At this time last year, predictions for the 2020 marketing landscape all centered around the rise of new or improved technologies (AI, automation, martech, etc.). By most accounts, brands would be using these innovations to drive the next wave of personalized marketing, video marketing, conversational marketing and brand-appropriate user-generated content.

Instead, Gartner’s Annual CMO Spend Survey Research report indicates that in the uncertain wake of this year’s COVID-19 pandemic, 44% of CMOs are facing budget cuts and 79% are looking to existing markets to fuel growth. Instead of investing what scant resources they have in riskier endeavors like untested tech or unproven approaches, brands are doubling down on what they already know and can deliver on.

Looking back, looking around, looking to leap ahead

No one enters the year expecting things to go sideways. Even so, savvy marketing leaders usually have a plan or two in reserve. This year has shown us that even with proper planning, there’s the possibility of a “what if” scenario that catches everyone completely off guard. 

That’s not to say we should throw up our hands and wait to see how the coming months unfold. To prepare for 2021, marketing leaders need to do what they would normally do–gather and analyze data–but with a slightly different perspective:

  • Appreciate your 2020 accomplishments. Your first instinct might be to put this year behind you as quickly as you can. Where did you start? How much did you alter course? What were your budget changes and what were the results? How did your actual programs map back to your original goals? The answers to most of these questions are probably not what you’d like them to be. But you’re also not one of more than 160,000 businesses that, according to Yelp, have had to close permanently this year. Look at the changes you made and how difficult or easy it was for you to pivot. Knowing exactly how change affected your organization is key to getting where you want to be in 2021.

This should be more than a rote review of KPIs, however. Think of this year’s activities–planned and unplanned–as field tests. And the purpose of testing is to gather data for analysis. While this doesn’t give you a pass to dismiss all of this year’s errors as byproducts of a chaotic couple of quarters, dig a little deeper into the things that went surprisingly astray. Without lessons learned to reference, you won’t know if you’re making old mistakes in a new year. Be purposefully retrospective about the good, the bad, and the ugly, and be forgiving about those things that were simply beyond your control.

  • Find your place among your peers. In other words, do a market and competitive assessment. Odds are, if you’re feeling upended, you’re not alone. But some organizations managed to thrive during this crisis. If your industry and competitors are not providers of essential services, you especially need to know where you are on the playing field. What were the trends and predictions for your market? How did that change? Are things shifting back or are you facing a new, permanent trajectory? Which of your competitors stumbled and why? Which are thriving and what are they doing differently? Benchmarking is always instructive, but this year saw people at their worst, and taking the time to truly understand why consumers gravitated toward certain brands while under crisis will be invaluable.

On a related note, this is also the perfect opportunity to examine your messaging. What resonated with your target audience a few months ago and what was your brand’s response? What resonates with them now and what are you saying? Be thoughtful about whether your story truly represents who you are as an organization and/or where you see yourself going. External events and competitors’ actions should not be the primary driving force behind expressing your core values. Merkle’s 2020 Consumer Experience Sentiment Report confirms that consumers are watching brands more closely for authenticity–how consistent they are in what they say as well as how well their actions and words align over time.

  • Gain inspiration from other industries. This was a life-changing year for everyone. It’s good to know how you and your competitors fared; it’s even better to know how brands that emerged as champions during this year’s crisis rose to the occasion. Not all of the heavy-hitters were legacy brands with deep pockets. In fact, consumers were gravitating toward brands that were virtually unknown at the start of the year but had found ways to engage with consumers where they are and in the areas that were now mattering the most: relevance, affordability, reliability, convenience, etc.

Whether you’re a big-box retailer exploring how well a small DTC brand performed, a goods producer wondering how a local or regional mom-and-pop store prevailed or a tech provider trying to see how you can apply some of the principles of the essential services industry to your own, it’s important to explore outside your own bubble. Not only will it help you gain some perspective on how to stand out in an increasingly cluttered online world, but it’s always good to have a broader point of reference on engagement and communication best practices and how to effectively address things like empathy, adaptability and community in your marketing efforts.

Thinking smaller for bigger gains

The problem with “unprecedented, uncertain times” is that they don’t come with a rulebook. As much as we would like to think the flip of the calendar into next year will be, in effect, flipping the switch to a more predictable landscape, odds are that the first part of 2021 will mirror the last part of 2020.

Instead of thinking about your plan for next year as a firm 12-month roadmap, try viewing the entry into 2021 as recovery/progression from 2020. Break it up into more manageable chunks–whether that’s as H1 and H2, quarter by quarter or month by month depends on what’s possible with your organization’s operations and product schedules. Focus on one anchor project instead of multiple initiatives so you can regain your balance and confidence. That then positions you to adopt a more aggressive approach during the second half of next year.

These have been, and continue to be, trying times. Take a breath. Take some time to absorb what you’ve learned this year so you enter next year with eyes wide open to both your vulnerabilities and your unrealized potential. If you really want your success in 2021 to look different than your survival in 2020, seize this chance to look beyond the narrow range of year-end performance metrics and explore what this year revealed about who you are as a company. Then embrace those insights and adapt them into a plan that plots meaningful steps forward for your organization.

*This article was first published by MediaPost. 

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