With the first COVID-19 vaccines receiving emergency use approval for frontline healthcare workers and the most vulnerable, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a distant light, admittedly, but it gives us something to pin our hopes on as we look ahead to 2021.
For brand communicators, the best way forward is to use what we learned from the trials and tribulations of 2020—the pandemic, the lockdowns, the economic damage, the tumult of social justice issues, rampant climate disasters, a historically divisive election, and widespread disruption of everyday life as we know it.
All of those unsettling circumstances have amplified existing trends in digital transformation, social media engagement, and changing consumer expectations, irreversibly altering the way business is done, adding up to an accelerated risk cycle.
The reality that brands are inexorably moving toward is radically different from the world we left behind in March 2020. A return to business as usual is not just unlikely for brand communicators, it’s pretty much not going to happen. We’re past the point of no return and need to redefine both best practices and communication infrastructures.
You can expect 2021 to be about fashioning something new rather than rebuilding the old. Many of the assumptions that powered brand business models and communications strategies have been rendered irrelevant. On the other hand, the new standards have been spelled out by what has worked for businesses that have thrived and what hasn’t for those that have struggled.
For communicators, in particular, we know that effective messaging will require a new clarity, a sense of purposefulness, and a feeling of authenticity. Even in the thick of a worsening pandemic and continuing economic difficulties, savvy communications leaders need to start thinking about what new opportunities might lie ahead.
We talked to the Crisp advisory board members to get their take on predictions for brands in 2021. Here is what they had to say.
PREDICTION #1: SAFEGUARDING BRAND REPUTATION WILL BE TOP-OF-MIND
Perhaps the main lesson of 2020 for communicators was to be ready for the unpredictable and unknown. Safeguarding brand reputation is now firmly on the agenda of CCOs due to an alarming number of individuals and groups who take to social media to create reputational damage—or worse.
A lockdown surge in social media use during the pandemic has necessitated a rapid response to a steep rise in this harmful content.
“Accessible online channels—from social media platforms to user-generated forums—have given consumers the ability to easily impugn brands with negative reviews or by amplifying misinformation and unfounded rumors,” says Andrea Bonime-Blanc, JD/Ph.D., CEO and founder of GEC Risk Advisory.
Suddenly, the incidents that can damage your reputation are less predictable, faster-acting, and more volatile, making harmful online content a systemic risk to brands in 2021.
“In response, brands will learn to operate in a “post-truth” world, says Paul M. Rand, vice president of communications, University of Chicago. “This means they’ll become ever-diligent and aggressive in identifying and correcting false information wherever it emanates.”
PREDICTION #2: BRANDS WILL FIND NEW, SAFER WAYS TO CONNECT ONLINE
For many brands, their social media presence was a lifeline to consumers in the remote circumstances of 2020. But, the comfort, connection, and empowerment that consumers feel in interacting with brands also increases the risk of those same people speaking out against your brand.
Brands that have learned the importance of staying on top of negative content will be able to safely use their owned social media to focus on creating innovative content and interactive digital programs to reach audiences at their preferred point of contact to drive more sales and deliver memorable experiences.
“While this year’s disruptions turned traditional marketing strategies on their heads, they’ve allowed us to become laser-focused on what truly drives results—innovating new ways to connect brands with their audiences,” says Rand.
PREDICTION #3: AGILITY AND FLEXIBILITY WILL DETERMINE SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL
As brand communicators have proven this year, a flexible mindset and the ability to pivot quickly in response to changing circumstances can help determine success and survival.
“Businesses of all sizes have had to take a hard look at what functions are essential to their survival,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, author of Restoring the Soul of Business: Staying Human in the Age of Data. “They should select team members who can go beyond their own job description, and communications teams have stepped up and proven their value.”
In 2021 and beyond, the pressure will continue to grow for highly personalized media, greater customer engagement, timely stakeholder communications, and an ability to navigate a volatile and varied risk environment.
Brand communicators with agile capabilities and approaches will need to continue to build on their “crisis mode” capabilities to make them a sustainable and evolving part of business strategy. An agile, flexible approach to crisis management and a mindset of constant readiness will be critical elements of brand resilience in a pot-pandemic reality.
