2021 Marketing Outlook: two possible scenarios for advertising’s near future

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As we’ve turned the calendar to a new year, and the leadership of the country has turned over to a new administration, we have to consider if there might be a new kind of marketing landscape to be formed in a (hopefully) post-COVID world.

There are two distinct possibilities that could feasibly materialize. One, that we are in for a boom time in advertising as the population wakes from its imposed hibernation. And the other, far more daunting, possibility is that advertising may be met with increased skepticism, or worse, not welcomed in the national commercial dialogue.

Possibility 1 – it could be the best of times. As more and more Americans receive a vaccine, it’s conceivable that life could return to what we would consider “normal,” perhaps even as early as the summer months. It could mean being allowed to gather again with friends, to travel again at will, to eat indoors at restaurants, and (oh please, dear sweet baby Jesus) to sit with 70,000 close friends at the home opener for your favorite football team.

With that, consumerism will likely not just be on the rise, but there’s very good reason to believe that we’ll see an elongated surge in consumer spending across numerous categories, built largely on pent up demand, and the sheer joy of having the “privilege” to once again participate in the analog retail experience.

And once those floodgates open, or it’s even hinted that they might, I would argue that we are likely going to see an equally giddy advertising crop burst out of every conceivable corner and category. Brands will trip all over each other for a share of the voracious consumer appetite, and media companies will feast at the table of “flexible” rates while the demand stays unusually high, and the competition is unusually fierce.

And the best part of this rosy prediction is that the tenor of the advertising itself is likely to be more positive, less serious, and almost joyous in nature. Simple messages like “we’re back!” or “we’re open” will lie at the core of most claims, and brands will be paying big money just to have the “privilege” to beg consumers to come back now that the pandemic has loosed its grip on the nation.

That’s a rosy outlook.

Possibility 2 – (okay, let’s go with the Tale of Two Cities theme,) it’s plausible that it could also be the worst of times.

It’s possible that consumer perceptions have changed significantly over the past 10 months, (and perhaps continue to do so for the next five or six months,) and that large demographic segments may be more guarded against brand messaging delivered across the typical media. This, as a result of first the shock therapy of nightly news with a drone of grim reports, and subsequently the drawn out solitary confinement of houses and apartments, living both professional and private lives in the same spaces.

Consumers may be in a kind of post-pandemic stress disorder, and it might last well beyond the days when it’s deemed safe to come back in the water. This bodes ominous for those sectors hardest hit: restaurants and hospitality, travel and tourism, the arts and entertainment, even healthcare.

And more importantly – and the reason this subject is being taken up on this blog – is that the normal receptivity to advertising messages may be affected in ways that has brands and their agencies re-thinking their strategies, and re-tooling their plans.

It wasn’t long ago (seriously, it was August 2019,) that we all reveled in the great Chicken Sandwich War between Popeye’s and Chik-Fil-A. Or watched like rabid MMA fans as Wendy’s and Burger King dealt death blows to each other via Twitter. It was fun. It was entertaining. And it was good for all the brands involved.

Mostly it was frivolous, and that’s what made it so much fun. Nobody got hurt, and we were just dishing abstract concepts and opinions that no one took THAT seriously. But here we are, perhaps about to come out of the year-plus-long fog that seems to have changed everything. Will American consumers have the patience for frivolous feuds? Will we tolerate the background noise of cola wars? Is it too soon?

Remember that brands (at least the ones with discretionary budgets,) scrambled to change the tonality of their advertising in the first few weeks and months after the pandemic took hold. Starting as early as St. Patrick’s Day 2020, we saw national brands releasing more heartfelt messages, saying things like “we’ll be here when this is over,” and heralding frontline workers. Somber. Serious. Considerate.

A few of the standouts: GUINNESS

UBER

DOVE

While those ads were all very good, (and I say this politely,) it was also almost too easy. When you do ads like that, you know you have about a 97 and a half% success rate, and you’d have to do something egregiously wrong to not curry favor with your target. The real challenge that faces brands and their agencies now is in striking the most appropriate first chord as the stage lights come on and everyone starts watching again.

It’s about to be morning in America once again. (Hat tip to Hal Riney.) And I’m just over here wondering if there will be Twitter feuds this afternoon.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts. Please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

[Important note – We cannot overlook the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder, including those struggling with the fallout of the pandemic. It’s real, and the people who face it are struggling in untold numbers and in myriad ways. For more information and resources on PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov]

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