Unlike past years, changes in human psyche, social behavior and technological adoption are remarkably visible. Around the world, people have been forced to adjust their lifestyles in radical ways. Because of the pandemic, we are experiencing years of behavior change packed into a few short months. Here are six cultural trends focused on emerging consumer behavior that will predictably shape the next decade.
New virtual worlds
The promise of an expansive virtual world, competing with our physical reality has been prophesied for decades. As depicted in blockbuster movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix and Ready Player One. The global pandemic—largely physical distancing—has wedged a divide between people in society. Many are now migrating to digital environments to fulfill the human need to connect with others. In 2021, the conditions are finally ripe for a virtual existence.
Currently, gaming is at the forefront of the rapid shift from physical to virtual experiences. Platforms like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox have built complex worlds described as The Metaverse: a shared virtual space where people can create new identities, explore endless possibilities and spend time with friends. Within the next decade, virtual spaces will become an integral part of our collective human experience. We will spend as much, if not more time in the virtual realm. Everyday use cases will include going to work as 3D avatars. Virtual relationships and families minus physical interaction. And regular livestreamed concerts, games and movie premieres—with no physical origins—enjoyed concurrently by millions of people around the world.
The virtual world will undoubtedly reshape society. Its impact will be equal to the invention of the internet and cuneiform. For companies, this new unchartered universe represents a commercial opportunity to 10x revenue. Comparisons can be made with the rise of Western Europe after the 1500s with access to the Atlantic Ocean, trade and colonialism in the New World. In many ways, control of the virtual world will be more lucrative than colonizing space. At the moment, the best entry point for brands is at the intersection between e-gaming and social media.
For the last century, Hollywood has been the dominant cultural force globally. The movies produced by the major film studios are arguably America’s most successful export. Although it would be reductive to view them as movies only. Through the medium of film Hollywood has managed to promote American ideals, values and way of life around the world. From La Paz to Ulaanbaatar, American culture has permeated local traditions and indigenous cultural identities.
However, much has changed since MGM produced Wizard of Oz in 1939 or even since Marvel Studios produced Avengers: Endgame in 2019. Cultural dominance is often correlated with economic supremacy. Ever since World Word Two, America has been the most powerful country on earth. But according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, China will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy by 2028. From an audience perspective, more people are actively seeking inclusive stories and watching foreign films on Netflix. In short, Hollywood will remain a powerful economic force, but its cultural influence will begin to diminish.
At the same time, new media platforms like TikTok, Twitch and YouTube have democratized content creation. In this increasingly fragmented media landscape, no single entity wields the power to control the narrative. Therefore, companies need to rethink their partnership strategy. It’s no longer enough to sign a famous celebrity to shoot a highly polished TV spot. To remain relevant, brands need to identify, support and partner with the next generation of creators. Often, that means transcending geographic borders. In the future, observing internet culture and scouting for nascent talent will be a critical part of every marketing department’s responsibilities.
In general terms, living conditions have improved for the majority of the world’s population. In 1950, 63% of the world lived in extreme poverty; in 1981 it was still 42%. But in 2015 – the last year for which we currently have data – the rate had fallen below 10%. The same is true for literacy rates and public health. As conditions in the physical world improve, poverty and inequality will manifest themselves in the digital world.
The digital divide is the gap between those with internet access and those without. Following the lengthy closure of schools, most countries have adopted remote learning. But still, 1.6 billion children lack access to the necessary technology according to UNICEF. Access to the internet and personal computers will become the new battleground in alleviating poverty. If governments, corporations and civil society don’t take immediate action, most countries will be left with a huge digital skills gap that will negatively impact business outcomes and standards of living for many decades.
Without heavy investment in digital solutions for all children, our global economy will lack the necessary resources to progress with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Most companies will struggle to hire from a drying pool of talent. While brands will have a reduced consumer market to sell their products and services to, especially once e-commerce matures. On the flip side, we have a golden opportunity to reinvent a more inclusive education system built for the needs of the 21st century. Forward-thinking consumer-facing brands should consider setting up their own education programs to serve their communities. Similar to how rising wages in the 20th century produced the consumer economy. Universal access to digital tools, skills and Wi-Fi are prerequisites for the next era of economic growth.
Nowadays, a growing number of companies are jumping at the chance to signal their social and environmental credentials. For good reason too. Consumers are determining the fate of brands with their purchases. In short, brand activism makes long-term commercial sense.
During the pandemic, some household brands have stepped up to the occasion. Unilever contributed €100 million through donations of soap, sanitizer, bleach and food. Diageo donated 200 million liters of alcohol to make hand sanitizer. And Heinz pledged to provide 12 million breakfasts to school children at risk of going hungry. Given the global reach, vast resources and financial power of multinational corporations. It’s easy to conceive a future where brands, not governments drive social policy. Already, corporations account for 157 of the 200 largest entities on the planet.
However, relying on brands to act as nations can be dangerous. Firstly, it negates the responsibility of the government to its citizens. Secondly, every corporation’s primary responsibility is to its shareholders, not the public. In the future, we are likely to see hybrid solutions between nations and corporations. Where brands cover government deficiencies, but only when aligned with their marketing strategy and public sentiment.
Conversely, humans are beginning to assume the role of brands. Thanks to social media, creators are finding new ways to monetize their audiences. Originally, companies created brands to make selling feel more human and ultimately more successful. But humans will always be better at connecting with other people than faceless brands. In the attention economy, building a community is the most valuable marketing asset.
The stage is set for creators to leverage their communities to build their own brands. YouTube star Mr. Beast tapped into his 50 million subscribers to open his own burger chain. The virtual restaurant has now opened 300 locations, the same amount as Shake Shack, but without any of the overheads. The Weekend ended up spending $7 million of his own money on his Superbowl LV halftime performance. But he will easily make his money back given since sales of his songs increased by 381% following the performance. While TikTok star Addison Rae, launched ITEM Beauty last year which has already gained cult status among her 77 million followers who are desperate to try the products.
What’s more, subscription platforms like OnlyFans, Substack and Patreon have experienced a meteoric boom during the pandemic. OnlyFans is now a billion-dollar media giant after increasing its userbase from 7.5 million to 90 million within a year. We are witnessing the rise of the creator economy, where creators can directly make money from their own content. With it, comes a newfound ability to cut out the middlemen – namely brands and advertising agencies – out of the picture. Direct to Community is going to be the prevailing marketing model of the next decade. Therefore, brands will need to build their own online communities to serve as a protective moat for their business.
Wars and pandemics change the world and shift the course of history. The Black Death killed half the population of Europe in the 14th century. But the plague eventually revealed the early structures of the Renaissance and a period of cultural, economic and scientific rebirth.
From death comes a renewed understanding of both the fragility and beauty of life. A concept perfectly captured by the Latin phrase Memento Mori that translates to “remember you must die” serving as a constant reminder to make the most of life. Despite the pending economic uncertainly, the pandemic will birth a new generation of visionaries, artists and creative entrepreneurs. Looking at the data, we already know that the pandemic has triggered a surge in entrepreneurship across major economies.
For young people growing up during a global pandemic, the future is a blank canvass to create new possibilities. An opportunity to address some of the most important challenges facing humanity such as the climate crisis, eradicating poverty and addressing racial inequality. We have a generational opportunity to use the power of creativity to create a better world. A more interesting world. A world where young people get to fulfill their full potential. But true innovation requires extreme optimism. That means not getting in the way of creativity with pre-pandemic mental models. A new creative renaissance is around the corner—but only if we let it.