Why 2021 will demand brands prioritize people

COVID-19 spotlighted the flaws in measuring success on financial KPIs alone. It’s going to be up to our industry to answer to communities.

As significantly as the ways in which agriculture, writing and the emergence of the printing press affected civilization, the advent of digital technology fundamentally changed what it means to be human. Our roles as consumers, workers, voters, parents and sense-makers were entirely altered.

It is a process that has only been accelerated by this year’s myriad crises, from COVID-19 to racial injustice, election conspiracies and, more recently, food insecurity on an unprecedented level. Our behaviors, the ways in which we process huge volumes of information and our value systems have shifted as these individual horrors played out.

While protests and marches grabbed headlines, there was a quieter revolution brewing behind the scenes. United by omnipresent screens and devices, social distancing protocols afforded us more time to really consider what kind of world we wanted to emerge back into. We began to re-evaluate what we, as consumers, hold dear to our hearts: our neighborhoods, our favorite mom and pop store, the best bodegas -- and their incredible cats. The emergence of initiatives like Cinchmarket, an online marketplace putting Brooklyn neighborhood stores online with a rallying cry of ‘Buy Brooklyn, not Bezos,’ perfectly encapsulates this mindset shift.

We expect much, much more of this kind of pressure from consumers next year, as outlined in our recently launched TrendSights report with media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Marketers are going to have to confront these changes as we plan for a post-COVID world.

We’re seeing a shift toward greater sustainability and value creation as consumers become attuned to the employment, economic and environmental catastrophes that digital companies leave in their wake. Just as in the last century people became aware of the pollution and waste coming from low-cost industrial production, they are now making sense of the ways in which Uber costs jobs, Airbnb destroys neighborhoods and Grubhub puts restaurants out of business. The pressure building across our digital social spheres is forcing a reckoning with consumers increasingly demanding greater corporate responsibility and recognition of the externalities of business models.

Brands such as Grubhub and Seamless already had a taste of this in 2020 as consumers, worried about their favorite bars and restaurants, learned that the cost of their convenience was putting those beloved spots out of business rather than saving them. The online backlash and restaurant-backed Delete the Delivery Apps campaigns and, ultimately, the class-action lawsuit against these delivery companies could be just a taste of what’s to come.

We have talked for years about purpose, but 2021 will demand more from marketers in the form of action. We are going to have to build businesses and brands that focus squarely on more sustainable, regenerative approaches and more circular economic models to attract and retain consumer loyalty.

COVID-19 certainly spotlighted the flaws inherent in measuring success on financial KPIs alone. However, it is going to be up to our industry to answer to the communities we serve as transparency, accountability, environmental and societal governance become boardroom rather than soapbox metrics.

Rebecca Honeyman is cofounder and MD of SourceCode Communications. 

SourceCode recently collaborated with futurist and “Team Human” author Douglas Rushkoff on a series of explorations on the future called TrendSights.

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