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5 ways that marketers will need to drive value in 2021

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Will 2021 see a return to marketing as normal? Unlikely, according to the 17 marketers and business leaders who I recently spoke to. But there are ways to adapt during this prolonged period of turmoil...
marketing in 2021

“We are optimists and believe there is hope on the other side of despair… We need government, business and entrepreneurial intervention at scale to get to the other side.”

Mary Meeker, business trends analyst.

We’ve already witnessed a fundamental shift in how companies approach their marketing. Priorities have switched from sales to retention. Meanwhile, new lines of communication have been adopted at speed to coordinate teams and reach customers.

Our previous article explored how the idea of helpful marketing has come to the fore like never before (with varying degrees of success!).

But what happens next year? How can marketers remain competitive and drive value for their business? How can they stay relevant in 2021?

Here’s what chief marketers and business leaders think…

1. Provide verifiable value and plan for budget cuts

The latest research makes clear marketers are going to face increased pressure to prove their worth. 70% of senior marketers say their budgets have been cut as a result of COVID-19, according to a survey by Dun & Bradstreet. Yet, 76% are facing an “increasing pressure to deliver leads since the COVID-19 outbreak”.

Gartner’s research is only slightly less pessimistic. Its survey reveals that almost half of CMOs have experienced mid-year budget cuts as a result of the pandemic.

Either way, the impact on budgets will be huge, so now’s the time to act.

“CMOs should plan for future budgetary pressures now, rather than gamble on budgets bouncing back,” warned Ewan McIntyre, vice president analyst for Gartner for Marketers. “The brands that succeed in uncertain times are those that recognize the change around them and adjust to it, rather than wait for things to go back to normal. CMOs need to build a plan that sets out the costs that can be eliminated, the essential costs that must be shielded and the costs where greater efficiency and ROI can be delivered.”

Many of the marketers and business leaders I spoke emphasised the increasing need for a results-driven approach. However, it’s not enough to achieve results, they must also be communicated effectively to business leaders so that they get a tangible sense of marketing’s value.

Here’s what a few of them had to say:

Abi Jacks, VP Marketing, International at Rakuten Advertising suggests that budgetary pressures will make performance-based marketing a preferred option:

“Global advertising spend is set to fall by over 8% this year, which will undoubtedly lead to cuts because of COVID-19. What is clear, however, is the extent to which performance marketing has provided the opportunity to optimise marketing spend and garner results during a difficult time. For the industry, this success will only further solidify performance channels like affiliate or paid social as a necessity. “

Sam Holding, Head of International at SparkPost:

“We’ll maintain a healthy focus on return on investment, evaluating the success of our campaigns and adjusting fast when needed. Analytics will play a pivotal role on this, driving business decisions and affecting our resources and budget allocation.”

The increased pressure to deliver results is not likely to go away anytime soon, says Darryl Sparey, Managing Director and Co-Founder of Hard Numbers:

“Marketing budgets will continue to come under pressure for the foreseeable future, and companies will need to be able to justify their investment in PR, marketing and communications.”

2. Become truly agile

agile marketing 2021 dogBeing adaptable is a good idea at the best of times. During unstable times it’s a necessity. With the situation so uncertain: are your prepared for all eventualities? Dmitrii Kustov, Internet Marketing Director and Founder of Regex SEO provided three useful tips for being adaptable:

  1. Prepare in advance: Don’t just expect disruptions, but actively go looking for them.
  2. Accept change instead of trying to avoid it: Different pressures require different responses, and difficult decisions.
  3. Move fast when the time’s right: Get ahead or lag behind.

Unsurprisingly, many marketers highlighted adaptability as key to their success as they move forward.

Jennifer Wright Head of Group Marketing at BlueSky PR:

“Marketing is an industry that always needs to be adapting, crisis or not, if it stands still it will quickly be outdated.  COVID-19 has demonstrated just how quickly new processes, systems and technology can be implemented and that is something I hope we take away from this.  It has also further highlighted the importance of listening to your audience rather than assuming you know what they want.”

Adaptability is a continuous challenge as Cat Davis, Group Marketing Director at The MISSION Group reveals:

“Customer behaviours are also likely to shift once again as we move out of lockdown and brands and marketers will need to be ahead of the curve to ensure that they are anticipating customer needs and staying relevant in these turbulent times.”

Ashleigh Hinde, founder of contact lens start-up, Waldo, agrees:

“What’s remained at the forefront of all decisions is the necessity to be agile and adaptable, even within easier times, and this is something that we will continue to build internally to make sure it’s central to our culture. Behaviour and buying habits have inevitably altered due to the pandemic, and businesses need to acknowledge that, ensuring that the right team is in place to execute what is required.”

