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What Do We Do in the New Normal?

Now that a glimmer of light is appearing on the horizon after more than a year of business closures and sequestrations, the question for many businesses and marketers is: Now what? The COVID-19 pandemic imposed restrictive actions on every type of commerce. If ever there was a time that defied historic experience it has been the past year. Few if any of even the most reliable prognosticators appeared to be able to predict a path through the unprecedented times of personal and professional turmoil. An undefined “new normal” taunted survivors; a period of recovering that while on the distant horizon promised at least a pathway to a recovery that mirrored times of yore.

As mandated restrictions begin to fall away, many are seeking answers to new questions. What are the trends in marketing strategy and tactics going forward? How have consumers’ buying behaviors been affected by the pandemic and what is the most effective message going forward into recovery? The one constant during the past year was the lack of previous experience with dealing with such a unique set of challenges. No one alive could credibly assert past expertise because no one was alive to declare they had been here before. As we enter the next phase of recovery, much of the same lack of experience prevails. So how do we best approach the next phase of marketing?

As the fog of 2020 begins to lift, the initial sense of things is that the more things have changed, the more many things appear to remain the same. The best marketing strategies still begin and end with the consumer at the center. Targeted and focused content that is genuine, authentic, and personal remains paramount to any campaign. Listening to the customer precedes message creation and one-on-one conversations trump mass-oriented communication. Brands still must compete at a highly focused level with messages that are relevant to individual market segments. But not everything can be said to remain the same.

An EY Future Consumer Index survey found that 32% of consumers feel that living within means (affordability) is a priority in the post-pandemic era. 25% say personal health is taking priority. Environmental concerns are important to just 16% of respondents and a majority say they are concerned about personal long-term prospects. The vulnerability posed by COVID-19 appears to have dampened the exuberance of a “devil may care” attitude. In general, consumers are more serious, have high expectations of brands and favor a relationship with brands built on trust. As consumer data regulations unfold over the next two years, customers will likely gravitate towards marketers who demonstrate genuine concern for consumer privacy and responsible handling of customers’ personal information. David Temkin, Google’s Director of Product Management for Ads Privacy and User Trust states, “Developing strong relationships with customers has always been critical for brands to build a successful business, and this becomes even more vital in a privacy-first world.” Data and its analysis may be the most celebrated benefit of digital marketing but gaining a deeper understanding of a brand’s relationship with its consumers may not be totally revealed from the numbers on the page.

Agility will remain important going forward. The unknowns in the year of the pandemic taught us all the importance of trial and error. Getting the first trial wrong required close attention in order to quickly shift the effort and try again. Marketing agility will trend to be permanent and permanently fundamental to the marketing process. Consumers are expected to reevaluate brand loyalty. The EY Future Consumer Index found that up to 61% of consumers are willing to consider other brands. A steady course of emphasizing brand value, sustainability, and social responsibility will guide consumer behavior in the years ahead.

E-commerce providers during the COVID-19 crisis saw fortunes increase in record numbers. “Americans spent $791.7 billion during 2020 on e-commerce, up 32.4% from 2019, according to data published by the U.S. Census Bureau.” While many consumers are expressing a desire to venture out to shop brick-and-mortar retail outlets once again, it is unlikely that e-commerce is going to suffer greatly over the long run. A strong and effective digital presence for traditional retailers will remain critical for future sustainability.

The basics remain unchanged by the pandemic experience. Establishing reasonable and attainable goals and objectives for the year ahead with clear marketing objectives will keep the wheels of progress in motion. Update personal and business profiles to reflect the changes inflicted by the pandemic and shake off any inclination that the end is near. For those of us who practice the art and science of marketing, the best thing we can say about 2020 is that we made it through. Given the intensity of the journey just passed, the future is unlikely to be more challenging. The best response marketers and marketing as a discipline can have to the challenge of the last year is to do a really good job with the basics going forward into a promising new reality.