As a culture we have decided on a thing called time, and we’ve agreed upon an annual calendar that has an end – and in turn – a new beginning. It isn’t as if the calendar hits January 1 and all of the challenges of 2020 miraculously go away. And yet – many of us find comfort, optimism, and a fresh start in the symbolism of moving from one year to another.
Embracing that symbolism, we thought it fitting to not share a retrospective on 2020. Rather, we wanted to share our thoughts on what is likely ahead for many marketing leaders in 2021 in consideration of how 2020 has affected marketing departments, corporate performance, and the business landscape, and changed the customer, employee, and market ecosystems.
You see, in our work, we help companies efficiently and cost effectively implement rebrands and improve day-to-day marketing and brand operations. We have the privilege of talking to and working alongside senior marketing and brand leaders every day. These interactions give us unique visibility into what executive management is thinking, how brand and marketing organizations are likely to operate in 2021, and what will be expected of marketers.
Much of what we’ve observed fits into these three buckets:
- The first is how to do more with less. This perpetual concern is intensified given that almost half of CMOs reported mid-year budget cuts in 2020 and Forrester data indicate marketing spend will decline a whopping 28% by the end of 2021.
- The second is figuring out how to keep brands relevant and/or boost growth in the face of social and economic changes. Brands will need to reposition, and M&A activity in some sectors will be brisk.
- The third is the continued shift to digital. From our perspective, that means not only a focus on digital touchpoints and experiences but improved processes tailored to remote and (hopefully) returning-to-office workers who need to operate at maximum efficiency.
Do more with less: focus on operational efficiency
Operational efficiency has become an imperative for 2021—there’s literally no room for waste. From the CMO down, marketers must:
Create standardization, repeatability, and efficiency around processes
Rationalize their assets, vendors, and other aspects of their touchpoints and operating model
Establish better standards
Better leverage technology
Find ways to redirect more resource time to those higher value activities that truly drive business return.
One thing’s for sure: CEOs and CFOs are on board with this need – and are either pushing it or simply reducing budgets, which puts the marketer in the position to take the reins and “find the money” through efficiency investigation or business case justification. So, marketers are taking a deep dive into all aspects of their marketing and brand operations. They’re finding that they need to:
Get a grasp on all spending.
Marketers are looking at what they are doing, how they are doing it, and who they are doing it with in order to uncover opportunities at a very tactical level, then prioritizing those opportunities. They’re often surprised by the inefficiencies, overlaps and redundancies they find and how implementing these improvements can help them redirect resource time towards more productive initiatives.
Improving the assets and vendor ecosystems.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but rationalization is the key word. Reduce the volume of assets that you manage, and then standardize assets to reduce variance and achieve economies of scale in purchasing. Map vendor capabilities, look at whether or not you have a standard operating procedure for agencies—or if instead, you are adapting to them and how they work. Look at how vendors and agencies integrate and report, and make all of this simple for you.
Reorganize around the right expertise.
Companies are bringing in top-level customer experience and marketing operations executives. They’re boosting marketing and business analytics in order to understand exactly what’s delivering on key metrics, such as revenue, brand awareness and lead generation. Marketing execs now place high value on obtaining additional niche expertise through consulting arrangements to accomplish the projects in front of them. They are finding the right expertise for the right job – and perhaps only that job. By contracting for specific expertise, they reduce costs, improve quality, and take pressure off of overburdened staff.
Gravitate towards tried-and-true resources.
There is no shortage of work on everyone’s plate, and the hiring freezes and staff cutbacks some companies have instituted aren’t helping. As a result, many marketing departments are overwhelmed with the “doing.” Marketers are choosing to work with those external resources—specifically agencies—that they know and trust to execute. In this environment, incumbent agencies with a history of delivering well hold a strong advantage. There’s just no time to on-board or get it wrong.
A focused effort to do more for less produces better marketing outcomes and helps justify budgets for both business-as-usual activities and transformative programs.
Keep brands relevant and/or boost growth
The past year has delivered a dizzying quantity of change. Consumer behavior has shifted significantly enough in some sectors to require re-examining how brands live in the world and connect to consumers. A brand re-launch or repositioning may be required to realign brand values with consumer sensibilities and demand. Others may be looking to expand or redefine their total offering—perhaps branching out into business areas that are tangential to their core business. This may require solid strategic repositioning to communicate the relevance and features of the total offering, and drive people to buy.
Other companies may find that M&A activity holds the key to stabilization and growth in the wake of the pandemic, or anticipate that a different set of policies is likely under the new U.S. administration. Clearly, companies are making moves. One recent deal announcement of note was 7-Eleven’s plan to purchase gas retailer Speedway. Other companies may follow the example of biopharma company Gilead, which is buying cancer drug maker Immunomedics, or Advanced Micro Devices, which is buying Xilinx to better compete with rival chipmaker Intel. Both of these firms are executing on long-standing business strategies that remain valid even in a disrupted environment.
Under any of these circumstances, brand change programs are the inevitable result, with a twist unique to 2021. Given the tight fiscal environment, projects of this nature will be more closely scrutinized than ever before. Here is a small sample of the questions marketers will need to answer:
What is the full financial impact of rebranding?
Increasingly, CEOs and CFOs demand an accurate estimate of all-in rebranding costs before making the final decision to proceed. So it’s important to start the budgeting work early. When doing that work, consider that there are many ways to drive additional and long-lasting financial benefits. Among the most impactful are finding more efficient ways to conduct ongoing marketing and brand functions, such as simplifying branded asset management and rationalizing agency line-ups.
How will we manage rebranding implementation when our department is thinly staffed and many people are still working remotely?
Rebranding means updating both digital and physical branded touchpoints, such as products and packaging, signage, fleet delivery vehicles, IT, HR, legal, and more. You’ll need to set priorities, produce accurate inventories, create multiple scenarios to drive decision making and align expectations, anticipate risks, and account for interdependencies. You’ll also have to effectively manage vendors and project reporting. Working with a rebranding implementation expert like BrandActive, who has managed and executed brand change programs for decades (even through the peak of the pandemic), is also an option.
What are ways to cut costs without sacrificing brand outcomes?
The good news is that there are lots of ways to save money on rebranding implementation. The same brand that could be implemented for $100 million might be able to be implemented for $40 million by knowing how to take advantage of the opportunities for efficiency and different strategic approaches – without sacrificing impact and outcomes.
The digital mandate includes marketing and brand operations
During 2021, the economy will continue to shift away from brick and mortar to tech and virtual. As a result, companies will need to organically develop and bring to market new operating models, offerings, and brands that fill the current needs of consumers, or acquire new business lines that allow them to better compete in the digital new world order.
Help customers understand and use new digital experiences: Marketers are likely to increase investments in the digital experience they want consumers to have. Bringing this broader set of offerings to market and making them understandable to consumers will require even more of marketers’ time, energy, and commitment.
Streamline digital marketing operations: To increase the efficiency of digital marketing efforts across the board, take a look at how internal and external teams ideate, create, approve and distribute digital content across channels. Among the potential “fixes”: Use dynamic templates and optimized workflow automation to save time and money while improving brand consistency, and take a look at your current internal martech stack to ensure it’s being used to maximum advantage.
Putting all of this together, marketers will face high expectations in 2021 and will have to develop new ways of working to deliver for their organizations. It won’t be easy—but many top marketing professionals managed to continue to drive transformation under extraordinary circumstances during 2020 and no doubt will continue to do so in 2021.