We could be in for a lengthy period of disruption says Darryl Sparey, Managing Director and Co-Founder at Hard Numbers:

“We think that the “new normal” will be with us for some time, and there may well be occasional increases in restrictions on people’s movements and activity if the rate of infection increases in future. Businesses therefore need to be agile and responsive in their marketing and communications, and need to be using the time now to build their digital channels and online relationships with their customers to protect themselves against future lockdowns or new outbreaks.

This new pressure could have long-terms benefits reckons Holly Pither, MD and founder of Tribe PR:

“Being a small business I have always been able to adapt, but being a ‘planner’, I have never done so quite so quickly. Lockdown has forced me to think fast and go with the flow, pivoting as the news agenda and my client’s needs require. I would like to think I can take some of this with me as we come out the other side too as it’s been great to try new things and adapt my proposition.”

Paige O’Neill, CMO at Sitecore concurs:

“For marketers, there’s a new realisation in terms of how nimble and agile they can be. Gone are the days of investing long hours in developing a six-month marketing roadmap, as marketers have learned by necessity to adjust strategy on the fly and adapt to immediate consumer needs in ways never before thought possible.”

Chas Moloney, Marketing Director at Ricoh UK and Ireland, outlines some of the changes they’ve made internally:

“Where usually we would be looking at long term goals and projects that seem impossible now. We’ve had to realign our focus to achieving short term deliverables. For instance, at the moment we’re focused on four campaigns, two are live, but two are going on in the background. We know its essential to deliver marketing to the sales force continually, but it needs to be manageable and bitesize – something you can do every day.

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3. Embrace digital transformation

digital marketingThe pandemic has accelerated many organisations’ moves online, says Gartner. In 2020, investments in paid, owned and earned digital channels now account for almost 80% of multichannel budgets, with digital advertising and search advertising taking nearly a quarter (22%), social marketing (11.3%) and website (10.4%) topping the list.

This trend was reflected in my correspondence with marketing professionals.

Rebecca Bezzina, SVP Managing Director R/GA London:

“One seismic change that we’re seeing with clients is that the shift to e-commerce is likely to be permanent. Direct to consumer marketing, with the disruption facing retail, is being accelerated massively and that’s certainly going to be something that we’ll see in this ‘new normal’.

“As part of this, digital transformation, such as online services and subscriptions, will obviously become even more essential in terms of how brands approach marketing in the future. Lots of brands will need to go toe-to-toe with more scalable and more powerful online marketplaces. “

Leor Franks, CMO at legal services firm Augusta Ventures:

“The rise of digital tools for client engagement such as Zoom will likely endure post lockdown. Whilst in-person events will hopefully make a comeback, I believe that webinars will be more popular post-crisis than they were beforehand. I would expect marketing mixes for services industries to include a heavier virtual component in the future that they have in the past.”

Sylvie Tongco, VP Communications and Corporate Marketing at Selligent:

“The world will never be the same and we will have to adapt to a “new normal.” People will continue to rely on digital platforms, and we will see more companies offering contactless interactions across industries. Technology will naturally facilitate this time and will continue to play an increasingly important role in marketers’ lives. Since there will be less face-to-face interactions, brands will be forced to focus on digitizing their experiences by finding the right technologies to support them with delivering a seamless customer experience.”

Paige O’Neill, CMO at Sitecore:

“A year from now, we’ll be able to look back at this mass digitisation experiment and apply these innovations to better understand what kind of content and digital experiences work best for customers. For example, we’ll soon realise that high-production video shoots are not always necessary. Quick recordings done from home, with limited production, work just fine, and in many ways are more authentic.

“I also think that marketers will completely re-evaluate how we do events in the future. Hopefully one year from now we will be able to go back to some form of live events, but we expect to retain a strong virtual element so that those who do not attend the event in-person can benefit from the virtual option.”

Sam Tidswell-Norrish, International CMO at Dun & Bradstreet:

“Following the financial crisis in 2008-2009 we saw the emergence of fintech, and the current crisis is stimulating a similar movement towards ‘digital singularity’. Lockdown arrangements are accelerating digital transformation as many businesses have been forced to interact virtually with clients and prospects, and enhance their online presence. Data is at the heart of this movement – informing business decisions from product development to marketing campaigns and sales strategy. It’s the era of data-driven digitisation.”

“Marketing is going to be as key to the successful restarting of business as compliance was after the last financial crisis. It will be critical to the success of high-performing businesses, building momentum and demand generation through data-driven online strategies. The era of traditional marketing is over, and digital momentum is most definitely the future.”

Dominic Walters, VP of Marketing Communications and Strategy of Inmarsat Aviation:

“One new opportunity for marketers will be the possible birth of many new products and services designed for a changed world, creating a need for competitive marketing strategies to support them. Creativity may reach new heights as a result. I think we’ll also see faster uptake in the adoption of technologies like VR that allow customers to interact with products at a time when physical engagement possibilities are limited.”

