A Return To Inspiration: Consumer Trends To Look Out For In 2021

Brands need to understand that trust is improved by doing good and telling authentic stories that connect with customers.

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I have never visited Holland, and I rarely buy cut flowers. Nonetheless, I received an email in late April 2020 from a wholesale tulip trader in Amsterdam explaining to me how his company was handling the COVID-19 health crisis.

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The email was irrelevant and offered zero value to me. So, what was it all about?

Yes, it is true that COVID-19 has had an unprecedented effect on all aspects of human activity. A million people have died. Millions more have become sick. Jobs have been lost. Lockdowns have pushed the population into their homes.

In the aftermath of the health crisis, many companies were desperate to reassure as many people as possible that their businesses were under control.

But interruption marketing, such as the email that I received from the tulip grower in Amsterdam, will not work.

Since 1999, or at least since Seth Godin explained in his book, Permission Marketing, the benefits of keeping marketing information personal and relevant, as well as the benefits of making valuable relationships with customers, marketers have understood that cold calling is rarely effective, and that in the customer/brand relationship, it should always be the customer that sets the direction of travel.

Indeed, there are risks associated with strategies that are seen to push ideas on to the consumer.

So, what are customers saying in the post-COVID-19 world?

This crisis has, after all, changed consumer spending priorities.

On the one hand, there has been a rise in “affirmation purchases.” People want to regain authorship of their lives and acquiring a big-ticket item, such as an evening dress, can act as a declaration of intent. Joy becomes more valuable in times of strife, and there is also a trend amongst consumers for items which are most clearly associated with pleasure. This can include products as humble as a chocolate bar.

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While browsing and purchase online has increased, it did so on small ticket items like groceries, beauty, and healthcare products. When it comes to large ticket items, however, brands struggled to close the deal, and retargeting efforts became desperate, with consumers unwilling to reconsider no matter how far an ad follows their trail online.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the transition towards a digital economy. Online sales have increased, and social media has grown in importance. In the US, for example, 34% of Instagram users have purchased something based on the recommendation of an influencer.

We do see a similar pattern locally. At my enterprise, Al Masaood, when luxury car brand Infiniti launched its virtual sales solution in Abu Dhabi, we had a passionate customer saying yes to a car from behind his five-inch mobile screen just a day after the platform went live.

Similarly, new service platforms have emerged, especially in health. McKinsey and Company predict that the telehealth sector will soon be worth a quarter of a trillion dollars in the US alone. In the UAE, the government was impressively responsive in launching mobile apps to help people get tested and track their results.

The COVID-19 crisis has also localized the world. Travel has been restricted with some lockdowns limiting people to within a kilometers of their homes. Whereas before the pandemic travelers were eager to jump on a plane and travel thousands of miles at the slightest excuse, post COVID-19, people have become more interested in their local areas.

In March 2020, in a study conducted by Oliver Wyman called The Chinese Traveler Survey, 77 respondents were asked the question: "What would be the destinations for your first trip after COVID-19 outbreak?" All respondents came back with the names of China’s most touristy spots: Yunna, Beijing, Chngqing, Shanghai, and Sichuan. Accordingly, brands have had to localize social media ads and react to customers’ appetite for community forums and local aid groups.

In a recent survey, 55% of consumers reported turning to brands they trust during lockdowns. In an unstable world in which general confidence has been damaged and the future looks uncertain, trust is more valuable. Some brands understand that trust is improved by doing good and telling authentic stories that connect with customers.

The Dove commercial that thanked healthcare workers for their sacrifices during the pandemic is an example of a brand stepping outside of the usual commercial framework and acting responsibly. While in the Philippines, McDonald’s sought authenticity. The company ditched any sign of a trick, and put its CEO Kenneth Yang in front of the camera in a crew member’s uniform, as he, in a plain-spoken voice, addressed customers concerns that restaurants were not safe.

If I could predict a trend for the year ahead, I would say that customers will ask brands for more inspiration. As vaccines are rolled out, people will want to go back to their normal lives, and brands will be asked to provide motivation. It won’t be easy for companies to make an authentic transition from reassuring customers in 2020, to inspiring them in 2021, but after all the trouble over the last 12 months, we might be forgiven for saying that next year can’t be any harder than this year. 

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Marwa Kaabour

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Marwa Kaabour is the Head of Marketing and Communication at the Al Masaood Group in 2018 as Head of Marketing and Communication. She was selected as the Best Leader in the Group in 2019.

Marwa is a marketing and communications expert whose expertise lies in establishing and leading marketing and communication functions. Marwa’s 20 years of experience span many specializations such as strategic management, personal branding, media relations, creative messaging, brand management, and growth marketing.

Marwa’s rich marketing experience spans several industries, including Airlines, Banking, FMCGs, F&B, Automotive, manufacturing, construction and power generation. Her contributions are evident in delivering services to a broad spectrum of global and regional brands such as Volvo Penta, MTU, Nissan, Al Hilal Bank, Nestle, Kraft, Emirates Airline, Pizza Hut, entities that fall under the Government of Abu Dhabi.

The early days of her career were with the best and most awarded advertising agencies such as Leo Burnett and Impact BBDO. Marwa then moved to the Client side and worked in the capacity of marketing and communication.  

Marwa holds an MBA from the American University of Sharjah and Bachelor of Science in Management Information Systems (with honours) from the same university. Marwa is a Certified Sustainability Marketer, with an accreditation from the Center for Sustainability Excellence and a Certified Digital Marketer from the Institute of Digital Marketing in Ireland.  Marwa is a frequent lecturer at Abu Dhabi University on the topics of communications and CSR.

Marwa, an advocate of health and financial literacy, Marwa often blogs about the topics of CSR and brand’s higher purpose. She is a member of the Marketing Society, UAE Chapter, frequently published articles. 

Marwa was named as one of LinkedIn’s Most Engaged Marketers in 2014 and was selected as the UAE’s ‘Highly Commended Female Marketing Leader’ by the Women in Marketing Institution in London in 2018. Marwa was named the winner of Al Masaood’s ‘Best Leader Award’ and ‘ Best New Department Award’ in 2018.