Year in Review: The best of 2020

Amid the difficulties of 2020 there have been some bright spots that marketers can learn from and take into 2021. So this year we’re eschewing bad year to focus on the good stuff, from the opportunities of agile working to the role of internal marketing.

Internal comms

Prioritising internal marketing

Far from being just about posting dry company updates on an intranet site, during Covid-19 brands have woken up to the importance of internal marketing.

As companies went into lockdown in March amid growing uncertainty and heightened levels of stress, it was the internal communications teams who managed the message from the C-suite and disseminated information company-wide.

One of the innovations to come out of the spring lockdown was the way CEOs started communicating with their employees, often on a daily basis, with internal comms bridging the gap between the leadership and the rest of the business.

Transparency became the by-word, with leaders recording daily updates to reassure their teams, forgoing stage-managed corporate set-ups for more authentic statements recorded via Microsoft Teams. Videos of CEOs in their gardens and CFOs at their kitchen tables helped soften the message and give executives a human side.

The pandemic has, in essence, seen internal comms transform into an area of “urgent priority” according to Chad West, director of marketing and communications at digital bank Revolut. He urges companies to appreciate that internal marketing is not just something to jump on now and think through a long-term strategy.

“It [internal communications] will have a big seat at the top table every single week, certainly for the foreseeable future, because for a lot of people it might seem like short-term pain and things are getting back to normal, but the reality is they’re not,” West explains.

‘An urgent priority’: How internal comms is coming of age during Covid-19

Not only has internal comms had to step up to meet the demands of Covid-19, but in doing so has matured as a discipline over a relatively short period of time. CMO at credit score specialist ClearScore, Alex O’Shaughnessy, believes the change has come in understanding the role of internal comms beyond simply a broadcast medium for company information.

The pandemic has encouraged internal marketing teams to experiment with tech, from recording live broadcasts and sharing them via Slack, to sending out updates via Yammer, push notifications and daily emails. Many within the sector credit Covid-19 with changing behaviours that would otherwise have taken months, if not years, to come to fruition.

Internal marketing specialists have also been praised for their ability to humanise the message, taking the basic information and finding the personal stories that resonate with employees.

Furthermore, internal comms is emerging as a key employer branding tool, as the brands which have delivered messages of support and sincerity during the pandemic look to be in a better position to retain talent long-term. Communicating the values of the organisation, and what they mean on a tangible level for employees during the crisis, has been crucial.

For this reason, thinking is shifting towards giving internal comms a permanent seat at the top table in 2021.

The spirit of collaboration

NEW C4 IMAGE #StandAgainstRacismBrands choosing to set aside fierce rivalries for the greater good has been one of the defining characteristics of 2020.

Just last month, the major UK supermarkets joined forces with Channel 4 to take a stand against racism following the backlash to Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign, which featured a black family reminiscing about the father’s ‘famous’ festive gravy song.

Adverts from Aldi, Asda, Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose were shown back-to-back across two ad breaks, complete with the #StandAgainstRacism messaging. Bespoke introductions explained to viewers that the grocers had “put their usual festive rivalries aside” as a show of solidarity with Channel 4 in the fight against racism.

Co-op chief membership officer, Matt Atkinson, believes a ‘win at all costs’ mentality, based on competing to succeed, is dying out. The next decade will call for greater cooperation, he argues, pointing to the successful development of several Covid-19 vaccines as examples of scientific leaders putting competition aside to bring an end to the pandemic at record speed.

“They’ve moved so fast because they’ve cooperated. Of course, all the big pharma companies have been in competition, but it’s been cooperative competition. There’s quite a bit to be learnt from that in terms of how we can share, innovate and still succeed,” says Atkinson.

Intelligent collaboration that’s focused on purpose can be just as catalytic and galvanising as competition can.

Zoe Abrams, British Red Cross

Fashion retailers have also put their rivalries to one side in support of the British high street. River Island teamed up with John Lewis, Topshop, Topman, M&S and Primark to share a yellow heart emoji on social media as a show of support for retail teams who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic. Hoping to turn #StandingByTheHighStreet into a movement, the fashion chains united in their love of British retail.

