12 for 21: The trends that will shape the year
A look at the key themes and forces we think will impact the industry this year.
The global pandemic and move into a recession continues to impact the world of business. The severity of the recession is still to be determined, and while some sectors will be more greatly affected than others, we can certainly expect continued upheaval and change over the coming 12 months. Within that context, however, we are already beginning to understand some of the driving forces that are shaping industry and society - these are some of the major trends we feel will be crucial in 2021.
Unprecedented may have been the most overused word of 2020, but it was certainly accurate, with the pandemic turning business conventions on their head and forcing companies to adapt wholesale at record pace. Many of those that thrived were the agile ones, able to pivot and refocus business efforts quickly and with comparatively minimal fuss, while (where possible) redeploying workforces to operate virtually from the homes.
Developments such as flexible and blended working have been accelerated and will change the way companies operate even after a return to some form of normality, while this year will undoubtedly throw us more curveballs. It is the agile and reflective who will benefit and prosper most.
We expect to see a growing trend towards interdependence and cooperation in business like never before. We have already seen a huge amount of unity in the past year, where whole industries, clients and agencies, even competitors, have put their own interests at least partly to one side in order to combine for greater impact or take collective stances.
Given the low trust and belief in our politicians, businesses and individuals are taking on priorities that have previously been left to the government, or setting ambitious targets.
Sustainability is not a new trend, but remains absolutely a focus area for business. From efforts to tackle litter and waste, microplastics, moving to more renewable resources, or the public becoming increasingly conscientious shoppers, sustainability is clearly no flash in the pan. Boosted by a more vocal investment community prepared to factor sustainability into their decisions, we are now seeing more and more companies recognising the relevance of sustainability to long-term success, integrating sustainability issues into their corporate strategy, embedding it within existing operations, and looking at the material issues where they can have the greatest impact. Post-pandemic, there is real appetite to #buildbackbetter.
Linked to sustainability, will 2021 be the year where carbon-neutrality takes centre stage? More companies are starting to set out pathways to achieve net zero carbon targets, as the reality of the climate crisis and just how little time remains to take meaningful actions becomes clear. With COP 26 (the United Nations Climate Change Conference) on the horizon, we expect a lot of action in this area over the coming months.
5. Diversity and inclusion
Diversity has been on the business agenda for many years, but that focus coalesced in 2020 thanks to the efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement. Public support for action to improve equality has never been higher and many businesses are recognising pretty but empty words must be a thing of the past, replaced with genuine action to support and encourage talent from different backgrounds, and work to break down the systemic barriers preventing progress. There are expectations that companies will have to comprehensively report on diversity initiatives, beyond gender, in the near future.
6. Multi-channel communications
When it comes to corporate communications, companies are beginning to take a more joined-up approach and think about conveying a consistent message across multiple channels. In the world of reporting, for example, that means digital, responsive content in addition to the printed report, or in some cases as the primary channel, while social media continues to be a critical avenue to engage with a large percentage of stakeholders. Siloed messaging must become a thing of the past as companies come to grips with telling a cohesive story.
7. Nationalism vs globalism
With the rise in populism in the past decade, we have already seen a growth in nationalist rhetoric and how that plays out, as borders are closed against the pandemic, states vying for access to a COVID-19 vaccine, and politicians using the power of the ‘other’ to shore up support, needs paying close attention. Will President-elect Biden rebuild the diplomatic ties that former President Trump severed? Will Brexit enable better collaboration with Europe or drive further separation in the UK? Or indeed will we see greater devolution of governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with potential further pushes for independence?
Authenticity is a powerful force - whatever his faults, no one can deny that former President Trump was not authentic in his beliefs and interactions, to obvious effect. However, the value of authenticity remains, and certainly businesses have drawn from this during the recent months to improve engagement with their stakeholders and wider public. Whether through direct communication from the CEO, utilising real stories from employees and or honest design aesthetics, built on raw and unforgiving style with direct, powerful messaging and personality, people are responding to ‘real’.
The next stage of this, however, is ensuring that authentic action backs up authentic words. Despite the best intentions, social action has always been guilty of at times being superficial or co-opted for marketing purposes - for example, greenwashing or purpose-washing. With so much attention on how companies treat their employees in the past year, businesses need to be wary of ‘people-washing’ and ensure they walk the talk.
9. Fighting disinformation
Fake news! The all-too-familiar refrain of the outgoing US president, but unfortunately also the reality we live in today as disinformation, ‘alternative facts’, conspiracy theories and hoaxes spread with worrying speed. Fueled by social networks, the result is more polarisation rather than greater connection as people create personal echo chambers.
With Twitter's (and others') decision to take a hard(er)-line approach and revoke Trump's access, we will see a shift in the responsibility being taken by companies for what information is projected on their platforms. We are also seeing an erosion of some of the naivety around information on the internet, and a migration back to more authentic, validated and trustworthy sources. Although this will not be unanimous, and a minority will likely move to more partisan and subjective information sources. There is a real responsibility for companies, not just those in the communications and media sphere, to fight disinformation, particularly now we see the catastrophic consequences.
10. Digital detox
In sharp contrast to 2020, the year of Zoom and 'doom scrolling', we predict many people, upon exiting lockdown, will take a digital and social media detox. This will likely translate into a need for companies to be far more concise and punchy across digital channels, ensuring the limited engagement opportunities have their potential realised, while we might see a shift to physical marketing content with beautiful aesthetics.
In our, at times, extremely polarised society, reinforced by the anonymity afforded by social media, there has been something of an empathy vacuum in recent years. With more research showing us the worrying impact on mental health, calls to be kind have increased.
And despite never being more apart, paradoxically, that has actually brought us closer together. We have been reminded of the value of our relationships and social interaction, regularly checking in with friends, family and colleagues during this difficult time – and when the constraints are lifted, this won't disappear overnight. 2021 to be the year where everyone is better to one another?
12. Career mobility
Following stagnation as many sat tight in their careers during a time of extreme turbulence, and with so many sadly losing jobs as a result of lockdown, cancelled business and recession, we expect a year of movement in the job market as the green shoots of recovery begin to appear. There is already strong growth in the number of vacancies and the talent pool has really opened up, with motivated candidates from different markets and backgrounds seeking new opportunities.