First, forget about an end to the upheaval COVID-19 created. It might dilute itself away into nothingness eventually, but it has delivered seismic and holistic changes to the way we work, and the world of consumer PR is no exception.
“We’ve seen massive disruption, wholesale closures, changing working practices and the shrinking of newsroom teams,” says M&C Saatchi Talk chief executive Jane Boardman.
“The lives of those working in earned media have shifted, and the metrics of news outlets have changed, so the approach of consumer PR must also be reviewed and updated. This is a real opportunity to look at how we’re working.”
Jane Boardman, CEO, M&C Saatchi Talk
There have also been changes in "team dynamics” that are “definitely here to stay and need to be adapted to by those who want to survive and thrive. This is something that will take time, effort, energy and commitment to fully understand, let alone embrace.”
So the industry should expect 2022 to be filled with “trial and error, with different approaches to hybrid and flexible working, as well as managing the varied demands of often three, sometimes four, generations of team members”.
Flexibility is key to success, suggests Exposure chief executive Maneeze Chowdhury, who says it’s the “newest employee priority and needs to be embraced”. The industry also needs to nurture new talent whose progress may have been stymied by lockdown, to ensure the next generation is “inspired and supported to create game-changing work”.
Consumer PR needs to hang on to that emerging talent, warns Boardman, because "retention and recruitment" is perhaps the biggest current challenge it faces. However, by the second half of the year the churn of people will likely “reduce as pandemic concerns ease and agency staff settle into new roles and begin to make longer-term plans”.
It’s likely that, as those pandemic concerns ease, so will the general public nervousness about being in a busy office or at a large event. it’s about finding the “sweet spot” between attending “real-life events and occasions, while protecting boundaries and organising our lives in a way that truly suits our needs,” says Ketchum London’s director for consumer brands, Rachel Rix.
Rachel Rix, director for consumer brands, Ketchum London
“People are craving in-person experiences more than ever. Human connection and a drastic change of scene from the sofa is something that consumers are now actively wanting to participate in again. Although the format of these experiences will need to be adapted depending on the latest guidelines, now is the time to engage with a captive audience and give back the thrills, chills and memories they’ve missed out on.”
Joshua Van Raalte, chief executive of Brazil, whose clients include O2, The Gates Foundation and Gillette, says, with a sigh of relief: “Finally, after living and interacting in a virtual world for nearly two years, we see a greater shift towards taking marketing to the streets. This means new types of experiential events, activations and other activities which bring like-minded people together to engage our senses and capture our imagination outside of the virtual world.”
Not that the virtual world won’t continue to be even more important in 2022, with extraordinary new capabilities and eye-catching functionality blurring with old-fashioned sales techniques and a tech-savvy consumer.
“The power and influence of this group grows,” says Boardman of the latest incarnation of the ever-evolving digi generation.
“They are mobile, global, digital and social, and will disrupt belief systems and the ways we market brands,” she says. “AI, smart devices, machine learning and robotics will increasingly form part of life.”
This means the “immersive opportunities” of the virtual world, from “entertainment and gaming to socialisation, education and virtual economies, are prompting conversations that brands should be primed to react to”, says Rix.
For Tin Man Communications founder and chief executive Mandy Sharp, 2022 will be the year when “crypto, the metaverse, gaming, retail and NFTs collide. We’ve already seen Nikeland on Roblox, Disney release NFTs of their most-loved characters, H&M’s new metaverse store, Fashion Week 2022 will be launched on metaverse platform Decentraland, and Samsung is launching the world’s first TV screen-based NFT marketplace aggregator.”
Mandy Sharp, CEO, Tin Man
It’s a lot of activity, but the common denominator that cuts through the shiny tech is making sure stuff sells. “How many times over the past year have you listened to someone rave about their latest gadget or hobby because they got the idea from TikTok?” says Van Raalte.
He predicts 2022 the direct-to-consumer trend will “explode as brands shift to interacting with, and selling their products directly to, consumers through social media.”