Elsewhere, Leon formed a coalition of restaurant chains to serve hot meals to frontline workers during the early days of the spring lockdown via its Feed NHS platform. While Leon spearheaded the initiative, food-to-go rivals Tortilla, Dishoom, HOP and Wasabi joined the movement to support NHS workers.

Leon sustainability and values director, Kirsty Saddler, hopes brands will become more selective with what they need to be protectionist about and share insight in a bid to tackle pressing global issues, such as the climate crisis. She sees the ‘better together’ terminology of the pandemic relating directly to the business community.

Can brands help the UK become a fairer society post-Covid?

Collaboration is also high on the agenda in the charity sector. The British Red Cross put its community reserve volunteers to work supporting food poverty charity FareShare to help vulnerable people during the early days of the crisis. Executive director of communications and advocacy, Zoe Abrams, believes collaboration and competition are “opposite sides of the same coin”, explaining that it’s all about positive intent.

“Intelligent collaboration that’s focused on purpose can be just as catalytic and galvanising as competition can,” she argues.

Brands have been liberated by their decisions to put rivalries aside and join forces. In some cases they have been able to move faster to serve frontline workers and support vulnerable people, in others their voices have been amplified by a show of solidarity. This year has shown what can be achieved when brands collaborate, hopefully ushering in a new age of “cooperative competition”.

How innovation thrived

InnovationIf you’d asked at the start of the pandemic in March whether it would be the year for innovation many would have firmly said no. After all, tightening of budgets and overall insecurity doesn’t seem like the right environment for trying out new ideas.

But, in fact, this hasn’t been the case. A combination of accelerating trends, shifting consumer behaviour and increased focus on customers has seen innovation come to the fore.

2020 has seen an increase in efficiency as marketers have got to grips with organising remotely. Companies have been forced to all pull in the same direction and Zoom meetings have left no time for idle chit chat.

This streamlining has also seen brands trim the fat – meaning more investment and care when innovating. Take Coca Cola, for example, which cited as part of the reason for its brand cull a need to prioritise more thoughtful experimentation.

Covid-19 has also accelerated trends, most notably in digital, with brands from Just Eat to L’Oréal noting that the pace of change has been unprecedented. L’Oréal’s chief digital officer Lubomira Rochet explained: “Covid-19 is the biggest accelerator of digital capabilities but also the biggest stress test.”

She highlighted that the acceleration of direct-to-consumer has been astronomical, achieving growth that previously took three years in just eight weeks.

That need to reach consumers in new ways has been at the forefront of innovation. Brands like Heinz have been forced to go direct, Currys PC World to offer Zoom chats with their experts. There have also been new customer needs, as exemplified by Dove launching a hand sanitiser that also moisturises.

For many 2020 has been a year of hard choices, ones which have laid the groundwork for greater efficiency and better prioritisation to ensure that innovation will thrive not just this year, but into 2021.

The promise of agile working

agileMarketers have been playing around the edges of agile and flexible ways of working for some time. Back in 2017, Santander was seen as something of a trailblazer for adopting more agile ways of working aimed at bringing teams closer together to work on products and campaigns that could be adapted and tweaked on a more regular basis.

Come 2020, however, and working in an agile way has become a necessity. Campaigns dreamt up in early 2020 felt out of sync by April. Media spend needed to be shifted to reach audiences as behaviours changed. There was huge demand across sectors for new products and services, whether that was the ability to take a mortgage holiday in finance or go direct to consumer in FMCG.

‘Faster, slicker, smarter’: Meet the marketers rethinking agility

Many businesses had already embarked on this new approach to working. GSK, for example, has pivoted from annual planning to monthly prioritisation with teams drawn together based on skills. The same is true at Direct Line, where the business is now aligned across functional teams rather than disciplines, and marketers are embedded with product teams and engineers.

