Dirk Herbert

Chief Strategy Officer

As we move towards the end of 2020, nine months into the COVID-19 crisis and with some recent hopeful news about a vaccine, it’s no surprise that the question on many people’s minds is, “When will there be a return to normal?” But, the more relevant and interesting question might be, “Will there be a return to normal?” And taking it one step further, “Do we want a return to normal?”

COVID-19 has clearly been an inflection point, fundamentally reshaping how we live, work and socialize; and leading us to re-evaluate fundamental issues of economic, social and racial equality. Some of the changes wrought will be lasting while others will be temporary. Nine months into the crisis, we don’t quite know yet which is which – including CMOs who list their #1 challenge as, “understanding what consumer behavior is permanent versus temporary.”

But some shifts have come into focus, and you will find them and their repercussions for five sectors detailed and discussed by dentsu strategists and consultants in the next section. 

The theme they all have in common is that COVID-19 and its attending health, economic and political crises are leading us – as both consumers and marketers - to re-evaluate the role that brands could and should play in marshalling a response to the challenges facing us and driving progress on the underlying issue. 

On the consumer side, this is driven by a number of trends converging into a perfect storm of higher expectations.

  • An insistence on purpose. Fueled by the crisis, consumers increasingly feel brands not only have permission, but an obligation to contribute in broader ways. Data from our Dentsu Navigator, a monthly sentiment tracker, shows that 46% of consumers report that they are paying MORE attention now versus pre-COVID to what brands are doing to actively support individuals, communities and employees during this crisis. And 57% feel that brands have a responsibility to use their influence to stand up for social issues, speaking to the clear imperative for marketers to connect profit to purpose. But a gap remains: a recent PwC study shows that while 56% of C-suite leaders feel their company has a broader purpose beyond profit, only 24% of consumers agreed. This points to a need for marketers to lead the charge on more closely intertwining brand, purpose and customer experience.
  • Everything is marketing. COVID-related disruptions are shining a spotlight on a number of “behind the scenes” elements of brands – from employee benefit plans and corporate finance decisions to supply chain, manufacturing and work safety issues.  This is happening at the exact moment that consumer expectations and attention paid to brands are rising. The result: consumers are increasingly factoring “non-marketing” decisions into how they form opinions about brands, with formerly fringe concerns around internal operations quickly becoming mainstream considerations. This points to the need for elevating the role of marketing across the organization as shapers and guardians of a customer experience that is both externally and internally consistent.
  • Silence now comes at a price.  Brands are facing a catch-22: on the one hand, a majority of consumers want brands to take a stand on a broad range of issues and feel brands have an actual obligation to do so; on the other hand, brands taking a stand in today’s highly polarized and politicized cultural environment risk controversy and backlash. In the past, staying silent was a way to skirt the issue. That “loophole” is quickly closing. Today, at a time of heightened consumer attention and expectations, not saying anything is still saying something. And it increasingly comes at a price: 56% of consumers state that they have no respect for a brand that stays silent on important issues (source: Edelman Trust Barometer); and 50% of consumers in Dentsu’s Navigator survey indicated that when a brand stayed silent on an important issue they either switched to a new brand, told others to boycott the brand, posted about the brand’s silence online or contacted the brand directly to encourage them to speak up. This points to the need for marketers to have a clear understanding of the brand’s purpose and proactively commit to causes aligned to the brand’s values; and embrace the fact that a brand – like a person – cannot be all things to all people.

On the marketer side, we’re seeing a corresponding set of trends converging.  We looked at what separates CMOs who feel better prepared to navigate the current crisis from those who don’t, and the resulting variables point to a reshaping of marketing’s role in line with changing consumer expectations.

  • Prepared CMOs are actively re-imagining the customer experience – not just incrementally but completely. They’re much more likely to have purpose-driven initiatives at the core of their experience transformation efforts as compared to their unprepared CMO counterparts.
  • Prepared CMOs are much more likely to have succeeded in elevating the role of marketing within their organization – from cost center to indispensable business driver. They’ve been significantly more successful in building alliances across the organization and, therefore, have both the funding and political clout to drive a holistic customer experience agenda across all parts of the business, not just marketing.
  • Finally, prepared CMOs have a much greater focus on being champions of agile innovation. While both prepared and unprepared CMOs are seeking to understand consumer behavior, prepared CMOs are converting insight more quickly into new products, commerce and brand experiences, not just messaging. Simultaneously, they are tackling business fundamentals, such as safeguarding employees and adjusting to the new ways of working.

This brings us back to the original question: “Do we want a return to normal?”  As bracing as the crisis has been, it is transforming what consumers expect of us as an industry and what we should expect of ourselves as marketers. Marketing as a discipline is being given – and is expected to deliver –against an increasingly broader remit: with brands no longer being mere providers of products and services, but as change agents of our cultural, social and economic context. Yes, we all will have to work harder, faster and smarter to live up to higher expectations.  But what marketer worth their salt would pass up the opportunity to be champions for meaningful progress? At dentsu, we relish this opportunity.

View dentsu’s 2021 industry predictions>