Making public predictions is a notoriously embarrassing pursuit – think the Titanic is unsinkable and the iPhone will fail. Now with COVID-19, e-commerce, the ethical use of algorithms, and social and environmental issues, among other issues, predicting the next 10 years will be even harder. But Lee Walsh argues that APAC brands that thrived during the pandemic should be able to adapt.

As the saying goes, predicting the future is easy, getting it right is hard.

Recently, global media agency Essence surveyed over 50 marketing experts from around the world on their opinion of the impact of 2020 on the future of advertising.

The results are detailed in 2030 Revisited, a follow-up to the Advertising in 2030 report issued in early 2020 which asked the experts to assess the likelihood of 15 different scenarios occurring inside the next decade.

Key themes that emerged as a result of COVID-19 and the upheaval of 2020 were:

  • e-commerce
  • the digitisation of experiences
  • trust and values.

Back to the future

Before we jump into the predictions made by the great and good of the marketing, media and advertising industry, it is worth taking a quick look back at where we were 10 years ago.

In 2011, Google was already established as the number one search engine. Facebook was a runaway success preparing for a major IPO. The iPhone had already been with us for four years.

On the surface, you could argue that predicting the previous 10 years in advertising would have been relatively simple. Of course, it was always going to be search, social and mobile. Yet, what lies beneath the success of these channels was the use of large data sets and algorithms to serve up ever more appealing content and targeted advertising.

Essence’s study showed that in 2021, it feels like we are at a turning point for the industry and the principles that have underpinned the successes of the past 10 years.

COVID-19, privacy, government regulations, e-commerce, 5G, the ethical use of algorithms, social and environmental issues – while each could set the industry on a different path, all of them taken together make predicting the next 10 years harder than ever.

Woke vs convenience

E-commerce has been one of the major winners from the past year. The way many people research and purchase products has changed dramatically. Some brands are well-positioned to capitalise on this, while others are still trying to bend legacy systems to the needs of today’s consumers.

“In a stressed world, ease and utility trump all other factors. This favours brands with a seamless digital experience and flawless execution over all others, regardless of stated consumer preferences (for example, desire to support local brands or be more ethical or sustainable),” said Matt Isaacs, Counteract managing partner and Essence co-founder and former CEO/chairman.

At the same time, 60% of the experts surveyed forecast that the events of 2020 will accelerate the trend towards consumer prioritisation of environmental issues.

“Consumers are more conscious than ever of the power of where they spend their money,” said Miranda Dimopoulos, regional CEO at IAB South-east Asia and India. “We are seeing demand for companies to walk the talk, show diversity and inclusivity on their boards, implement environmentally considerate alternatives.”

But here is a conundrum for many brands and consumers: If you get used to $10 T-shirts delivered to your door, it is probably best not to think too much about the environmental impact of your purchase.

Over the next 10 years, can brands convince consumers to value and pay for ethically sourced products in an e-commerce ecosystem where price is often the determining factor?

Trust me, I’m a brand

One remarkable aspect of Amazon’s growth story is the rise of its private label brand products. In 2019, AmazonBasics goods were the sales leaders in almost half of Amazon’s 51 product categories.

The risk for many brands in the next 10 years is that they may be commoditised out of existence, such as in categories like batteries versus Duracell and tissues versus Kleenex.

What difference does this make in an online listing and how much are consumers willing to pay for that branded difference? That question ultimately comes down to trust in a brand. For companies not to be at the mercy of a marketplace’s algorithm, building a brand will be as important as ever.

In times of social stress and uncertainty, consumers will favour the trusted over the unknown. As Devin Cook from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT Sloan School of Management put it: “People are falling back on tried, true and trusted brands, those that their moms would endorse!”

Virtual, but no less personal

A major shift in human behaviour and a challenge for brands to maintain relevance:

  • 59% of respondents believe it is more likely that we will spend a majority of our time in virtual environments by 2030

“The biggest change this pandemic has brought about is that the consumer is negotiating ‘the idea of touch’ with brands,” said Abhishek Grover, Samsung Electronics Asia’s regional digital marketing head, mobile business. “Consumers across demographics are seeking convenient experiences that provide the joy of interaction in this digital-first world.”

And as pointed out by Veronica Barassi, professor in media and communications studies at the University of St. Gallen, virtual does not mean less personal.

“Brands will need to be able to develop more human-centred communication strategies to shape online interactions. Consumers are craving face-to-face interactions.”

What does this mean for APAC brands?

History shows that trends are often accelerated in times of major economic and cultural disruption. Many of the topics highlighted in Essence’s research were already gaining momentum in 2019.

No one knows what the next 10 years hold. Yet, the brands which have thrived through the pandemic were the ones that already anticipated key trends and were capable of adapting to change.

Who would have predicted that the most prevalent technology to come out of the past year was probably the QR code? As Victor Hugo wrote in 1852, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.