“The whole reason for doing this is so we can get things to customers faster, so if we spot a changing customer need and opportunity we are able to dial up those products or feature changes and get them out there,” says Direct Line Group brands director, Kerry Chilvers

The Covid pandemic has made agility imperative. No longer can businesses wait months to launch a new service that might help customers now. If they do, they’ll find rivals will have got there first.

Being able to get rid of red tape, reduce approvals and get a whole business working in service of the customer is surely one of the biggest positives from Covid. And something businesses will need to try to retain in the years ahead.

Brand purpose becomes brand duty

brewdog hand sanitiserMarketers have been bandying around lofty ideals of brand purpose for some years now. Whether it’s the biscuit that wants to solve loneliness or the soft drink that can bring an end to police brutality and systemic racism, most at best fall flat (though there are some notable exceptions) and at worst do actual damage to a brand.

This year, we might have expected brands to go full out on brand purpose. What we’ve seen instead is brands having a sense of their role in society and their duty to the people and communities they serve.

That could be BrewDog, L’Oréal and countless others producing hand sanitiser, Leon turning its shops into mini supermarkets or local pubs offering money off for key workers. It could be the supermarkets that offered dedicated shopping hours for the elderly or the banks providing online advice on fraud protection.

Rather than thinking too hard about how to save the world, brands have instead shown how the little things can make a big difference.

“It’s been a year in which brands have understood their duty more than their purpose,” says Saatchi & Saatchi chief strategy officer Richard Huntington.

“It’s been more instinctive and visceral, moving mountains in moments. Things that had to happen did happen and a lot of organisations got their ‘doing stuff’ mojo back.”

Giving in to kindness

john lewis christmas ad 2020Spending a large chunk of this year on Zoom and Teams calls hasn’t always been easy, but it has definitely helped humanise our daily interactions, not just with those in our immediate colleague circle, but in external meetings and link-ups too.

A glimpse of home life, of bookshelves and pictures on walls, has opened us all up in ways that a quick chat in the office by the coffee machine (or indeed in the pub) could never really hope to do. It’s prompted us all to be that little bit more upfront about our feelings, good or bad.

It’s something that you can see taking effect in the wider industry, where regularly reaching out to clients, key partners and others has become normalised behaviour, creating a stronger bond and sense of togetherness.

Brands like Coca-Cola, Lloyds Bank and Rightmove have used ad breaks to express support for hard-pressed independent businesses. Coke in particular has been very big on campaigning and helping struggling sectors like hospitality. Plus, increasingly marketers are looking out for one another, using platforms like LinkedIn to spread the word about potential job openings, support networks and other advice.

John Lewis and Waitrose may not have made quite the splash they were hoping for with their recent Christmas spot urging us all to ‘Give A Little Love’, but this compassion craze will invariably feed into many a campaign over the coming year. A new mood of empathy and kindness is upon us. Expect the backlash to start sometime around early February.

Reclaiming the 4Ps

For many, the purse strings were pulled tight overnight when the country was put into lockdown in March. For those brands that had ceased trading or were facing supply issues and uncertain futures, planned expenditure on marcomms was cut and campaigns pulled. With companies looking to protect cash reserves, many marketers were robbed of the P for promotion.

According to the latest forecast from the Advertising Association and Warc, ad spend is set to drop 14.5% in 2020. As arguably myopic as the cuts were – there is no shortage of evidence to prove the virtues of brand building in a downturn – it also presented an opportunity for marketers to grasp the nettle.

A greater focus on the tactical levers left to others was necessary in the short and long term. At a time of enhanced price sensitivity, disruption to established business models and supply chains, innovation in and focus on the other three of the 4ps was necessary.

Elsewhere, marketers’ much vaunted ability to be the ‘voice of the customer’ was never more needed. In a year when brands were busy pivoting to the new normal of their customers, insight into how they were thinking, feeling and acting would make the difference.

The 2010s have been a tough decade for many marketers. Some were shorn of responsibility for strategic oversight, others have seen their role reduced to marcomms.

Amid the gloom, 2020 did provide an opportunity for marketers to shine.