believe companies should do their part in helping the environment, eco-friendly brands will seem even friendlier this year, especially as we navigate the perils of a world where we’ve all but trapped ourselves inside our own carbon emissions.

Forecasting trends in digital advertising is an uncertain science, at best, but it’s also not the same as placing bets or guessing at predictions. Rather, it’s an effort to analyze markets, listen to what customers are saying, and shape tools for businesses that need to anticipate how consumer behavior will pattern itself in coming years. No one can peer into the future — much less know when Satan will find his soulmate — but with some attention to the forces reinventing our culture, you can act on (rather than react to) the changes within your industry.

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