This pandemic year has been long, disorienting and filled with grievous loss. The cultural upheaval, though, is not only a time of destruction; there’s been creation throughout the last year, as well. As we look out to the trends of 2021, we’ll be reimagining, reckoning, reuniting and remembering the challenges of 2020.
System theory states that when a system, or in our case the interconnected elements of life, becomes stressed or unstable it is susceptible to disruption and sometimes momentous change. That’s where we are right now.
Foresights and trends are created by synthesizing what is bubbling up now with what has been known and understood in the recent past. It means identifying the forces pushing change forward from where we’ve been. This last year, however, has been a year that provides none of that same visibility to draw on. All of our norms have been blown up; some have catapulted ahead a dozen years, and others have regressed.
These are the greatest challenges for anyone trying to analyze trends and get an inkling of what the future holds. We will all be stitching together those broken, emerging, and reimagined pieces in order to understand where we’re headed.
Five Trends For 2021
1. R.I.P. E Pluribus Unum
Truth, reality, facts, science and many norms we take for granted are undergoing transformation. Like an iceberg calving, our culture is splitting into something far beyond tidy niche-ready segmentations. Of course, now, blue and red is more than a color on the light spectrum. It’s a signal for political and tribal safety. The toxic polarization we’ve endured is now further dividing into alternate realities where citizens consume different information, see different “facts” and passionately hold opposite opinions.
This division manifests as greater inequality, debates about the usefulness of science, fights about whether news is real or fake, and differing beliefs about what to believe, trust, or fear.
To that point, President Obama lamented in a 60 Minutes interview about what he called “truth decay”, saying “not only do we not need to tell the truth, but the truth doesn’t matter.” The Atlantic reported on an MIT study showing that a false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker than a true story.
This is not E Pluribus Unum.
What This Means For Business
Whether we like it or not, tribal divisions are here to stay, at least for a while. A consumer insights truism, particularly at a time like this, is to stay aligned with your audience and your brand. Reevaluate how much you actually know about who you’re trying to reach. Focus on understanding what is important to your customers and support them where it counts, connect with the fundamental values that define every person, family and community regardless of their belief system.
2. Our Common Ground
Despite cruel and systemic inequality, America is a country of immense privilege. Sacrifice defined earlier generations, but not our current citizens. The pandemic has been our era’s true test of character. Amid devastating loss, confounding uncertainty, and raging rancor, our better angels have won some heart-wrenching battles, renewing faith in humanity and restoring strength for many. The 7:00 pots and pans cheering for health care workers got us started acknowledging others. Then, there came many reasons to hope – science prevailed and generated not one but several effective vaccines. Thousands of people volunteered to help their communities far and wide. Americans voted in record numbers despite the health concerns. Cities prioritized people over cars and blocked off streets for biking, skating and walking. The most viewed GIFs were those of love and comfort. Journalists reported from bedrooms, closets and kitchen tables. Kids crashed Zoom meetings and even talk shows (most notably Jimmy Fallon’s daughter crashed an interview to tell her dad she had lost a tooth). And creativity controlled the youtubetiktokinsta-verse with beautiful concerts, crazy stunts, hilarious comedy, yummy recipes, spot-on memes, and stunning photography, lifting our spirits to face another day. Or maybe just another Zoom meeting.
What this means for business
The pandemic has changed us, and these kindnesses and optimism will not be forgotten. Tested, sure, but not forgotten. Nike captured the sentiment with Never Too Far Down To Come Back last May to remind us that we always find a way when it seems hopeless.
Sure, shallow, vacuous fads will emerge and delight us again, but we’ve now seen everyone’s dining room artwork and their cat walking across the computer screen. We’ve met our friends for walks in the freezing cold to bolster our moods. This authenticity and compassion will fuel our future and brands can play an important role in facilitating this life-affirming trend.
3. Taking Little Leaps
We’ve become accustomed to the pace of tech innovation moving society along faster and faster, but nothing prepared us for the unexpected warp jump to new ways of living our lives. Some changes catapulted years ahead of predicted adoption:
– Education: while remote learning was hit or miss, it was clear that school is more than academics
– Public Life: Six feet apart still feels awkward, but will we ever trust the air we breathe again?
– Transportation: New bike lanes made getting around easier for some, but many were left with public transport
– Healthcare: Many people finally made the jump to tele-medicine. Will insurance keep covering it?
– Workplace: Companies large and small finally embraced flexibility. A hybrid of home and office is likely to stick.
– Malls: So many stores and brands have been shuttered. Malls will be reinvented or die very soon.
– Cities: Those who could, moved to other (safer or cheaper) locations. Urban areas will reshuffle.
