- In 2021, brands will move marketing efforts away from modern digital channels and revitalize old-school methods of engaging with their customers; including in-person experiences, meaningful connection, and time spent outside.
- 2020 magnified the importance of brand – not product – in consumers’ lives.
- IRL experiences, brand activism, and out-of-home ads will unlock new marketing possibilities in 2021
Good marketing meets the customer where they are – and for most of 2020, we customers have been in our homes and (more precisely) in front of our devices. As we shut ourselves inside for the past 10 months, brands amped up their digital spend to capture our attention and dollars.
These digital channels – already fraught with controversy – became more and more saturated during the age of COVID. Now, as we look forward from 2020, smart marketers are looking to the past for inspiration.
With the vaccine rollout underway and a mass emergence from isolation on the horizon, many brands are looking to bring back old-school marketing tactics as part of their 2021 strategies. Driven by industry-specific factors and unprecedented macro trends, the resurgence of time-tested marketing ideas will inform the 2021 approach of emerging, scaling, and established brands.
Why look backward to move forward? It’s not just nostalgia. It’s a natural response to the confluence of four significant elements of today’s digital marketing landscape:
1) Digital marketing channels have become oversaturated
With virtually no barriers to entry, the major digital acquisition channels have made it easy for even novice marketers to quickly and easily spin up and push out ads. As brands saw success on these channels (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), more brands rushed in.
As we entered 2020, paid digital was already a cornerstone (and primary growth engine) for most brands. As customers bunkered down during the pandemic, these same brands streamlined their marketing mix to meet customers in front of their devices.
While many brands decreased their overall marketing spend during 2020, the year marked a clear shift in prioritization: the money that was spent this year was spent on digital advertising.
The consequence? Consumers are bombarded with more and more ads in their feeds. This inundation will ultimately desensitize users – driving click-through rates down and cost-per-acquisition numbers up.
More brands are realizing that doing what every other brand is doing (in the same places every other brand is doing it) isn’t necessarily a winning strategy.
2) Over-optimization has alienated consumers
While over-saturation is one major factor in making these once super-hot digital channels less and less effective, there is another, less talked about truth. As brands focus on optimizing paid digital ads ad nauseam, many have lost the art of marketing and their connection with customers – who they are, what they want, and how to engage with them.
Brand statements on digital channels have shifted away from carefully crafted messaging and instead focus primarily on product attributes – phrases like “1G storage” and “jet black finish” that perform well in testing.
More and more ads are pushed into an abyss of indifference, almost shouting at consumers as they scroll through their feeds. Consumers are flooded with these ads, but fewer and fewer of them are memorable enough to drive true brand affinity.
2020 has only magnified the importance of brand – not product – in consumers’ lives. In a year in which a terrifying pandemic AND racial injustice dominated headlines and people’s thoughts, brand marketing has become more and more about driving connection versus product attributes.
All consumers – the younger ones in particular – want to know that the brands they patronize stand for something.
3) Consumers’ perception of the channels themselves has shifted
Among the many headlines in 2020 was a boycott of Facebook by more than 1,000 advertisers. The boycott, called #StopHateForProfit by the civil rights groups that organized it, urged companies to stop paying for ads on Facebook in July to protest the platform’s handling of hate speech and misinformation.
With increased use of these channels, came increased scrutiny (rightfully so). The distrust, angst, and distaste that many consumers and brands have for these platforms and their policies around consumer data and privacy is a real factor moving forward.
4) A sea change in how online marketing works is coming
Reasons #1, #2 and #3 were then. But what is coming up in the next couple of years will likely have a massive impact on how brands utilize digital platforms. The most-used browser in the world, Chrome, will stop supporting third-party cookies by early 2022, significantly altering how digital ads are targeted and tracked.
Yet, even among savvy digital marketers, there’s considerable confusion about how campaigns will be affected. In 2021, marketers will be preparing for the impact of the cookie-less future. This uncertainty likely means diversification away from digital channels as they become more difficult to track and measure.
Taken together, these four factors conspire to move more brands away from digital channels and searching for new terrain. This search has many marketers returning to their roots and revitalizing old-school methods of engaging with their customers.
These methods enable brands to offer consumers the things they lacked in 2020: in-person experiences, meaningful connection, and time spent outside.
One of the most interesting trends prior to COVID disrupting the (marketing) world as we know it was the shift from “URL” to “IRL,” moving from online user engagement to activations in the real world. This includes pop-up stores, stunts, and more.
Prior to COVID, brands created their own experiential campaigns that revolutionized the events game.
Tracksmith, a running apparel brand, was executing on some really innovative things in this space. They launched their retail location in Boston in 2017 called the “Trackhouse,” where they run programming everyday – events like a 4-mile run followed by beers or a physical therapist in the store.
As a result, the store has become a hub for the Boston running community. In 2018, The North Face launched their Pinnacle’s Project – a truly innovative pop-up experience at the top of a mountain.
We will see a resurgence of these IRL experiences in 2021 as more and more people get vaccinated and return to “normal’ life.
Experiential activations have been and will continue to be a great way to manifest a brand’s value very tangibly and therefore connect with customers in interesting and novel ways. It’s an awesome way to introduce new customers to your brand and actively engage and nurture relationships with current customers.
This year, the mindshare marketers crave was swallowed up by two enormous and rapidly growing forces – a raging pandemic and a national social justice movement.
Not only did these events present a unique opportunity for brands to engage and connect more meaningfully with their customers – they pushed activism into the ad campaigns and social media feeds of even the most neutral and established brands.
One of the many lessons of 2020 was that brand activism can be fraught with risk. The stakes are high; In fact, in a recent HBR survey, a majority of Americans — 60% of the U.S. population — say that how a brand responds to racial justice protests will influence whether they buy or boycott the brand in the future.
Brands will become increasingly comfortable navigating brand activism, more authentically standing for issues they believe in.
Despite the dangers, some brands excelled in their activism this year. Netflix’s curation of BLM content is a great example of how a brand can support a social mission strongly and authentically. Netflix advocated for an issue they believed in even though it did not drive incremental revenue for the company.
One of our portfolio companies, Convoy, the leading digital freight network, stepped up to support millions of Americans who were struggling with food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
Convoy paid 100% of trucking costs for truckloads of donations to food banks, in partnership with companies like Land O’ Lakes. Again, this activism demonstrates authenticity for the brand with no direct impact on the company’s revenue.
The great outdoors
Out-of-home ads – a category that includes billboards, bus shelters, subways, and really any ad that a customer sees outside of the TV or computer screen – have understandably taken a beating in 2020.
Brands were especially wary of buying ad space in shopping centers and along travel routes that fewer people were around to see. One of the largest suppliers of OOH advertising, Outfront Media, saw a 50% decline in a three-month period during pandemic-related lockdowns across the United States versus the year prior.
As people leave their homes and venture back into the world, the out-of-home category will make a notable comeback.
The benefit of OOH ads is that there is often significant “dwell time” to engage riders, particularly with subway ads. This format offers a great opportunity to get playful with your creative. It’s also a channel that targets multiple demographics simultaneously.
2020 has pushed us all outside our comfort zones. Marketers are no exception. For those of us concerned with brand building, this year has challenged us to revisit our roots and explore time-tested marketing tactics as we prepare to emerge into a post-pandemic reality.
I’m excited to see how the strategies we used to consider “old-school” energize brands – and unlock new marketing possibilities in 2021.
Chris Howard is the founder and partner of Fuel Capital, a venture firm that invests primarily in early stage companies in consumer and marketplace space.
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