Managing director of Looping Group, Christian Polman looks ahead to 2021.

2020 has been a challenging year for almost every industry. Organisations have put a necessary focus on cutting costs to survive the period of turmoil – the effects of which continue to reverberate across business and society. As the full economic toll of COVID-19 continues to sink in, there’s little doubt that one major casualty has been the marketing and media industry, as the last IPA Bellwether report showed.

But, for all the challenges, the marketing industry has adapted successfully in many cases. This year, brands have had to find new ways to engage with their customers – it has been an overarching theme playing into the role of marketing teams significantly throughout 2020. This is partly in reaction to the fact that consumer behaviour and sentiment shifted incredibly fast. And in turn, this shift has meant that businesses – and marketing teams – have had to evolve and adapt quickly.

One significant behaviour change has been the increased consumption of content. While digital consumption has been rising for years, people are now consuming more content than ever– 80% of consumers in the U.S. and UK said they consumed more content after the outbreak began, according to a survey by Global Web Index. In the UK, 16-34s are spending almost two hours more on video viewing per day as compared to 2019, as per the recent release of Ofcom’s Media Nations 2020, however all but three minutes of those additional two hours has gone to streaming video.

Many brands took advantage of consumers spending more time engaging with digital channels to shift to providing a more significant direct-to-consumer offering –in terms of both branded content and product channel availability. Direct consumer relationships and experiences, especially those linked to owned channel – including apps, social channels, and ecommerce platforms – are now a key focus area for brands. Branded content in particular has the added bonus of helping solve the challenge of reaching young consumers.

Take the automotive sector, for instance, which faced with the realities of social distancing has rapidly shifted to providing virtual tours of cars and chat and video functionality to connect customers and local sales reps. Many now also deliver the car to the consumer’s front steps, and offer guarantees that cars can be returned if the consumer isn’t happy. Earlier in the year I bought a used car from Leicester without ever leaving London, without setting foot in the car, and practically without leaving WhatsApp. I researched the car by reading articles, watching online videos, and browsing comparison sites.

Despite brands pulling back on advertising spend, we have seen the accelerated use of digital media – including communications platforms, streaming video, influencers, social media, and other online communities.

To navigate the news landscape and make sense of the world, we have also seen the resurgence of trusted news media. Consumers have demonstrated that they are receptive to brands in these environments; new IAB data has revealed that in the US, 84% of consumers' trust in brands either grows or is unaffected when exposed to companies advertising alongside news content. Brands, meanwhile, took a sledgehammer approach to banning coronavirus related keywords, which Newsworks calculated back in April was costing news brands £50m in lost revenues earlier in the pandemic. The lesson is very clearly that context matters, and brands would be wise to reassess the context in which they communicate as they plan for next year.

We have also seen the rapid acceleration of ecommerce’s share of a growing retail market. There is no doubt ecommerce players were well – if not best - positioned to meet the needs of consumers amongst lockdowns and other restrictions. This momentum is likely to strengthen going forward, especially as we have seen consumers who may have previously resisted online shopping – such as older consumers – embrace ecommerce and potentially continue to do so going forward. All indicators so far – especially from markets like China – is that the shift to eCommerce will persist even on the other side of the pandemic.

To stand out in ecommerce environments, let alone be found or selected, brands need to differentiate. Many will be tempted to shift towards performance marketing as sales shift online, yet the coming months are the time to double down on branding. A great corollary for any brand operating in a digital marketplace is Direct Line Group, who when faced with the prospects of commoditisation from the rise of comparison sites several years ago took a different path from the competition and focused on building their brand. As a result, they differentiated, and have been one of the most profitable insurers in the UK ever since.

As we move into a 2021, which may be as unpredictable as the past 12 months, good marketing practices must remain a key focus. Marketers shouldn’t lose sight of robust measurement or long-term brand building. Brent Smart, CMO of IAG put it nicely in a recent interview with WARC: “We're seeing in times of crisis that people turn to brands they trust, and brand building is a way that you can help protect your business from some of those shocks we’re seeing.”

Marketing in its broadest sense has a critical role to play in helping brands to recover and grow again in the wake of coronavirus. Being able to show the value of marketing investment will be key in demonstrating its role in business growth, and securing C-Suite buy-in. As we found from our econometric work while I was at Ebiquity, each £1 invested in advertising typically delivers over £2.8 back in bottom-line profits. More than ever, marketers must translate this into a business case of their own.

The constantly shifting business landscape means marketers need to consider the role they play in their organisations – from leveraging data and insights to develop strategies to meet business objectives, to breaking down silos between different departments and having the best finger on the pulse of the consumer. This expanded role will include managing any implications for product, distribution, and pricing, as well as championing the brand purpose and guiding faster decision-making and greater agility.

Marketing in its broadest sense has a critical role to play in helping brands to recover and grow again in 2021. In the next 12 months we will see the companies who embrace this type of thinking more likely to successfully bounce back from the struggles of coronavirus, while those who don’t will be left behind.