5 Ways the Pandemic Should Influence Brands’ 2021 Planning

Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus by HAKINMHAN

Coming on the tail end of a rollercoaster 2020, the 2021 planning season poses unique and complex challenges for brands and agencies. Following the onset of the global pandemic, the needs, habits, and behaviors of consumers changed (practically) overnight. The same marketing teams that were forced to quickly pivot along with the sudden changes are now being called upon to help navigate brands into a still-undetermined future.

There’s a lot of uncertainty going into the new year, but that doesn’t mean we’re rudderless. We’ve learned a lot in recent months about how brands can thrive even amid indefinite periods of turmoil. Let’s take a look at five guiding principles that marketers can take into their 2021 planning sessions.

Plan for Normalcy in a High-Risk Environment

Two things are certain going into 2021:

  1. People are desperate to get back to some semblance of “normal.”
  2. We have to continue to pivot with the ups and downs that come our way. That’s the reality in which your planning must happen.

The brands and agencies that have been building agility into their models and martech stacks these past few years already have the foundation they need to plan in a way that accommodates disruption — but plenty of others are playing catchup going into the new year.

For agile and traditionally structured teams alike, the most obvious place to look for 2021 agility is within the media plans themselves. Brands and agencies need to be able to turn channels and campaigns on and off on a dime, and they need to be working with partners that reflect that capability within their contracts.

Differentiate Messaging in a Pandemic-Consumed Environment

When the pandemic hit, brand messaging pivoted and evolved en masse. Initially, advertising rallied in support of front-line workers and through messages of encouragement, hope, and togetherness. Then, the need for comfort gave way to survival mode, with consumers seeking value, relief, and utility. Brands rallied with promotions and value-adds in the form of entertainment and content for consumers trying to cope with extra time spent at home. But now, as we move past survival mode, brands are tasked with figuring out how to communicate with consumers who are trying to scrape together the normalcy they can, in new, safety-conscious ways.

Going into 2021, there’s no longer a general tide that brands should be following with regard to their messaging. It’s about figuring out how to differentiate your brand according to the needs of your customers, particularly as it relates to their desire and ability to engage with your products and services on a regional basis over time.

Revamp Customer Data Approaches

In the pandemic, the proliferation of media channels and platforms has accelerated, making it harder than ever to follow customers along their journeys. Marketers certainly have no shortage of data signals, but that doesn’t necessarily make their jobs any easier. That’s because a lot of the data points brands are leveraging today are stagnant or delayed, meaning they no longer align with current consumer behaviors and attitudes by the time brands are putting them to use.

After years of discussions on the need for “real-time” data insights, the pressure is on in 2021 for marketers to become more streamlined and responsive in their application of customer data. The underlying goal will not be leveraging more data, but rather identifying and tapping into a real-time feed that can underpin a brand’s media decisions.

Ensure Addressable Media Feeds Targeted Conversations

As a part of pivoting to real-time data feeds into 2021, many brands will look to tie these dynamic insights into addressable media buys, including in areas of growing opportunity like TV. Some brands have already doubled-down on addressable media in the pandemic, and to good effect, while other brands continue to struggle with these more-targeted tactics. The differentiator between the two camps is in the creative.

If you’re going to pay a premium for addressable targeting, either online or in TV, you shouldn’t be using the same message for everyone. That’s a fast path to wasted spend. Rather, before delving into addressable media, be sure your creative is prepared to have truly targeted conversations. Likewise, your addressable campaigns will yield a level of analytics and insights unlike any others. Be sure you’re closing the loop in terms of feeding those insights back into creative optimization efforts for the future.

Invest for the Long Term

Finally, brands and agencies need to put their long-term planning hats on as they go into 2021. For many, the coming year will be a year of resetting and rebuilding following the pandemic, particularly as it relates to realigning with new consumer behaviors in media consumption and ecommerce. It’s easy to pull back on advertising in times of uncertainty and financial strain, but as a recent VAB report demonstrated, more than a century’s worth of analyses has shown that brands that pull back in a recession tend to lose share of voice and face prolonged — and sometimes insurmountable — periods of recovery.

Brands that maintain or even increase advertising spend during downturns tend to see outsized revenue gains, both during and after the recession. This can be achieved through a strategic balance of promotional advertising, which drives short-term results, as well as brand advertising, which bolsters brands over the long haul. The balance of these efforts will depend highly on the individual brand, but the common theme for all marketers in 2021 is this: Continuing to invest in advertising, while increasing your brand’s media, data, and creative agility, will lay the groundwork for strong performance in 2021 — and well beyond.