Predictions for marketing in 2021, from tomorrow’s industry leaders

Stéphanie Thomson / January 2021

You might think that, in the current climate, making marketing predictions is a fool’s errand. The past year has been filled with challenges that few people anticipated.

But even in times of rapid change, taking a moment to think about what’s on the horizon can help ensure you’re ready for whatever comes your way. To help, we spoke with members and recent graduates of Google’s Associate Product Marketing Manager (APMM) program, which identifies and nurtures the next generation of marketing leaders. They shared their takes on what the next year will bring, and how brands should rethink their 2021 marketing strategies in response.

1. People will see through brand virtue signalling

Black and white headshots of Jess Kim, APMM, Insights Lab, Google, who has long, straight, dark hair and smiles slightly at the camera; and Daniel Ferguson, APMM, Google Play, who has short dark hair, a light beard, and a serious expression.

After a summer of protests over police brutality and racial injustice, brands were tripping over themselves to make a commitment to diversity and inclusion. But as the news cycle moved on, all too many went back to business as usual. A recent analysis found that, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, 25% of beauty ads featured models with darker skin tones; just two months later, that figure had dropped to 16%.

People are starting to see through these performative gestures. “According to the Edelman Trust Barometer, 63% of Americans believe that brands that issue a statement in support of racial equity need to follow up with concrete action,” explains Jess Kim, a B2C insights specialist in Google marketing. “If they don’t, they’ll be seen as exploitative.”

When making their 2021 plans, marketers will need to find authentic ways to incorporate social and environmental issues into their everyday work. “Last year, Google Play’s rewards program began letting members in the U.S. use their points to support nonprofits,” says Daniel Ferguson, who works on Google Play’s marketing team. He thinks similar initiatives will take off in 2021. “Research shows Gen Z and millennials are more inclined to hold brands accountable to their corporate social responsibility goals. Next year, expect brands to elevate their CSR beyond point-of-sale donations and round-up requests, and find innovative ways for consumers to join their efforts.”

63% of Americans believe that brands that issue a statement in support of racial equity need to follow up with concrete action.

2. People will actively seek out brands that align with their own values

Black and white headshots of Alexandra LeVoguer, APMM, Ads Marketing at Google, who has long, straight dark hair and smiles at the camera; and Taylor Davis, APMM, Ecommerce at Google, who has long, straight dark hair and smiles at the camera.

Consumers are thinking more about what the brands they choose say about them, and expect more from the businesses they support.

“People want to believe in what they’re buying, and increasingly seek to align their personal values with their shopping habits. Research has found that consumers prefer to purchase from purpose-driven companies. Successful brands will authentically align themselves with societal causes and communicate those values to their customers clearly and consistently,” says Alexandra LeVoguer, a B2B specialist on Google Canada’s marketing team.

When planning for 2021, organizations should think of ways to make it easier for customers to make value-based decisions. Inspiration can be found in direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategies.

“The new wave of online DTC businesses are leading the charge. Data has shown DTC brands are more likely to be searched together with causes like ‘sustainable’ and ‘anti-cruelty.’ These brands are finding creative ways to offer customers options, like Glossier, which allows buyers to select a minimized packaging option at checkout, or DTC supporter Shopify, who added a carbon offsetter to their famous BFCM Globe in 2020,” says Taylor Davis, a Google Canada marketing e-commerce specialist.

Next year, expect more brands to integrate sustainability directly into their tech and products, rather than as separate CSR initiatives.

3. Diversity marketing will be about more than race and gender

Black and white headshots of Emiliano Arriaga, PMM, Google Assistant, who has short, dark hair, a beard, and mustache, and smiles at the camera; and Hannah Frankl, PMM, Google for Startups, who has long, straight, dark hair and slightly smiles at the came

We know from research that, when brands prioritize diversity, their ads are seen as more effective. But, while most of these efforts have focused on issues such as gender and racial diversity, the marketers we spoke to think 2021 will be the year that brands take a more holistic approach to inclusion.

“It’s not just going to be about issues such as gender representation,” says Emiliano Arriaga, a marketer on the Google Assistant team based in Mexico City. “They’ll start tackling important but previously ‘untouchable’ topics. Here in Latin America, that includes issues such as pigmentocracy and sexual diversity in advertising.”

