• 2020 certainly did a number on how brands engaged their target audiences.
  • With a new year upon us, those changes shouldn’t be disregarded — they need to be folded into each company’s overall marketing approach.
  • Here, a group of our client strategy experts will deliver recommendations on how brands can modify their media approaches and maximize effectiveness in 2021.

The pandemic had an undeniable impact on consumer attitudes, behaviors, and spending habits. Brands and retailers pivoted in response, adjusting quickly to accommodate the acceleration of existing trends and enhance consumer engagement through it all.

But that was 2020 — a year to be remembered and analyzed, but one that most of us are glad to have in the rearview mirror.

As we enter a new year, you should be proud that you weathered a tough storm. At the same time, you should embrace the fact that the time of reaction to circumstances is over.

In 2021, marketing winners will be those who take control of their own destinies, demanding excellence and precision from their tools and vendors while pushing bravely forward with confidence and optimism.

To encourage you along that path, I sought advice from my colleagues in client strategy, a group of consultants with expertise in all of the verticals that we serve. The result of those conversations is this definitive list of the seven most important media recommendations every brand should consider implementing:

1. Keep your foot on the pedal.

Many brands make the mistake of cutting marketing budgets during times of uncertainty. That would be a sensible choice — there’s nothing wrong with reducing risk as much as possible — if only we weren’t talking about marketing. Done correctly, marketing is never an extraneous expense. And without effective consumer engagement, you will eventually have no customer base.

Take the home furnishings category, for example. Chip West, Valassis’ director of client strategy for retail, found that December furniture and home furnishings stores finished the year on a high note, up 3.1% from the same period a year ago, posting the seventh consecutive monthly gain after pandemic lows during the spring lockdown. A large part of this is due to a surge in 2019 home sales (up about 27% from the prior year), as new homeowners spend a significant amount on furnishings and décor within the first few months of ownership.

Beyond that, a large chunk of home sales come from consumers under the age of 35, who now have a homeownership rate of nearly 41%. These consumers are right on the cusp of their peak buying power.

How and to whom you market in 2021 might evolve, but it should by no means stop. In fact, your optimistic approach to marketing will likely be refreshing to consumers who are weary and worn from the pandemic’s economic fallout. Your presence and persistence will pay off.

2. Add some new tricks to your playbook.

If there were a silver lining to 2020, it would be that the events of the year have given brands a chance to refresh their marketing playbooks and embrace a full complement of omnichannel marketing tactics.

A consistently effective but often overlooked tactic is direct mail. With more people at home, direct mail marketing had a bit of resurgence in 2020. Specifically, the Valassis Consumer Behavior and Media Consumption Survey from the week of April 27, 2020, found that 30% of consumers are spending more time reading mail ads since the start of the pandemic. That same survey found that 37% are more excited to receive mail. With the stay-at-home mentality likely to continue well into the new year, there is still an opportunity to “own” the mailbox.

Most marketing tactics work best when brands have a unique offer specific to the target audience. That will be even more true in 2021, as Valassis research found 46% of consumers are more interested in deals, coupons, or promotions than before the pandemic. Now is the time to personalize the message and target the promotion — perhaps a free trial for new buyers or a percentage off for existing buyers to influence, engage, and retain.

Finally, omnichannel marketing works best when you connect both analog and digital efforts — that’s where the real magic happens. This approach can really fuel consumer spending. Consider following up a mailer with dynamic creative, interactive push notifications, or influencer marketing that reaches and speaks directly to a customer segment.

According to Aimee Englert, Valassis’ executive director of client strategy for CPG, no campaign is complete without connected TV (CTV) ads. Consumers are spending more time streaming video across their devices — up 50% just in the first six months of the pandemic (Amobee) — and CTV ads are a proven way to amplify print promotions and drive sales lift. You get bonus points for making the ads “shoppable,” turning the awareness tactic of TV ads into a conversion tool.

