2020 round-up – the year in brand marketing: empathy, activism and a global recession

As we get ready to shake the dust off 2020, The Drum is rounding up some of the key stories, interviews and work that have shaped the year. Today, trends editor Rebecca Stewart explores the seminal work and strategies produced by brands over the past 12 months — including insights from Ben & Jerry’s, WeWork and more.

2020 has been a year in which consumer behaviour has changed beyond recognition and brands have had to fine-tune their marketing strategies in order to resonate and cut through the noise.

The start of 2020 seems like a much simpler time now.

Burger King kicked off the year with a debate about a mouldy Whopper (yes, that was actually this year), Parasite deservedly picked up Best Film at the Oscars and the outgoing president of the US was impeached, then acquitted.

But you probably don’t remember that, because less than 100 days into the year society was at the mercy of one of the deadliest pandemics in human history and brands faced a massive challenge: how to communicate with customers in the midst of it all.

A sea of Covid-19 sameness

We were then faced with a sea of sameness. It felt like almost every advertiser in the world clamoured to buy TV slots to let customers know ’we’re here for you’. Uniform ads showing empty spaces set to a score of twinkling piano music filled screens across the globe.

Then the cuts to ad spend came. Big brands – hello Coca-Cola – pulled spend. Others, such as P&G and Unilever, invested more.

As the shockwaves settled we saw some outstanding strategy pivots from brands: KFC was no longer ’Finger Lickin’ Good’; Avon, Wallgreens and Beavertown Brewery pivoted to DTC. Generally, brands started to carve out a place amid the shockwaves of Covid-19.

Brands turned to APAC, which was – as ever – a few steps ahead for inspiration on how to react.

Even thetroubled WeWork found its way. And e-commerce saw a huge boom as brands such as Nike hit its online sales targets three years early as more customers turned to online shopping.

Brand purpose under a spotlight

Then came June, and with it another upheaval.

This was a month in which civil unrest spread through the US and beyond as people expressed their fury at the death of George Floyd under the knee of an on-duty policeman.

Following a long, devastating history of black Americans losing their lives in police custody, Floyd’s murder in Minnesota incited a pained response across the world about inequality and systemic racism. Black Lives Matter protests followed in swathes and black boxes infiltrated Instagram grids as people sought to show solidarity, digitally.

Advertisers including Nike and L’Oreal were among some of the corporates that took a stand on racial injusticeand police violence following on from the death of George Floyd. The latter was among those to get it right, the former wrong.

Ben & Jerry’s global head of activism spoke to The Drum at the time to discuss how the brand was making a meaningful contribution to dismantling white supremacy and why it doesn’t rely on agency partners to power its brand purpose.

Going into 2021, marketers would do well to take lessons from the ice-cream maker.

Amid all this, brands reappraised the platforms and ideologies their media dollars were funding, ultimately leading to a Facebook boycott. Spearheaded by Stop Hate for Profit, the movement was jumped on by Unilever, Starbucks, Levi’s and some 1,100 more brands.

Ultimately, it had little impact on the social media giant’s bottom line, but it certainly forced brands to have some uncomfortable conversations with their media agencies and vendors.

Looking forward to 2021

2020 has truly felt like the longest year in history. How many of us have gormlessly flicked through Netflix for what seemed like the thousandth time; dreamed up ways to avoid another Zoom quiz; or peered impatiently through the oven door to monitor our banana bread, just to fill the time? As ever, Christmas still came around in what seemed like a whirlwind.

This brought some fresh challenges for brands, including how to ensure their diversity efforts translated on-screen and whether to mention the C-word in their seasonal spots.

As brands gaze into the year ahead, the groundwork laid in 2020 should serve as a solid foundation on which to build marketing strategies that should see them through what is for certain to be another uncertain year.

For the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) president, empathy is key going into 2021. And it’s not just about tone of voice or brand purpose: marketers need to

adapt to consumers’ needs across every touchpoint, including e-commerce, pricing and media.

In the midst of a global recession(and impending Brexit) advertisers also need to build strategies that are fit for the long term and not just the interim to cut through the current homogenisation permeating the industry.

To navigate this ‘new abnormal’, businesses must face these economic headwinds straight on with an awareness that brand is ubiquitous.

History has taught us that ongoing marketing investment is one of the only ways companies can weather the economic storm ahead. But the smart brands are the ones that will also innovate their way out of the recession – doubling down on technology and talent, as well as making their budgets work harder to overcome the hurdles ahead.

It’s certainly no mean feat in the current climate, but where there are problems there are solutions.

A good place to start? Keep reading The Drum in 2021 for more insight, interviews and analysis from your marketing peers that will help you keep pace with the year ahead.

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