PREDICTION #4: BRANDS WILL INCREASINGLY BE FORCED TO STATE AND LIVE THEIR VALUES
The social justice issues that came to a head in 2020 have forced companies, brands, and consumers to reconsider what it means to make, sell, and buy products and services in a post-pandemic, more socially-aware world.
As consumers and the marketplace place more and more value on intangible brand attributes, such as "purpose-driven" and "authenticity," brands will need to continue to build transparency and accountability by clearly communicating values and focusing on strong community engagement.
“When friendships and families disintegrate over a break in shared norms and values, it only stands to reason that consumers will demand that the brands they buy share and live their values,” says Rand. “Messaging alone won’t cut it. Brand values will need to be vocalized and demonstrated with consistency.”
This demonstration of brand values must also extend to the actions of the organization, especially toward its employees.
Tobaccowala adds, “We are going to see the rise of a new ESG, where E stands for Employees, S stands for Society and G stands for Government. This is driven by the reality that Purpose is key to Employee motivation and retention.”
As an example of this, he cited an EY global study of nearly 500 executives, of which 89% said a strong sense of collective purpose drives employee satisfaction; 84% said it can affect an organization’s ability to transform, and 80% said it helps increase customer loyalty.
According to Gallup’s most current State of the Global Workforce report, “[Employees] are now driven more than ever by company mission and purpose, and require a workplace culture that delivers it.”
PREDICTION #5: PERSONALIZATION AND CONVERSATIONAL MARKETING WILL DRIVE BUSINESS
Forced away from human connections for months, consumers are expressing their need for a more personal connection with brands. In response, successful brands will adopt fluid content and digital interaction that strategically optimizes that takes personalization and two-way conversation to the next level.
“Expectations will move beyond targeted advertising triggered by product searches to hyper-precise, data-driven, on-demand marketing in 2021,” says Rand. “With a shift from a one-way push mode to an experience that is predictive, optimized, and personalized, customer communication will match customer personas in tone, words, and attitude.”
An always-on channel will be ready to resolve customer issues and questions. Marketing will be even more closely integrated into customer support, putting brands in a position to not just respond to customer inquiries, but to analyze responses in real-time in order to anticipate needs.
Brands that evolve their customer experience to one that is more personal and conversational will create a stronger connection with customers, enhancing loyalty, and leading to greater spending.
GET AHEAD OF WHAT’S COMING IN 2021
Dr. Bonime-Blanc has some advice. She says, “Don’t wait to implement what you have learned in 2020.”
Here’s how to get ahead of the game.
Plan multiple communications scenarios anticipating the worst. Because you’ve already seen the worst.
Hire smarter and pay more for employees who are flexible and can quickly adapt their skills.
Assess your in-house skillset and tech infrastructure, then fill the gaps quickly.
Make risk intelligence expertise a priority investment.
Define and communicate your values to everyone: consumers, suppliers, employees, and shareholders.
Do your best to ensure those values are upheld.
THE SILVER LINING AFTER A YEAR OF AN EXHAUSTING STATE OF CRISIS
It turns out that operating for nearly a year in an exhausting state of crisis has a silver lining: communications leaders know what’s been proven to protect their brands’ reputation and value in the new reality that stretches beyond the pandemic.
That reality includes trolls, harassers, activists, bots, and other sophisticated bad actors out there who will continue to pounce on whatever they see as a vulnerability. Unfortunately, the boredom brought on by working at home, shopping at home, dining at home, and generally being at home has contributed to a surge in garden-variety dissatisfaction with brands, adding to the volume of potentially harmful content.
Brand communicators facing an unprecedented volume of such content would be well-served in 2021 by an early-warning risk intelligence solution for real-time identification of reputational risks and high-priority alerts of potential issues. Working with an experienced and qualified risk management partner can help avoid the sort of escalations that could damage brand reputation, reduce revenue, or affect operations.
2020 has changed our personal and professional lives in unimaginable ways. For the near term at least, it looks like we’ll remain separated into tribes divided by culture, politics, and even the nature of objective fact. However, even with the loss of trust in many of our institutions, we can still look to brands to offer us hope of a return to some sense of normalcy in 2021.