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2021: Predictions for an Unpredictable Year

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One thing we can predict for the year ahead is that what will have unfolded 12 months from now is most likely unpredictable.

Our shift online has undoubtedly accelerated across the board - markedly with older generations who are typically slower in their tech adoption. But, while online shopping has become standard behaviour in all age brackets, and video conferencing has facilitated remote working and homeschooling at the levels that would have seemed impossible just nine months ago, what becomes ‘the norm’ for the longer term will become clear in 2021.

The global pandemic has opened new conversations for people and organisations on how we work together, where we live, what it means to be a part of a company and society. We believe a huge part of 2021 will be the need to apply longer term thinking in strategy and design to what we collectively reacted to in 2020. 

In the US and across the world, the social justice and Black Lives Matter movements have accelerated and mainstreamed conversations on diversity, inclusion, and equity. In 2021, brands will need to replace Instagram statements and interim policy with real and viable visions of the future they want to see.  

And with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the helm in the US, we all hope to see more unity and humanity in the year ahead and beyond. While in the UK, Brexit remains the big unknown.

But the economic ‘recovery’ will be a mixed picture, with huge numbers unemployed, more businesses collapsing and economic bounce-backs hampered by local Covid outbreaks.

With all that said, we go into the year of the Ox with a renewed charge and optimism.

“In times of crisis, you first see a contraction and a simplification of everything - and then we see innovation and acceleration pretty quickly,” says our global CEO Sairah Ashman. “As we're all now used to being online, it opens up the possibility of us doing things we've never done before. For example, we're more comfortable having a medical diagnosis online - and, of course, that opens up and creates platforms for all sorts of things to happen. We are going to see a lot of interesting moves in 2021 and some smart innovations.”

Here are some of the trends we see emerging and establishing in 2021:

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Employee experience 2.0

We’ve seen more clients approach us about extending their brand strategy into defining and designing how they show up with employees and prospective talent - their employer brand.

As we (fingers crossed) move past pandemic lockdown, companies will have to define not just the rules of distributed or hybrid in-office/remote work, but start to think through how to engage employees over the longer term and give them a distinctive and productive (and even enjoyable) experience wherever they are. 

Tote bags and water bottles won’t do the job to sell prospects on why they should join - and why they should stay. Mental health benefits, flexible ways of working and updated people policies will go from something that ‘progressive’ companies do to mandatory for companies who want to successfully compete for talent. 

Employees will want to feel a new sense of belonging - especially as mergers and consolidation start to accelerate and workers remain at home. In addition, with more people working from home in the longer term, we could see a shift to a truly global jobs market. This comes with a double-edge, opening up opportunities but also with the potential for salary deflation as a result.

Environments designed for wellness 

Well-designed and branded spaces have been a central feature of leading brands for a decade. But as employees return to the office (even part time), how corporate spaces support employee wellness in offices and customer wellness in retail environments will be crucial. 

How do brands think through the next phase beyond masks and liberal use of hand sanitiser? What kind of brand voice and messaging will build confidence around the spaces and places in which we engage with brands as we get back to life outside the home? 

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Brand filtering

Purpose will share the stage with personality: with brands talking about themselves ‘now more than ever’, consumers will filter out anything that isn’t clearly useful or highly entertaining, with empty purpose statements roundly rejected. The ‘how’ and not just the ‘why’ we exist will come into sharper focus for brands, layering personality on top of purpose. But purpose will continue to grow in importance, shifting from tie breaker to deal breaker in consumers’ minds.

Conscious Brands

In the longer term, purpose will become firmly rooted in the new era for brands as part of what makes the businesses of tomorrow successful and relevant: they will be both responsible, in terms of helping people, partners and the planet grow, and responsive to desires, moods and culture through technology, research and an empathetic understanding of audiences.

To be ‘conscious’ means to be aware of and respond to your surroundings. So by calling for more conscious brands, we are calling for businesses to stop ignoring - consciously or not - the world around them.

And there’s a lot that brands often choose to ignore. For example, debates surrounding race, privilege, inequality, fake news, automation and climate change that all make for front page news are often uncomfortable arenas for brands - especially those which lack a genuine sense of purpose.

But it’s not just big societal issues that brands ignore. They also frequently make us feel unimportant or unseen on an individual level - bombarding us with tone deaf advertising, repetitive emails, notifications, demands for our data and personalised recommendations that are obviously the work of a mindless bot. You liked that, so you’ll like this. Or maybe you won’t. 