Hannah Frankl, a marketer on the Google for Startups team, agrees that in 2021, brands will make a concerted push to be truly representative of the people they’re looking to reach. “Almost a fifth of the population has a disability, yet according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute, only 2.2% of characters in 2019 ads had one,” Frankl says. But that’s changing. “Marketing will start to better reflect the intersectionality and diversity of users, especially in regard to representations of disability,” she predicts.

4. UX and digital experiences will be more important than ever before

Black and white headshot of Bruno Delfino, Brand Marketing Manager, Google, who has short dark hair, a beard and mustache, and who smiles at the camera; and Veronica Lui, APMM, Ads Marketing at Google, who has long, wavy dark hair and smiles at the camera

Even the technophobes among us have had to get used to living our lives online this past year. As more people learn how to order groceries with a tap on an app or organize a family video call, they’ll become less forgiving of clunky technology and user experiences. That will have big implications for advertisers, thinks Bruno Delfino, a brand marketing manager.

“As users get more used to digital tools and products due to the pandemic, they will get better at interacting with ads and demand a better user experience,” Delfino predicts. “That means no broken links, confusing CTAs, slow pages, or desktop-only websites. I see a bigger role this coming year for UX teams in creating delightful and functional end-to-end advertising experiences.”

Marketers who used to rely on in-person, experiential strategies have had to find new ways to reach customers online and redefine the boundaries of digital experiences. This year, marketers need to find new ways to capture attention and provide meaningful experiences worth staying online for.

“The new challenge will not simply be how to pivot to digital, but how to cut through a saturated market of digital experiences. B2B marketers are no longer just competing for digital mindshare while people are at work. Digital is now at the core of everything we do, including our time outside of work with grocery shopping, social gatherings, and exercising all moving online.” says Veronica Lui, a B2B specialist on Google Canada’s marketing team.

5. Live-streamed e-commerce will help brands stand out

Black and white headshot of Emily Allen, Research Manager, Market Insights, Google, who has straight, shoulder-length dark hair and wears a long chunky necklace and a dark top.

“In 2020, it’s easier than ever to post a video, start a podcast, or sell products online,” says Emily Allen, a marketing research manager based in Google’s London office. “We see this behaviour shift in Google trends, as searches for ‘how to be an influencer,’ ‘how to start a podcast,’ and ‘how to make money on social media’ are up globally.”

To stand out in such a noisy digital environment, Allen predicts brands will double down on an approach that’s been picking up steam recently: live-streamed e-commerce. “Searches for ‘livestream’ and ‘pop-up retail’ have been on the rise for years, as a means of inspiring consumers with a limited-time offer,” she points out. “But nowhere has seen quite the same success with this model as China. Chinese live-streamed e-commerce shows have mixed the behavioural science bias of ‘scarcity’ with ‘fear of missing out’ and interactive consumer engagement to create a billion-dollar business.”

6. Practical will become the new premium

Black and white headshot of Sarah Armstrong, PMM, Hardware, Google, who has wavy, dark hair and gives a friendly smile to the camera.

The coronavirus crisis has offered an opportunity for people to rethink what matters — and what doesn’t, says Sarah Armstrong, a marketer in Google’s hardware division. “People’s priorities have shifted to a lower rung on Maslow’s hierarchy. As a result, we’ve adjusted our spending toward essentials and crave products that truly meet our needs.”

What does that mean for marketing in 2021? “We can expect to see more campaigns anchored in human-centric practicality. The New York Times evolved its news message to include help with everyday life, providing solutions like, how to get a better night’s sleep. In Australia, Campari launched the “#ShakenNotBroken” campaign, assisting small, local bars with food delivery to housebound customers. The story of 2021 will be practical help for real people.”

The coronavirus crisis has offered an opportunity for people to rethink what matters — and what doesn’t.

7. Augmented reality will go mainstream

Black and white headshot of Kate Afanasyeva, APMM, Hardware, Google, who has long, straight light hair, wears a dark top, and smiles brightly at the camera.

Brands have been dabbling with augmented reality for a few years now. But stay-at-home orders have been a forcing mechanism to take the technology to a new level. Recently, singer-songwriter Sam Smith used AR to create an immersive video that features him dancing in 3D.

