What I love most about my job in advertising, is that at the core of it all, our industry is about people. We see how a brand’s personality and appetite for risk are directly influenced by the brand team behind it. And just like all human beings do when faced with an uncertain socio-political context, advertising changes – as an industry, it has to adapt and reinvent itself accordingly. This keeps us on our toes, helps us to stay humble, hungry, and even fear comfort. It also reminds us that, like us, our target audience is also always changing. And just when we think we have an inkling of what our audience really wants, a new generation comes of age and grabs the “purchase power baton” from their parents – and, these days, as a society with a global voice and aspirations that are poised to drive real social change, the microphone too.
It feels impossible for me to give a perspective on the current climate, as a brand communications strategist, without mentioning the effect of the pandemic. The implications that we’ve experienced as a result have been, well, insane to put it bluntly. Because it has not just been about our work, our brands’ challenges, target audience insights, or business targets, it has been about “us” as a collective human race.
I must have read through 50 trends reports at the start of our 2021 brand planning season – this year, reports were flying between our strategy team faster than memes about the president's latest address. Our audience’s habits have changed. Our clients have changed. Our colleagues have changed. We have changed. And we desperately wanted to find some sense of security, knowledge, or compass to help us navigate another year of uncertainty.
These are just some of the fascinating and accelerated shifts that have taken place in the South African market:
- eCommerce grew by 40%, fuelling the demand for critical digital thinkers and seeing drastic investment in User Experience and the importance of discovery research.
- Brand loyalty among our lower-income groups is at an all-time low, as many families struggle to put food on the table and have to prioritise real value over brand affinity.
- Smaller, more agile companies that were brave enough to shift their offering what felt like overnight, are being hunted by the slower-moving large corporates.
- Alcohol brands have been under scrutiny, forcing them to rethink their positioning in our society, as the lockdown restriction exposed the huge social impact of alcohol on public health and gender-based violence.
- Rising uptake of social platforms that allow for escapism and an alternate reality, as the restrictions of the real world weigh down on our mental health.
There’s just so much to unpack and take in. But in the midst of it all, there’s an insight that I keep being drawn to: For the first time in my career, South Africa’s consumers and brands are identifying with issues that are not just unique to our country. Or even other developing countries, for that matter. We are part of a global community of human beings who have all experienced something, as a civilisation, that is extraordinarily bigger than ourselves. And was due to an occurrence that was completely outside of anyone’s control. What’s more, we have all have been affected. Yes, some us more than others – my best analogy is, “some of us are in superyachts and some of us are in lifeboats, but we are all sailing through this giant storm”. The commonality though, is that whatever our circumstances have been, it is only with an outlook of grit, perseverance, and optimism, that we have made it as far as we have and will find a way back to our new normal. Whatever that may be.
I’ve been so fortunate in 2021 not only to work in an organisation that has championed what I like to call “grit thinking”, but also to work on brands that have highlighted how incredibly important perseverance, courage, a positive outlook, and empathy really are. Not only as communications pillars, but as real brand values and actions. Those brands are driven by marketers who have chosen “grit thinking” too. Because advertising really is about people, and whatever we are going through, as a collective, or individuals, is reflected in how we interact with our colleagues, what we pour into our work, and ultimately what our brands communicate. When we see a really inspiring piece of work that manages to cut through the noise and evokes an emotional reaction, it is comforting to think that that came from a team of people who had made a conscious decision to apply grit, perseverance, and optimism – even when things were very tough in their own lives.
A key take-out from all those trends reports I went through was that people do need brands to support them – to inspire, uplift, and recognise what has really happened. And as the people behind those brands, digging deep to find that outlook and attitude within ourselves is important – and hard sometimes. But it may be one of the most important considerations for our brands for 2021. And for us, as people, too.