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The global scale of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 was a first for everyone—forcing all of us to quickly adapt. We’re exploring how marketers responded to the early days of the pandemic and how creative solutions have shifted, as well as what trends to look out for in 2021.
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The global scale of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 was a first for everyone—forcing all of us to quickly adapt. We’re exploring how marketers responded to the early days of the pandemic and how creative solutions have shifted, as well as what trends to look out for in 2021. If you told us this time last year that we’d be fully remote—working from home in sweatpants while on frequent Zoom meetings—we’d probably laugh and respond with, "Yeah, like that'll ever happen." But it did happen, and thankfully we're starting to see the tail end of it now. But it got us thinking about the future of advertising, wondering about the lasting impact of the psychological shifts in marketing and creative.

We examined two key changes

In the very early days of the pandemic, companies and marketers panicked, putting a halt on advertising dollars and rethinking consumer behavior completely. Why? Well, advertising relies a lot on consumer behavior; whenever that behavior changes, strategy solutions need to be adjusted in response. It doesn't make a lot of sense to spend media dollars on a campaign with no audience. Framing it in context of the pandemic: If most of the population was required to stay home during quarantine, where do you want your marketing budget spent?

We looked at changes in ad placement.

In the early days of 2020, out-of-home and cinema advertising shrank almost instantly. Print ads? It was almost nonexistent. At the same time, in-home media usage went up, TV viewership climbed and digital consumption generally increased—with social media and streaming services rising everywhere. With so many people at home, the ideal solution to marketing strategy was meeting the audience in these spaces. But that's not the only change we saw.

And then we considered the most effective content.

Placement is just one key part of effective advertising; content is another. In response to the pandemic, many companies chose meaningful approaches—emphasizing the gravity of the situation while conveying hope with messaging centered around “getting through this together.” We saw out-of-home ad placements thanking essential workers, as well as social platforms promoting wellness and safety. And, with many people out of work, some consumer goods companies paused selling and instead lean into their history—sharing stories of tough times they've overcome in the past while always staying committed to their customers and their mission.

So... what happens now?

Fast forward to today: People are getting vaccinated, restrictions are starting to loosen up and some of us are headed back to the office. So now what? Do we just go back to the way it was? The reality is that consumer behavior has changed. Most of us have been stuck in our homes with little to no in-person human interaction for over a year! We've been staring at screens instead of human faces and it shows. It's inevitably going to have an effect on how we interact with the world moving forward.

We continue to put personal connections first—and lean into the current rise in optimism.

You may have already noticed a lot of companies shifting their messaging to include a personal touch—adding a person's name to an email instead of a generic Dear valued customer or speaking to the customer using their name or "you" instead of "they." The pandemic placed a new emphasis on making it personal. And this doesn’t seem like just a passing trend. It’s more than saying relationships matter; it’s recognizing that relationships are everything. And when it comes to personal, people not only seek relationships with a brand, but aligning themselves with a brand who shares their values—from environmental to social issues and everything in between. These things all add up, helping to build trust with an audience. And trust is what’s needed to get someone to sign up for an email, follow along on social and to become a loyal repeat customer. It’s also worth noting that imagery and tone have also shifted—moving away from poignant and serious towards bright, colorful depictions of happy people. For a while, these changes are here to give us a reminder: "We're almost out of this!"

We continue to evolve in this changed (and changing) world.

Let’s keep this in mind: Two large groups of consumers right now are Millennials (the under-40 adults who grew up alongside social media) and Gen Z (who doesn’t remember a time without it). So, of course, all things—advertising included—have moved in the direction of a digital-first mindset. And with so many people quarantined at home, the pandemic just accelerated this course. A lot of brands, agencies and individuals have already figured this out, taking to their own digital platform to reach others. With so many people contributing, it’s critical we shift our approach and really make a statement that breaks through the noise. Our competition is no longer just our competitors, but the last great experience our audience had. When it comes to your strategy, it helps to think of advertising like dating. At one point, a solid strategy was to cast a wide net and get as many potential dates customers as possible before finding the right match. And, sure, you can still treat your strategy like dating. But in 2021, that means online dating. Forget leaving things to chance and embrace the algorithm! Or maybe just get to know your audience—allowing brand marketing and performance marketing to flirt a bit in order to create the right message for the right audience.

We start waving bye to social distancing and saying hi to the latest social media.

The biggest change we’ve seen is the rise of new social media platforms and spaces—with Instagram Reels, Twitter Spaces, Houseparty, TikTok and Clubhouse gaining a lot of traction in 2020. I highly recommend checking them out if you haven't already; you never know what's going to be the next big thing. And, pandemic or not, social media isn't going anywhere. Each of these platforms has different features and target audiences, but they share a common thread: Video. (Clubhouse is the exception. But what it lacks in video, it makes up for with its audio-based format.) Why is this important? I'm sure we've all heard it: Humans are social animals and we need human interaction. Social media seems to illustrate this, and TikTok is a great example. Throughout the pandemic, the platform's user-generated content kept people connected and engaged—allowing users to communicate and express themselves through video.

And, mostly, we keep moving forward.

What does all of this mean for the future of advertising? The world changed, so people did too. Everything we've learned can help guide our content going forward, even as we move past the pandemic: We've learned videos with music tend to perform better than videos without it. Social audio is on the rise, with users wanting to connect with other people and hear their voices; it's both comforting and engaging. Personalized messaging is the new normal. And people care about values, considering who a brand is just as much as they consider what products or services a brand offers. Marketers have done well adapting to changes in the market, with creative solutions that have shifted to include a more human touch. And after more than a year of social distance, we know what people really want is connection.