TikTok is popular across all ages but has a clear steer towards the young, so Van Raalte says brands should be using other platforms, especially if they are targeting older consumers.
Nonetheless, he also says TikTok, which has over one billion people scrolling away every month (Facebook has three billion), can offer brands a platform that “takes advantage of overnight celebrity, rising stars and untapped communities in a way which the likes of Facebook and Instagram have struggled to do”.
Brands are “lining up to experiment and clients will want to know how best to show up in this brave new world”, says Chowdury, although she suggests taking a “considered approach. Success in the virtual world has the same requirements as success in the real world: you must be able to inspire, engage and entertain. Expect a flurry of collaborations as brands invest in cultivating authentic connections in the metaverse to keep up with consumer interest.”
Maneeze Chowdhury, CEO, Exposure
It's not fresh out of the box, but that need for authenticity will always be vital, especially in a world where the sharp rise of fake news, augmented by the disconcerting rise in creepy Deep Fake technology, is the “dark side of earned media”, says Boardman.
“The impact of fake news has been unprecedented and is, sadly, here to stay. And as media-owners continue to cut costs, fake news will continue to impregnate mainstream media.”
On the bright side, Rix says with “distrust continuing to bubble, and inauthentic voices on social media” on the rise, 2022 provides an opportunity to turn to “journalists and citizen journalists as a credible and trustworthy source of information and inspiration. Earned media coverage will strengthen its power in 2022 and brands and businesses will need to maintain focus on driving results.”
The importance of achieving results won’t change in 2022, and neither will evergreen core strategic fundamentals such as sustainability, ethics and purpose. But these values will come under increased scrutiny this year, suggests Rix, as “mounting pressure from a more mainstream audience pushes consumer brands to put sustainability at the heart of their strategy”.
Sharp adds that agencies will be "challenged to creatively communicate" purpose in interesting ways to “stand out from competitors and build emotional connections with consumers. The winners will be those whose initiatives run deep through the core of the business and are not just a comms exercise.”
And if these familiar big issues are increasingly important in 2022, focus also needs to be placed on the smaller things, too. “The rise of entrepreneurship and small businesses, coupled with an increased interest in local communities, has led to small, independent brands and services having more influence,” says Rix.
“When planning brand and influencer partnerships, avoid the temptation to go for those with the highest reach. The grass-roots players carry clout and authenticity to help disrupt the conversation and drive positive brand reappraisal in 2022.”
Sharp agrees, advising brands to go “micro, not macro: 2022 will be the year of the micro influencer as brands will favour deep engagement over mass-reach influencer programmes".
The coronavirus pandemic has had a “dramatic effect on the way that we feel, think about, interact with and experience the world”, says Van Raalte. “For many, their world view is now smaller and directly around them, so we see consumer appetite to support local products, brands and locations.”
Joshua Van Raalte, CEO, Brazil
Of course, some things never change.
Budgets, ROI and effectiveness will remain at the forefront of discussions and plans – perhaps more so than ever if, as Boardman predicts, “client purse-strings tighten in 2022. I expect there to be an even greater focus on effectiveness and return on investment.
“Brands will be looking for PR agencies to be even more accountable and drive conversations that truly matter. This will mean joining the dots between comms outputs and internal business metrics, to prove the genuine impact of our work.”
In short: get tangible results, says Rix.
“Campaigns are only as successful as the results they generate. The new dawn of measurement brings a progressive blend of quantitative and qualitative metrics that can directly track commercial impact.
"The depth of data means we can offer a personalised approach to measurement in 2022 that links back to wider business goals, helping to prove the importance of communications to delivering real impact.”
Ultimately, though, whatever a 2022 campaign does to win a consumer’s heart or get them spending, a successful one will need to cut through these “uncertain and chaotic times”, says Chowdury.
“People want action on the issues of the day, but they also need escapism, entertainment and something to make them laugh. So in 2022, our creativity, ingenuity and social responsibility has never been more in demand.”