The digital economy forced upon the world by the pandemic waits for no one …

2020 was infamously the year when business roadmaps totally went out the window.

With several years’ worth of digitalization shoehorned into global economies, e-commerce became a siren call that is still ringing as welcome 2021.

According to Adobe South-east Asia, consumers have evolved with the pandemic lockdowns, and 7 digital marketing trends will define how businesses survive and thrive this year 2021.

1. Online shopping to be driven by smart gadgets, 5G, social media and ‘instant gratification’

Consumers have become more comfortable (or else!) with online shopping as a result of the pandemic. Case in point: Cyber Week, the five-day period between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, broke all sorts of records in the US this year.

Adobe’s data indicated that consumers spent a whopping US$34.4bn in that week, a 20.7% year-over-year (YoY) increase. Also, even though many people were spending more time at home using larger devices like PCs and laptops, smartphones still accounted for 41.1% of online revenue during the five-day period, up 7.4% YoY. As 5G starts to enter the scene, that number will only continue to grow this year.

Social media will also drive more online sales. Organic search was the biggest winner during the year-end period in increasing revenue share, at 11% growth YoY. Paid search continued to dominate both revenue share and visit share (25% and 24% respectively), but direct traffic was not far behind (21% and 22%).

Another trend is the continued need for instant gratification. Some online shoppers will continue to want store pickup options after ordering online. This trend saw strong growth last year, and it is expected to continue this year.

Said Alex Hamilton, director of innovation at Isobar: “Shoppers want online shopping experiences that minimize friction: they don’t shop Amazon because they like the brand or want to wear Amazon t-shirts,” but because of its innovative and personalized online experience.

2. Contactless (e)commerce continues with AR/VR

Experts agre that consumers will continue to expect contactless experiences in 2021 as they take measures to limit exposure to the coronavirus. Forrester predicts brands will look to replace touch screens, in-store feedback buttons, credit card PIN pads, and other touch media with contactless interfaces that rely on gesture, voice, and proximity.

Technologies that can reduce contact without diluting the retail experience will include augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Brands have found new ways to engage with these technologies, such as the organizers of London Fashion Week, who in September 2020 used VR to replace some fashion shows.

According to Ivan Markman, Chief Business Officer, Verizon Media: “With social distancing, immersive content and immersive experiences will be another topic that will keep us busy. With the expansion of 5G, platforms will have more potential to transmit those experiences on devices more seamlessly.” Digital platforms will start adding connections on extended-reality experiences for consumers, and “there will be huge demands for brands to meet them in these experiences.”

3. Sustainability and solidarity spending in the US

Consumers in the West have developed a stronger affinity for what has been called ‘solidarity spending’: being more considerate about why they make a purchase and who they purchase from, and to buy from merchants that stress their values.

For example, some consumers were making a choice to shop Black-owned businesses to support the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition, consumers have learned to value community more highly than ‘stuff for its own sake’ and will expect to see brands help to rebuild a better society post-COVID-19, said Marie Stafford, lead of the intelligence team at Wunderman Thompson: “It’s about thinking as a brand: What is your net positive impact? There are deep roots on this.” Presumably, similar solidarity spending trends will likely surface in Asia.

Sustainability also matters to consumers, some of whom will expect brands they buy from to address environmental impacts in packaging, recycling, and production.

4. AI, bots and connected cars will overturn the old rules of marketing

One powerful way to keep up with changing consumer expectations is automation, and current technology now gives marketers choices. Five years ago, people did not expect to have a speaker in their living room they could command to do things for them, said Tim Irwin, CEO of Essence (EMEA). “Now, 66% of marketing insiders believe most interactions between brands and consumers will take place via AI within the next 10 years, from the consumer’s digital assistant to the brand’s service bot.”

Marketers are going to need to spend some time brushing up on technology, advises Mastercard chief marketing and communications officer Raja Rajamannar. The connected car, for example, is turning vehicles into a rolling office, where CX will need to be addressed as if it were taking place in the living room. And that voice-response system at home will require marketers to develop a ‘sound signature’ just as they have a logo, or else they may become invisible to consumers.

“There’s all these new technologies coming,” Rajamannar said. “All the rules of marketing will be stood up on their heads completely.”

5. Couch-based content consumption will continue 

Experts concur that lockdowns and remote-work will mean a lot more time spent streaming media long after the pandemic has gone. Adobe’s market analytics of 24 billion video starts and over 6.6 billion hours of video content viewed online, had uncovered patterns of binge-watching over the last few months and found that consumers were completing videos more often during the pandemic than they had previously.

AddedBabs Kehinde, senior director, publisher development at Pubmatic: “It’s a huge opportunity for brands, thanks to the explosion in viewing time.”

Beyond just the typical commercials, brands can consider strategic product placement within content as well.

6. Prepare to work harder to retain brand loyalty

The growth in online shopping has turned many products and services into commodities, experts said. Craig Dempster, global CEO of Merkle, cited how 75% of consumers had tried new websites and brands during the pandemic, and 65% expected to integrate them into their post-COVID-19 lives.

Millennials and Generation Z have always been seen as less brand-loyal, and that trait is now growing, said Ryan Hedges, VP of strategy and experience, The Marketing Store. Many consumers are not buying what they used to, instead turning more to comfort and nostalgia, as seen the ratings of Thundercats episodes from the 1980s trending on Hulu, he pointed out.

These shifts are going to affect how marketers handle their loyalty programs. Rewards programs had already been evolving away from point-reward schemes to more experiential rewards, but with hospitality and travel paused, it has forced marketers to rethink their rewards to offer more service that can be delivered in a digital environment.

“Loyalty points mean nothing if I can’t spend them,” Hedges said. “Showing them real value, instead of lip-service value is going to be key, and that’s going to expand and grow in 2021.”

7. Health and wellness

As succinctly summarised by Fiona Blades, president and chief experience officer, MESH: “Safety has become the new trust. It’s absolutely fundamental now, and it’s what people are looking for from brands at the moment.”

Even companies not in the healthcare space will need to make health-based decisions. Fer Machado, CMO of Burger King, noted that his organization had to make a quick decision to require masks in all its stores. “When crisis hits, you want safe options,” he said.

People are also reconsidering how to invest their time, and they are investing in themselves. For example, home workout services have exploded in popularity in many countries during the pandemic. Bicycle-workout company Peloton in the US alone was expecting profits to rise by 40% for 2020.

According to one CMO, consumers are putting a different emphasis on what luxury means to them, with sales of US$100+ bottles of spirits booming because people want luxuries they can access since they cannot indulge in other (even more expensive) ways. “People are working out that value equation and finding out they can access that.”

It is safe to say that the pandemic is going to continue to shake things up in 2021.