By choosing to ignore these kinds of issues - personal and planetary - brands risk becoming insensitive and irrelevant.

Big brand bounce back

In the short-term, we expect big global brands will regain their appeal, as some small and handcrafted businesses struggle to make ends meet.

In addition, digital retail experiences will need to find new ways to add theatre and excitement, as the likes of Amazon and big-box retailers corner more functional purchases. This growth, however, will not go unchecked with techlash on the rise, especially pointed at Amazon and Facebook.

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Design performance and brave identities

In today’s world, more and more clients want to know that their new identity will resonate with their audiences. They want to test. But if we only sell in what ‘performs’ we won’t be able to push the unexpected, because people unfortunately tend to like what they know.

The question becomes about how we test to inform - and leave room for bold decisions that get people’s attention and win over their hearts in the long run.

After years of what some smart person defined as ‘blanding’, we are finally seeing more bravery in brand expression.

And if we all build on that momentum, push for bolder identities, and empower our clients to be brave, then even more will embrace significant change in 2021.

Motion as standard

Motion was always the ‘magic’ that got us all - clients and agencies - excited. A powerful tool to sell in, a new way for brand expression to behave. In 2021, motion will not be the extra but the standard - more responsive, more emotional.

Tech regulation

Next year will be a big year for tech regulation - in fact for the next decade. We predict the main theme will be governments getting it very wrong. Not “skating to where the puck is headed” as Wayne Gretzky said. 

Efforts will be either irrelevantly narrow, or totally crippling for businesses. Mostly the effect is huge unintended side effects for big tech, ‘small tech’, and consumers. But it’s very necessary, and we’re optimistic that, in the long term, after many iterations, it’ll come together and be helpful for both businesses and consumers. It will take at least a decade though, not a year.

In the meantime, the rise of techlash will keep the pressure piled on, which could lead to Big Tech making significant strides to take some of the wind out of the political sails to advance regulation. Perhaps a hit to short terms profits? Yes, but likely offering longer terms social benefit, and therefore shareholder gains. Ever the optimists.

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Diversity as a differentiator: new voices

Some stated policy, philosophy or approach to rooting our systemic racism in hiring, promotions, and customer engagement will continue to be called for by employees and customers alike. As we move into 2021 and beyond, brands will need to go deeper as they follow the threads of what initial audits, roundtables and panel discussions unearthed. 

Getting to the root of bias in product design (are we designing for some, rather than all?), audience strategy (has targeting led us down a path of exclusion?), and storytelling (do we use language that is inaccessible or biased?) will present real business and brand challenges for companies, but also massive opportunities to build better in the future and stand out in crowded categories. 

We, the design industry, have largely been designing for and amplifying white tech brands and voices, and assuming European design to be the gold standard. The world has moved on, and it is time for more voices, new voices and unheard voices, that will bring fresh and surprising aesthetics.

Help create moments of interaction, lightness and even celebration

In light of a global pandemic, political and social unrest, many see 2020 as a year to forget. So, in 2021 brands will need to help us remember what we love about the world around us. 

If 2020 was about empathising with isolation and stress - with brands telling us they were with us in these “difficult times” or reminding us of the value of “getting back to what matters” - then 2021 will be about helping audiences find joy in interacting again. 

Once we’re not so strictly socially distanced, will we be socially awkward? Brands might have an opportunity to help us wade back into the social waters and relearn to enjoy ourselves again. The longer our socialising is restricted, the smaller our social and filter bubbles will become - so people will look for brands to introduce exoticism and novelty into their lives.

And so we’ll get weird and naughty as we head into the Roaring '20s

We predict that youth culture will become weirder and more clandestine – as more young people are forced to live at home, outside of expensive urban centres and can’t access pubs and nightclubs.

People will want new ways to feel like they’re being transgressive and naughty – especially if lockdowns extend long into 2021 amid local outbreaks, while we await vaccination roll-out, and working from home becomes the norm.

Formality and seriousness are dead: as people loaf around more in their bedrooms and lounges, brands will either become more conversational or more aspirational to play to these new behaviours.

Could 2021 mark the delayed start of a new Roaring '20s, not dissimilar to the post-war, post Spanish Flu era that brought in a new lust for life and rapid economic growth?

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