Such a feat could signal the moment AR finally goes mainstream, predicts Kate Afanasyeva, who works on Google’s hardware marketing team in London. “2021 will be the breakthrough year when AR will finally gain a strong foothold in every corner of our lives — shopping, entertainment, communication, and more.”

The transition will be all the more seamless because so many consumers already have devices that are AR-enabled, she points out. “More than 400 million devices globally support Google’s ARCore, so this technology already sits in many of our pockets, even though we might not realize it.”

8. Micro-influencers will have a macro impact

Black and white headshot of Kali Ridley, PMM, Brand Studio, Google, who has curly, shoulder-length dark hair, wears a dark top, and smiles brightly at the camera.

The influencer marketing industry was worth $8 billion in 2019, and it is estimated to grow to $15 billion over the next two years. But according to Kali Ridley, a marketer on Google’s Brand Studio team, the future lies not with megastars and their millions of followers; it’s with micro-influencers.

“As the influencer industry becomes more saturated, it can be challenging to determine how to cut through and pick the right people to represent your product, program, or brand,” she explains. “Micro-influencers have smaller followings — between 1,000 and 100,000 — but those followers form more of a community, and as a result, they’re able to craft messages that will really resonate with their fans.”

The future lies not with megastars and their millions of followers; it’s with micro-influencers.

Ridley predicts the coming year will be a big one for micro-influencers. “The marketing industry is going to rely heavily on social content,” she points out. “As they do, many marketers will discover that they can, somewhat ironically, have a bigger impact with smaller influencers.”

9. Personalization will scale massively

Black and white headshots of Kat DeBartolomeis, PMM, Media Lab, Google, who has long, straight, light hair, and slightly smiles at the camera; Angela Zhou, APMM, Ads Marketing, Google, who has long, straight, dark hair and slightly smiles at the camera.

While marketers have been talking about the importance of mass personalization for a while, few have made it a reality. But over the next year and beyond, the technologies that can make this type of personalization happen at scale will become more mainstream, thinks Kat DeBartolomeis, a creative activation manager on Google’s Media Lab team.

“YouTube’s Director Mix is a nifty tool that layers video elements, meaning advertisers can tailor over 240 versions of the same six- or 15-second ad,” she explains. “We’ve seen these types of ads perform twice as well as generic branded assets.”

Angela Zhou, who works on Google’s ads marketing team, predicts something similar will happen on the B2B side. “The term “account-based marketing,” when marketing and sales personalize engagement with high-value accounts, will simply disappear from our vocabulary, because soon all B2B marketing will be taking this highly personalized approach,” she says.

What does that mean for marketers in 2021? “It will likely put pressure on organizations to invest more heavily in marketing technology,” Zhou warns. “Personalization at scale starts with data, and so much data today is trapped in organizational silos. Companies will soon be challenged to invest in the right tools and infrastructure so marketers and sellers can truly take a coordinated approach.”

10. Selling health and happiness will capture Gen Z hearts and minds

Black and white headshot of Kimberly Chin, PMM, YouTube Subscriptions, Google, who has straight, dark hair, wears a beaded headdress, and gives a friendly smile to the camera.

Even before the pandemic shut down schools and wiped out job opportunities, the American Psychological Association found that Gen Zers were reporting more mental health issues than other generations. With a vaccine still months away, 2021 could be just as challenging from a mental health perspective.

This is the time for us as marketers to take actions that bring positive changes.

For marketers looking to reach this group, Kimberly Chin, who works on the YouTube subscriptions marketing team, thinks brands should bake health and happiness into their 2021 plans. “This is the time for us as marketers to take actions that bring positive changes.”

What might that look like? The past few months offer some inspiration. “One of my personal favorites is the ‘The Power of Okay’ campaign from the mental health organization See Me. It uses humor to reveal how employees are afraid to speak up about their mental health issues for fear of losing out on opportunities at work.” But you don’t have to be a mental health activist to make a positive difference for people who are struggling,” Chin says. “YouTube’s ‘#WithMe’ campaign was just what people needed during lockdown; JanSport’s ‘Lighten the Load’ and Coca-Cola’s ‘Happiness Starts Here’ campaigns were also really powerful.”

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