Marketing Trends 2021

1 February 2021. Thoughts in Industry by

If you have crossed the threshold into 2021 with a mixed bag of emotions and expectations, you are not alone. You have had to adapt to major changes and might feel uncertain about which changes will remain, evolve or return to something more familiar. The uncertainties will most likely remain but analysing the changes that have taken place across your industry and consumer segments, might help you navigate the choppy waters. 

By this time, we also know that the idea of ‘returning to normal’ is probably not entirely plausible. Some things will indeed be restored to what we considered ‘normal’ pre-2020, however, the longer the time we have to get used to alternative ways of living and altered mindsets, the less likely the chances we will quickly shift back into what was. Experts are cautioning against waiting for the ‘return to normal’, and are instead encouraging us to look for new opportunities. Many of these changes were set in motion before the global pandemic and would have pushed us to change anyway. Some shifts within marketing, communications and advertising have been greatly accelerated and will require us to respond in intelligent ways in 2021.

Marketing budgets have either reduced over the last number of years or have increasingly been channelled to different communication types. This looks likely to continue for 2021. Therefore, it will be imperative for marketers to decide where and how to spend budgets based on what reflects consumer sentiments best to get the most ROI. Let’s dive into some trends that will likely influence these decisions.

Digital citizens

This trend doesn’t need any introduction. We have all, to varying degrees, personally experienced becoming more entrenched in the digital world. We have extended our digital selves into new online communities and new virtual spaces. What is significant to note is how this migration has opened up new digital target markets. Individuals who might never have engaged in certain online activities are now reasonably fluent in these new engagement and communication methods. 

The most obvious demonstration of this is probably online events: Livestreams, webinars, virtual events and what has become a household name by now – Zooming. All of these presented marketers with challenges and opportunities. Many speculated whether this move would be permanent or temporary, and in 2021, we know that these ways of connection are definitely here to stay. Virtual will not replace in-person, but much in the same way that e-commerce became its own industry, virtual events and experiences will, and arguably has already, become its own commercial structure.

Kevin Alansky, Chief Marketing Officer at Higher Logic, says: “The virtual and digital-first world will continue in 2021 and possibly beyond. Many organisations have shifted their annual event and tradeshow to a virtual one. However, many organisations have not succeeded because they tried to replicate the experience on an outdated model. This has led to a flood in the number of virtual events and many people facing Zoom fatigue.”

Thinking about digital engagement in new ways will be critical in 2021, and digital marketing spend will continue to grow. Another example of an industry now being infiltrated with commerce and novel ideas is the gaming industry. Gaming numbers keep climbing, and this avenue is increasingly being used by marketers to communicate with audiences in more immersive and exciting ways. 

Even though social media channels have been used in extraordinary ways to communicate with audiences, whilst physical interaction was impractical and infeasible, we also see a shift by brands to reduce the number of social media channels they use. This sense of ‘decluttering’ is fueled by the understanding that brands can’t be all things to all people. Thinly spread teams are opting to focus their attention on the most effective channels and adopt an agile view on which new channels demand their attention. Limited resources also mean that content often gets used across channels without a proper understanding of how to customise the content for the channel and the audience most active on the channel. 

“We strongly recommend that creative be customised for each platform because the user experience is so different. We see the most success when marketers really tailor their creative to fit the environment,” said Evan Horowitz, CEO and co-founder of Movers+Shakers, an agency that has worked extensively on TikTok.

Community and experiences

Building communities and conceptualising engaging experiences is the marketers’ task. Marketers have had to navigate this through various other significant global changes, which is no different now. The differentiation lies in the types of communities people are attracted to, and how they wish to engage in these experiences. Communities and experiences are essential to today’s customers, and so is customer service.Marketers can think up brilliant ways of building connections centred around a brand or create unique and exciting experiences. But if the customer service isn’t up to par, those efforts will fall flat.

Consumers crave enjoyable experiences with brands that are easy and memorable. That includes marketing and buying experiences, as well as all pre-and post-purchase encounters across channels.

Increasingly the 2021 customer also wants to be a co-creative part of the brand, and they have the means to do this. Considering how to incorporate UGC in authentic ways will serve brands well. Conversational marketing will be a valuable differentiator in an overcrowded online marketplace. According to Christina Mautz of Hubspot, organisations are now wondering how to fight overcrowded marketplaces and stand out against the rest. The answer, according to Mautz, lies in building online communities. She further states that marketers need to find better ways to engage their audiences and make meaningful connections. This will be instrumental in 2021.  


The notion of consumers increasingly demanding transparency from brands has prevailed for several years pre-2020. In 2021 we will see even greater pressure being put on brands to display goodwill and purpose-driven missions. 

