Hitting the reset button, the Need for Plan B for 2021 – By Carey Finn
In the eyes of leading strategy directors from the advertising and marketing industry, the world will never be the same again — and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Hopes might be pinned on the successful approval and distribution of a vaccine for recovery next year but many of the changes that have taken place in the way we work — and live — are here to stay so the need for the reset button
“The pandemic has ushered in a new era, marked by greater uncertainty and the upheaval of social norms,” says Laurent Marty, Joe Public United group chief strategic officer. “2020 will be perceived as the true beginning of the 21st century, in the same way WW1 — another event of global scale — is now seen as the real transition, the reset button, between the pre-industrial and the modern era.” Marketing, says Marty, is taking stock of this liminal space, with limited insight into what will last and what will turn out to be a short-lived trend, but there’s also a deep understanding that adaptability as a reset button will be key to survival.
In this context, brands need to have a firm view of whether the changes are simply survival techniques or here to stay, adds Ivan Moroke, Kantar Insights Division South Africa CEO. “Our covid-19 barometer study evaluating consumer perceptions and behaviour change revealed that only 36% of South Africans [was] working as normal during the hard lockdown, with many facing tighter wallets as a result of either becoming unemployed or facing reduced hours and salary,” he says. “As a result, we saw new value-conscious consumers largely living online. This digital adoption has a fundamental impact on consumers beyond just another convenient channel to purchase. It impacts customer experience, customer analytics, the value equation, innovation and brand purpose — basically the entire marketing value chain.”
To Rita Doherty, Nahana Communications group chief strategy officer, covid-19 has created the impetus for “a big reset” in society. “While we yearn for ‘normality’, we don’t want to go back to the old normal,” she says. “We have seen that change doesn’t have to be painfully incremental, because we have all experienced major, rapid change. We can expect people to be more impatient for positive change — and companies need to respond decisively.”
Digital transformation has undoubtedly accelerated in 2020, making online engagement an even more important piece of the business puzzle going into the new year hence a reset button. Stuart Sims, Superunion Africa strategy director, notes how customers across the age range are embracing digital lives. “Before covid-19, older generations were reluctant to engage with digital brand offerings,” he says. “People who’d never shopped online have now done so. Grandparents have got to grips with video-calling. And, in probably one of the most obscure but telling examples, entire bridge card clubs (comprising 100% retirees) have moved their cardplaying online.”
Craig Hannabus, Rogerwilco strategy director, echoes Sims, remarking on the increased diversification as areset button that has been seen in online activity. “For many, this was new behaviour, but it’s now entrenched,” he says. “Consequently, digitally centric brands experienced exponential growth, which hasn’t slowed post‑lockdown.”
Increased digital uptake doesn’t mean that brands should simply boost their banner-ad spend, however, Sims cautions. “As people are more comfortable entering personal details online, brands must think beyond advertising,” he says. “The goal is to balance short-term sales activation with long-term brand building — and, digitally, this means investing in user experience. Setting brands apart is finding moments within the user experience to express a brand’s personality.”
Moroke suggests brands offer price promotions, bundling and loyalty programmes in response to the increased price sensitivity being seen among customers as part of the reset button. “Your brand needs to be top of mind before the shopper even enters the store,” he says. “Remember that it’s not just about the lowest price, though, because even in a recession, consumers are willing to pay a little more for brands that they believe are meaningfully different.”
When planning for 2021, it’s the advice of Stuart Walsh, chief strategist at Grey South Africa (which is merging with AKQA to form the AKQA Group), that although there are many new considerations, it’s critical to stick to the core principles of marketing. “No matter how the context changes, these never change: identify your market; discover what they want; find a way of giving it to them,” he says. “Marketers are too keen to throw out the baby and the bathwater, and get the entire bathroom remodelled, as soon as there’s a situation that’s new to them. Stick to the fundamentals and you will never fail.”
Part of this means maintaining momentum; Hannabus suggests brands that paused campaigns and budgets in 2020 did so to their detriment. “While it’s wise to be cautious during crises, a complete stop is not a good idea,” he says. “More agile brands benefitted from continued awareness drives. Therein lies the lesson. Looking to 2021, take into account the unknown, have a plan B, but don’t halt momentum.”
Marty’s recommendations for the new year are three-fold: have a finger on the pulse to understand real-time behavioural and societal shifts, and be able to navigate them; innovate as a matter of necessity, and at speed; and be flexible. “As the pandemic moves into unchartered waters, businesses may need to drop three-year views in favour of three-month plans,” he says.
Over and above this, he expects sustainability to emerge as the theme, not only of 2021 but the century. “The silver lining of this crisis is that it will hopefully strike the conscience of our societies and trigger an acceleration of sustainable trends in all areas of society beyond just the environmental sphere,” he says. “It is high time our societies redefined our priorities. I will be looking forward to seeing which companies can turn this into a source of competitive advantage, and manage to secure their share of the future.”
For Clayton McCoy, The Idea Foundry strategy director, the ability to deliver societal value will be crucial for brands in the coming months. “Consumers look to brands to play a role in supporting them through difficult times,” he says. “Adding value to peoples’ lives and contributing to societal challenges beyond fleeting instant gratification is likely to build long-term connection while also leveraging short-term sentiment and opportunity. If we were in an age of purpose-led branding, we’re fast-approaching an era of ‘walk the talk now, please’.”
On that note, the new year marks a time for brands to shift into a more optimistic gear, adds Doherty. “We’re all covid-fatigued, and we’re looking for positive change in 2021,” she says. “In 2020, brands needed to be empathetic and comforting but, now, they need to be fighting for positive change and bringing joy back into our lives. Traditionally, brands have been quite conservative — not wanting to get involved in social issues which might be divisive — but sitting on the fence is no longer an option. Embrace positive change, or risk becoming irrelevant.”
In 2021, she expects major investment shifts to digital channels, and brands “responding with new creativity across the rich array of platforms”.
McCoy adds that, as the home will likely remain a comfort zone amid ongoing coronavirus concerns, brands will need to be able to deliver their experiences or products into this space — by fibre, delivery bike, or even pigeon if they have to, he quips. He also expects a resurgence in social selling in SA, in line with trends coming out of Asia, to be facilitated by tie-ups like the one recently announced by Shopify and TikTok.
Moroke sees an emphasis on local supply in the new year as a would be reset button . “Twenty-one percent of South Africans [says] brands should bring their production and factories to SA, 48% [is] paying more attention to the origin of products, and 78% [i]s saying shopping at local stores is important to boost the community and economy,” he explains. “Local trusted brands need to guide the change, as those providing physical signals of safety best meet these new needs for comfort and security. This is set to continue well into the future, as well as the new digital dimension, so prepare for a wave of ecommerce and ensure your omnichannel strategy covers the full customer journey.”
Carey Finn is a contributing writer to MarkLives