But that’s just the tip of the marketing iceberg. Direct mail or CTV can be used in conjunction with in-store experiences, social influencer campaigns, and a bevy of other omnichannel marketing approaches. Now is a great time to experiment.

3. Embrace the brave new world.

Though consumer attitudes and behaviors are always changing, the pandemic forced people to make major adjustments — many of which could last for years to come.

Shopping, for one, now has a very different feel. A trip to a brick-and-mortar store has become a matter of functional practicality. The fun and discovery of shopping is now the realm of digital experiences.

Engaging with consumers and establishing trust and loyalty in this new world can certainly be a scary proposition, and it will take a lot more than clever messaging. It also presents a great opportunity for creative and innovative marketers willing to embrace the change.

Meggie Giancola, Valassis’ VP of CPG sales and strategy, perhaps put it best:

“We are, yes, all in the CPG industry together in one way or another; whether it’s supplier, manufacturer (or) retailer. We’re all being impacted by what’s going on, and it’s scary.”

Part of embracing the new reality is connecting on a more personal, relevant level. Marketers must engage in authentic conversations and share the human side of their brands. This humanity will be at the heart of effective consumer engagement throughout 2021.

The changing retail landscape wasn’t completely uncharted territory in 2020; the pandemic merely accelerated a set of existing trends. Services like buy online, pick up in store (BOPIS) and curbside pickup became the norm for a whole new set of grocery shoppers and restaurant-goers who might have just been introduced to the concepts last spring. Delivery also saw its stock rise. About 38.7 million American households subscribed to monthly grocery delivery as of November 2020, up 140% from August 2019, according to the “Brick Meets Click” November 2020 scorecard.

Media in 2021 must acknowledge and accommodate contactless shopping, but that doesn’t mean acting like in-store shopping is a relic of the past.

Consumers still want to touch and feel some goods prior to purchase, but the brick-and-mortar experience needs to be reconsidered. This ongoing change is behind the resurgence of QR codes. Before the pandemic, Statista predicted 11 million U.S. households would scan a QR code during 2020 (a 28% increase versus 2019). Consider what QR codes can do at store shelves (or in print ads, for that matter) to make it easier for consumers to learn about products and enhance the overall experience — while enabling a fully contactless experience.

As consumers continue to blur the boundaries between offline and online shopping, leading brands will have to find ways to adjust accordingly.

4. Don’t miss opportunities related to stay-at-home habits.

Last year, consumers were reintroduced to their homes. Of course, the reason was to save lives and be safe. While it hasn’t stifled consumer desire to go out to eat, enjoy a happy hour, or gather with friends, the change has helped people appreciate the simple pleasures of home a lot more. People are reimagining what their home furnishings and entertainment environment should look like, which represents an opportunity for savvy marketers.

Take apparel, for example. NPD research found that sweatshirts, sweatpants, and other leisurewear were expected to make up 31% of U.S. apparel spending this past holiday season — up from 26% the previous year.

More time at home also led to a surge in pet ownership. Though Walmart captures the greatest share of pet spending, other retailers still have an opportunity to target an entirely new audience. A fact not lost on many neighborhood pet stores, which Nielsen reports saw 70% of their sales come from natural, specialty, and wellness products.

The extended time at home has also given consumers a chance to reimagine their personal media choices, which has pushed tech companies to offer streaming bundles, creative wireless deals, and attractive gaming options. Deloitte reports that, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 48% of U.S. consumers have participated in some form of video gaming activity, and 29% of U.S. consumers are more likely to use their free time to play video games instead of watching media. With the numerous options available, it is incredibly important to capture consumers who will switch for a better provider or deal.

And don’t overlook food. A study from April 2020 conducted by The Hartman Group found that 66% of respondents were cooking at home more and looking more for new recipes and cooking techniques. That same report noted that consumers chose to cook at home instead of seeking ready-to-eat meals when restaurants were off the menu at the height of the pandemic.

Regardless of whether these trends continue, the key is to recognize that consumers have many of the same impulses and desires — though some specific demands are likely to have changed in light of recent events. Many things will return to normal in the months and years ahead, but the stay-at-home habits formed during the pandemic are bound to have a lasting impact.