Marketing will have to be more empathetic, and empty gestures of goodwill will not cut it. Last year’s civil rights movements accentuated consumer expectations of how far brands are willing to go to put their money where their mouths are. “Many companies that chimed in on the protests were caught flat-footed when consumers did the homework and exposed poor hiring track records or problematic pasts, leading to a reckoning”, according to

The power of marketing is expected to be used for good and not for evil. Using a brands’ voice for self-promotion alone without regard for the community, social circumstances, or planet could easily be perceived as evil. “Every ad dollar spent, every choice of channel and platform, every social post, every inch of shelf space, and every conference or trade show will be evaluated through the lens of what a brand’s marketing decisions say about who they are and what they stand for,” says Tim Linberg, Chief Experience Officer at Verndale.

The below insight from GWI shows how consumers will continue to value brands that lead by example. 

New skills for marketers

As marketing and advertising evolve, it will require marketing and advertising professionals to transform as well. The purpose-driven trend mentioned above will call on marketers to have broader views to be genuinely authentic. This includes engaging in HR-adjacent functions, as workplace welfare will be increasingly tied to purpose-driven messaging.  

As MarTech continues to grow, marketing will be increasingly reliant on deep data insights and machine learning to deliver real value. A 2020 Gartner survey showed how major CMOs are increasingly directing budget spend towards technology. Collaborating with data and analytics teams will offer insights into current trends and help marketers chart a way forward. 

“Informed buyers want to buy from informed brands, which means evolving even beyond the age of personalisation and entering an age of personal commerce. Consumers want to co-curate their experiences with brands to reflect their preferences at any given moment”, says Henry DeVries on This means that marketers will have to get used to collaborating with a wider variety of experts and tapping into a wider array of tools. Strategic partnerships will be more commonplace, and marketers will have to have the ability to identify which partnerships will drive their brands forward. 

Creating relevant communication and experiences need to speak to what audiences value. Here are some consumer trends for 2021 that marketers need to know:

  1. Inclusivity and sustainability.These two trends predate 2020, and even when our attention has been mainly on the pandemic and its immediate consequences, consumers have not forgotten issues around inclusivity and sustainability. Brands will be expected to make a positive impact and will be held accountable for their decisions regarding these issues.
  1. “With many of us baking our way through the pandemic, cooking, home improvements, and gardening have come to symbolise our new reality. Our data from 46 markets shows that our youngest demographic, Gen Z, are increasingly more interested in these activities, with cooking jumping 7% between Q1 2020 and Q2 2020. And data from Q3 2020 suggests this trend is going to continue.”
  2. Mental health has been a hot topic as we navigate the effects of the pandemic. This will continue to be an important topic to talk about for consumers. 
  3. A local focus will continue to be popular. Brands will still be expected to engage with their local communities and make a positive difference in their local environments. Some big brands have started creating very localised content targeted explicitly at cities and some even at particular neighbourhoods. 
  4. Rural mindsets infiltrate urban living. Many activities that were associated with urban living have disappeared and many city dwellers are considering life away from the city. The ones that remain in cities have adopted activities and mindsets that would typically be more associated with rural living.
  5. Gen Z’s have experienced major disruptions to their early adult lives, and many have had to let go of milestones and events that signal a rite of passage. Brands that talk to Gen Z’s have an opportunity to demonstrate support and guidance through this time. 

There are boundless other, more demographic-specific trends that will be important for marketers to understand. Marketers will be experiencing pressurised environments but marketing a brand is imperative during these uncertain times. Melissa Sargeant, CMO of Litmus, says: “In the coming year, marketers will experience budget cuts and even smaller teams. But, by doing this, companies are setting themselves up for failure. During an economic downturn, companies that pull back and starve marketing efforts do not perform well. And, when our consumerism-driven environment re-engages, those brands will be further behind than they were when they made those budget-conscious decisions.”

Take heart marketers – the ‘panic pivot’ will turn into more purposeful reinvention. The new and exciting opportunities are there if you look for them.  


Peter Adams, Chris Kelly, and Natalie Koltun. (4 January 2021). 8 marketing trends to watch for in 2021 as aftereffects of a volatile year linger. Marketingdive.

Henry DeVries. (16 December 2020). Seven Digital Marketing Trends For 2021. Forbes.

Jose Angelo Gallegos. (5 January 2021). 7 Digital Marketing Trends of Focus for 2021. Socialmediatoday.

Christina Mautz. (4 January 2021). Marketing Trends to Watch in 2021, According to 21 Experts. Hubspot.

GWI. 2020. Connecting the dots 2021.

22 January 2021. MarTech the driving force behind marketing for the new normal. Wire19.

24 July 2020. The online gaming market in South Africa is showing high growth. Iol.


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