4. Blend old and new ways of working

digital and traditional marketingAs face-to-face meetings become normal again, some of the more traditional marketing practices will make a comeback. Marketers will need to be ready to grasp the opportunity this provides.

Those who blend the new and pre-covid ways of working most effectively, stand to benefit.

Cat Davis, Group Marketing Director at The MISSION Group:

“…It’s likely that the future of marketing will be shaped by a mix of things we knew before lockdown and things we’ve learnt as a result of this extraordinary time – whether it be new and effective ways of working together remotely, the rise of new digital marketing platforms and influencers, or the acceleration of purpose-led marketing. What will remain constant is the need for great insight, a focus on strong audience understanding and a creative and varied approach in our ideas and our executions, along with an ability to adapt to the changing world around us.

Laura Whitehead, Global Brand & Advocacy Director at iManage:

“Without doubt, we are missing face to face connectivity and collaboration with our community. We are a business that has been built on trusted relationships, and whilst we are able to continue this virtually with positive outcomes, we are looking forward to being able to bring back some in-person networking.

“That said, we have already very quickly adjusted to creating virtual communities, events and so on, which will continue in the future, regardless of how the current situation evolves.  I believe the new normal for us will be a much more balanced blend of old and new, which we will continually adjust to the meet the needs of our customers.”

Steve Kemish, Managing Partner at marketing agency, Junction:

“In a year’s time I think there will be elements of older, more traditional marketing, (i.e., what we were doing last year!) that will come back.

“The ability for face to face meetings to return in some shape or form are a key part of marketing and sales alignment. Feeding that sales channel with leads that require phone calls and telemarketing will still be needed, as will direct mail, but assuming people return to their desks. However, I think the shift towards far more digitally focused content and messaging that spans even more of the lead process will remain. Human contact will come a lot later in the journey than before.”

“That shift has meant we have been helping clients create sales enablement content (such as basic level PowerPoint presentations all the way up to interactive selector tools and quizzes) that are appropriate for this Zoom era where the ability to build in-person rapport is not there.”

It’s important to maintain the momentum behind online event hosting, suggests Joel McConnell, Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment & Admissions at Imperial College Business School:

“Our main challenge will be to keep potential applicants engaged in digital events once face-to-face activities become possible again and candidates expect representatives from business schools to travel to recruitment events.

“We’ve added a professional events manager to our team whose job will be to design an effective events strategy over the coming year, ensuring that we deliver students with the right balance of digital programming with international recruitment events/experiences.”

5. Continue to evolve brand values and messaging

marketing 2021 helpWe’ve all been aware of how marketing messaging has changed during this period. Empathy is being utilised like never before – and let’s be honest, sometimes in a rather cloying way. But we’ve also seen brands become genuinely helpful during this time.

64% of UK business decision makers believe that branding and PR will be the most important elements of their marketing strategies as we emerge from lockdown, according to a survey by digital asset management (DAM) specialist, Bright.

This comes as no surprise to Sarah Parry, UK Marketing Manager at Gazprom Energy:

“Having a solid brand, which is aligned internally and externally will also be key. We’ve seen throughout the crisis that organisations living up to their brand values are the ones that have thrived. Businesses will be remembered and celebrated for their positive actions during this crisis and likewise, businesses that took advantage of the situation will be remembered for the wrong reasons.

“I believe customers are starting to look for different qualities in businesses – they want to buy from trustworthy brands and those that are able to adapt and support them, should the worst happen.”

The human touch matters, says Paige O’Neill, CMO at Sitecore:

“…Customers are all human beings; the brands that understand this, and adapt customer communications appropriately, will not just make it through this current crisis with better customer relationships, but will establish lasting and long-term connections with those customers. This needs to continue to be a focus throughout the pandemic and beyond.”

Toby Britton, co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer at Miappi believes safety will be uppermost in people’s minds:

“…The public will desire quick and easy ways to get their products that require limited social contact because of concern for the virus. I expect this to be emphasised in messaging even in a year’s time, businesses will try to highlight their exhaustive measures to reassure consumers that it is indeed safe to visit their store, or at least that their delivery drivers are being well looked after.”

The future is certainly uncertain

…But there are some things we do know will continue to be important in a year’s time:

  1. The ability to verify marketing’s value – and communicate it to decision-makers
  2. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances – and seize the opportunity it brings
  3. The smart use of digital platforms and tools – to drive productivity and better serve customers
  4. The seamless combining of pre- and post-Covid ways of working
  5. Continued sensitivity to the needs and experiences of consumers


How do you see marketing evolving in 2021? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Title image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Mel Dixon
Author: Mel Dixon
Editor at Global Marketing Alliance

Editor and freelance writer wading his way through the world of data. One step at a time. Interested in data driven marketing insights supported by... data.

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