February 3, 2021  |  Brianna McKinney

2021 Communications Trends: Brand Positioning

With 2020 in the rearview, I wanted to share some communications trends I expect to see throughout 2021 and beyond. Most brands had to shift this past year to meet the needs of their clients, customers, and bottom lines. But 2021 brings something new—an increasing level of expectation for brands to be real and authentic. To put it simply, and whether you like it or not, brands are being held to a higher standard and customers are expecting complete accountability and transparency. Below is the first installment of top trends to pay attention to this year. Stay tuned next week for part two of my trends forecast on audience reach and engagement.

Mission-Driven Companies Are Positioned to Flourish

Mission-driven companies inherently understand why they exist and who they are uniquely meant to serve regardless of what it is they do. Over time, however, through competitive landscape changes, leadership changes, internal and external pressures, and other factors, that original, founding ‘why’ can sometimes unconsciously erode, be taken for granted as widely known and understood, or even become lost completely. Many organizations were fortunate to pivot quickly (and successfully) in 2020 for short-term survival, and are now considering how to best reposition themselves for long-term sustainability. Those that get back to basics and ground their repositioning on why they came to exist in the first place will be well-positioned for a sustainable future – if they message their ‘why’ appropriately throughout integrated communications.  

As the founder of an agency that has been mission-driven and worked with mission-driven organizations since its founding in 2012, one could argue I’m biased in my perspective. That said, back in 2009 my friend Simon Sinek (he doesn’t know we’re friends) started a movement after looking into why some people and organizations command greater loyalty from customers and employees alike with his book Start with Why. His book had an influence on the focus I placed on Bloom’s founding purpose, and posits that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea until they understand the ‘why’ behind it. Fast forward to today and new quantitative research findings from Deloitte (among others) continue to back my anecdotal view with hard data. In Deloitte’s Global Marketing Trends Consumer Pulse Survey of 2,447 global consumers, 79% of respondents recalled instances of brands positively responding to COVID-19 to help their customers, workforces, and communities. And that’s just one of many ways a brand’s mission can be demonstrated through action and contribute to positive brand recall.

When an organization’s external communications are well-grounded by the brand’s mission—connecting a brand’s role in its community with the unique value it provides its audiences—authentic alignment between brand identity and meaning to all those it touches (when done well) can be clearly seen.

It’s important to note that demonstrating the mission-driven nature of a brand must run much deeper than marketing messaging pull-through and communications activities designed to create emotional connections. It is critical that the organization is fundamentally set up to ensure it follows through on its brand promises by setting and measuring mission-driven key performance indicators that align motive with meaning, clarity, and accountability. 

The pandemic has taught us (among other things) that mission-driven organizations which had previously been living and breathing their “why” were best positioned to not only navigate but perhaps even thrive during unprecedented change. 

While the business world is busy celebrating the quick pivot, be careful not to get caught up in a short-term, keeping up with the Joneses mentality. Be purposeful in your reinvention—take stock of why you exist, what you do best, and for whom—and why it matters. Then re-evaluate your entire brand positioning and messaging to make sure your brand’s ‘why’ is the underpinning.

Brand Accountability

2020 was a year brands were called to the mat on human issues and topics more than ever before. And let’s face it: many ended up on the hot mess express – and we couldn’t pull our eyes and ears away. While some brands thoughtfully and purposefully demonstrated both understanding of and genuine care for intersectionality of sustainability and human rights, and created a space for people to feel safe speaking up about those and other topics, many are still wading through the wreckage left behind from knee-jerk bandwagoning that favored style over substance. Those in it for the right reasons, that communicated those reasons with an authentic voice, and backed up their commitments with evidence of action are creating brand loyalty through accountability.

It’s just as, if not even more important to know when it’s not appropriate to speak up. Be careful to consider what issues your organization and brand should speak out on and why, what the message is, how it should be delivered, and who should receive it. Today’s consumers can sniff out inauthentic stunt communication – and it reeks. 

In today’s pandemic meets social and political unrest, mental health crisis, unemployment, food-insecurity, and more environment, everything is personal and everyone is understandably ultra-sensitive and on-edge. When considering brand accountability, ensure your communications reflect the values of your brand and the (human) audiences your brand is uniquely positioned to serve.

Respond to Changed Audience Expectations

Marketing has always been about understanding people and acting on that understanding. Your organization may have understood its people previously, but with the lightning-speed changes of 2020, do you truly understand your people today? The pandemic pushed us light years ahead in many ways, and consumer expectations, needs, desires, and priorities changed exponentially in the last year. For example, I’m sorry to say that the capital campaign feasibility study your nonprofit invested in back in 2017 is likely no longer reliable.  

To set your organization up to align with and anticipate your audience’s expectations of today and tomorrow, it’s a perfect and essential moment to leverage audience research to gain a timely pulse on what your stakeholders—internal and external—really want and need. Then, draw connections between those needs and what makes your organization best positioned to meet and exceed those needs now and into the future. 

In addition to traditional research methods, another emerging and crucial component of audience research that brands would be wise to consider is social listening. Though each is important, social listening is not the same as social media monitoring. Where social media monitoring is about reach, engagement, and risk metrics, social listening is about audience sentiment, mood, and preferences. Some organizations have even carved out and filled staff roles designed strictly to listen, analyze, and respond to conversations on social media, and make recommendations on how the brand can align itself with its audiences in real time. 

Regardless of your ability to prioritize audience research in 2021, if you do nothing else, remember that your brand’s audience members are real human beings; human beings whose brand perceptions are shaped by their experiences and are yearning for empathy and connection in those experiences.

Does your company need to recommit to your ‘why’ or mission? Not sure where to start? We can help. Get in touch with us for a free assessment.

Topics covered in this insight: brand messaging, brand positioning, communications trends, marketing trends, pr trends

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