5. Focus on the positive.

You’ve probably noticed a change in tone with brand messaging. For example, gyms reopening in some states are choosing to gently nudge people back rather than relying on heavy-handed messaging. Meanwhile, the food industry is focusing on the health and wellness aspects of the food they sell.

Julie Companey, Valassis’ director of client strategy for grocery, drug, and mass, pointed to a Hartman Group study that indicates a heightened emphasis in the grocery space on the health effects of food — with increased demand for “functional foods and beverages.” She said nearly half of all consumers reported efforts to eat healthier since the start of the pandemic (2020 FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends Report). While we’re waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine to be available, helpful suggestions on how to stay healthy are welcomed. All of this creates demand from consumers for healthy meal solutions and immunity-boosting foods, vitamins, and supplements.

What consumers don’t want is aggressive or negative messaging that attempts to shame people or prey on their fears. We all survived 2020 and have the T-shirt to prove it. Nobody wants to be lied to, but a little compassion and sympathy will go a long way.

If there was ever a time to read the room, it’s now. Cautious optimism that seeks to partner with consumers is more of a match to the mood. Doom and gloom are so 2020. Optimism is the theme of 2021, even if you have to work a little harder to make it happen.

 6. Get back to the acquisition basics.

The harsh realities and supply chain challenges of last year took a toll on brand loyalty. Consumers have now come to value convenience — specifically product availability and a contactless experience — over many product preferences previously considered crucial.

In most cases, consumers will likely return to preferred brands and retailers once the worst of the pandemic is behind us. But in 2021, brands had better recalibrate their acquisition efforts in the near term to give them a shot at rebuilding customer loyalty for the future.

More than 15.9 million people moved during the pandemic, which represents a 4% increase over 2019. Many of these people moved from cities to the suburbs, putting banking centers, healthcare providers, and brick-and-mortar retailers in the position to build direct relationships with a whole new set of shoppers — but you need to act fast. As Valassis’ Julie Companey notes, 70% of new movers choose their preferred grocers within the first two months at their new addresses. Agility will be the key to marketing and customer acquisition this year.

Ultimately, this is a shift back to the basics: Make sure you know your target audience, tap into their specific needs, and tailor your messaging to encourage them to pick your brand. For retailers, that will mean reviewing your loyalty program for ways to “surprise and delight” those new shoppers as well as those who have stayed true to your store.

7. Pump up the deal volume.

Everyone likes a deal, but the influence of coupons on everyday purchases has jumped nearly 50% due to the increased economic pressures caused by the pandemic. With jobless claims continuing to rise, the need to save a buck will likely continue to be important for many people.

That should prompt both retailers and restaurants to look at discounts and bonus offerings as a way to connect with consumers and win business. Perhaps offering a percentage off for first-time orders or free delivery will encourage people to try your establishment.

According to Peter Boivin, VP of Valassis and head of restaurant industry, “There is a common misconception and lack of understanding around offering incentives. While they may be at a slightly lower margin percentage, they are driving higher acquisition and volume while leading to higher margin dollars for the brand [franchisee].”

That said, balance is necessary. Giving everyone a discount isn’t sustainable over time, and it will only eat away at your profit margins. Thread the needle by adopting an approach that rewards loyalty while attracting new customers with appealing offers.

With the erosion of loyalty, consumers are more willing than ever to jump to a competitor offering a better deal.  Sometimes, that will come in the form of a better product or service. In the restaurant industry, however, the best deal in the world will not outweigh a safe and clean dining experience — in short, quality will continue to matter.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath. We can help you implement every single one of these recommendations. Valassis has the targeting technology and omnichannel execution you need to navigate the optimistic, contactless, and highly engaged landscape of 2021. We’re ready to partner with you to take on this brave new world.

To see how we have helped some of the biggest and best brands in the world identify, engage, and convert their target consumers, check out a few of our success stories.