– Office buildings: Vacant space will be repurposed for urgent urban needs.
Other social issues have received renewed attention, but reckoning still awaits in realms like policing, environmental reform and justice, racial justice, wealth, income, workplace inequality, and democracy. For starters, according to Google “the majority of consumers–67%–say they want brands to set an example when it comes to tackling racial injustice.”
What This Means For Business
Many economists are predicting the right economic landscape exists for a roaring 20s. If that plays out, we will see the surviving big brands get bigger but also new entrepreneurial growth—the lifeblood of the economy will come back. Even so, the setbacks for many will be a drag on their lives. Brands would do well to pay attention to how they can help customers rebuild their lives and businesses. ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance issues) is now the acronym guiding many strategic planning playbooks.
Consumers have adjusted and adapted, but exactly how much of this is going to stick is being debated in many venues. Worldviews and expectations, though, have changed—for better or worse. Brands will need to catch up and keep answering the call for convenience, access and empowerment.
4. Whither The Natural World
Scientists have been warning us that we are reaching the point of global warming no-return. We’ve watched or suffered extreme heat, devastating wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Now, with the Anthropocene era upon us (more human made material than living biomass exists on the planet) we have physical evidence of another tipping point. How are we responding? (Are we responding?)
The pandemic gave us the space to appreciate the physical world again. Restricted from normal social events, we went hiking, stargazing, ice skating, kayaking, and hiking. We planted vegetable gardens, cooked, baked, and realized we waste too much food. Shelters ran out of dogs for adoption. Quiet cities and towns were visited by mountain goats, wild turkeys, monkeys, coyote and deer. Another reminder that we share the planet with others. Protein alternatives are mushrooming (sorry, had to) with kelp, lab cultures and even CO2 (!) as we adjust consumption to help the planet.
What This Means For Business
Given the chance, will consumers go back to their over-consumptive ways? The freedom of movement and enticing new retailers that emerge from the wreckage of 2020 will draw us in, but we are a changed society, aware of the waste of fast fashion, committed to supporting local businesses, and soothed by the beauty of the natural world. We’ve seen the scientific community work feverishly to give us solutions to the pandemic. Could the same focus be brought to the climate crisis?
Brands that continue to support and encourage this balance will find a stable and loyal audience.
5. Technology As Life Force
As much as everyone likes to complain about technology, imagine what the pandemic would have been like without the internet, apps, WiFi, streaming, laptops and mobile phones. With no other choice, tech adoption blasted off, as consumers embraced it at levels predicted for five or ten years in the future.
Technology has changed how and where we work, go to school, see the doctor, buy groceries, shop, read, watch TV and movies, play games, and (thank the tech gods!) stay in touch with friends and family.
Out of all that change, ecommerce has to be the biggest and fastest consumer shift ever, as most of the world logged on to get what they needed. Ecommerce won’t stay at this high level, but now that consumers have experienced the convenience of it, it’s here to stay. Voice, AR and VR are the relative new tech kids on the block and had a meaningful debut during the pandemic. For instance, Merrell, the outdoor brand, is leveraging voice–Alexa and Google Assistant– to “find a trail near me” and enhance their brand. Soon these technologies will be necessary shopping, education, gaming, viewing and working tools. Robots and AI will team up with workers to make us all more efficient. And 5G will download and process everything with lightning speed, so we can consume all the cool AR stuff wherever we are.
What This Means For Business
Whether a fun distraction or a necessary evil, people have integrated new devices, applications, and activities into daily life raising the bar on every other business and brand. However, as far as technology and platforms go, the rich got richer once again. Amazon emerges from 2020 as an even larger entrepreneur-swallowing black hole that it was before.
Customers will now expect touchless everything, frictionless journeys, personalization, and omnichannel consistency, real-time inventory in their phones, predictive analytics based on passed interactions and current needs, and multimedia content to draw them into the store—if they ever go to one again. Is there still room for new or emerging enterprises in this world? Only if you nail those convenience-focused values (and get a little lucky).
Loss. We’ve all had to leave a lot behind in 2020, with no proper way to do it. So many loved ones lost, valued life events a facsimile of what we had planned, and communities changed forever. Events that brought us together and tore us apart.
Will we shake hands again? Should we have our wedding now? Should I go back to college? Will we go to crowded live concerts or sporting events again? Do I really need a haircut? Will we ever come together? Reconciling with change will take more time for some and less for others.
Acknowledging loss and helping to rebuild with optimism and strength is a potent loyalty and brand-builder. Every business has its own role in the local and wider community. Consumers will be taking notice. A wrap to a year of loss, horror, and change, acknowledging it’s a gift to be alive from YAM HAUS in my hometown.