We started 2021 with a whisper instead of a bang. Nonetheless, despite many countries having entered into yet another lockdown, optimism is brewing. Vaccinations are being rolled out and unity is inching ahead of division with dogged and admirable – albeit still too often small portioned – insistence.
Global ad spending increased in 2020 despite the pandemic. Sure, the increase was considerably lower than expected, but the total of 2019 was still eclipsed. A large part of this was driven by digital ad spending since companies shifted focus to ecommerce and the consumer shift to digital channels (commonsensically) persisted. Research suggests that these two shifts will continue after post-COVID-19, as the pandemic accelerated an already undeniable and resolute move to an increased online (digital) world.
The pandemic has forced marketing professionals to accelerate the rethinking of consumer brand experience. Undoubtedly, ever increasing attention will be paid to creating more relevant online experiences and online consumer journeys. Marketing professionals will be increasingly occupied with evaluating digitally collected consumer analytics and trying to turn these insights into valuable digital customer interactions. The danger in this is too much dependency on highly specialized digital tools and external services along with an indolent reliance on automated digital ad formats, launches, and releases. It will be a challenge for marketing chefs to ensure that their marketing teams stay motivated and focused on creating brand communication strategies that are not all suspended in (virtual) space.
Unfortunately, 2020 and the beginning of 2021 have seen (and we continue to see) an almost complete cancellation of offline brand experiences such as promotions, road shows, and POS activations. In one of our previous articles, we have already touched on the negative consequences for brands that underestimate the massive value real-life interaction between brand world and customer has. Especially in challenging times there are unique opportunities to create a more solid and long-lasting brand relationship. However, this requires a good understanding of target consumer identities and action instead of inaction on the part of the brands.
Two identities: offline and online
The modern consumer has (at least) two separate identities: an offline and an online identity. These different identities result in different behaviors. Significant research is done to understand online and offline consumer experience, but unfortunately – and rather surprisingly – there is not much general research done on the differences in human behavior and development online versus offline. However, there is no denying that live interactions with brands are generally more successful in convincing a consumer to buy a product. It is difficult to beat actually experiencing the feel, the smell, and the taste of a product. Live interactions – such as promotions and events – are key in transferring a lasting emotional brand experience. The future successful brand communication will require an intricate interplay between digital, classical, and live interaction.
Socializing was cancelled, not replaced.
Several studies have suggested that experiential benefits have a key role in determining brand preferences among customers. In this light, it should not be forgotten that socializing was cancelled due to the pandemic, but it was not replaced. This is great news, as it means – of course – that live interaction will return. People will fill the streets and parks again, they will want to visit bars and events again, they will want live interactions again. Some brands have thriftily used the pandemic to institute major organizational and strategic changes. Smart brands have developed one-message marketing strategies that still rest on the 3 pillars of digital, classical, and live interaction – but have found new ways to continue live interactions with customers even when governmental regulations intervene. This requires forward looking brand managers and creative agencies. There is never only one set way in which goals can be reached. Live communication does not have to involve close contact with and between consumers – which of course in these times is an issue to consider. Smart connections made with digital campaigns can bring live brand experiences to the consumer in a safe and impactful way. Our advice for 2021 is to pick up live activations from the bottom where they were dropped in 2020, and put it back in the prominent marketing mix position that it deserves. The opportunity lies of course in beating the competition, where competing brands are being sluggish or restrained in re-introducing live activations and brand experience.
Written by Aisha N. van der Staal and Gregor Wepper