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2021 predictions on the future of branding



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January 7, 2021 | 10 min read

A global pandemic

Economic uncertainty. Political limbo. Racial inequality. To say 2020 is an “annus horribilis” unlike we’ve ever experienced would be an understatement.

But in the words of our co-CEOs, David Srere and Howard Belk, we viewed these obstacles as a clarion call for simplicity. Our collective responsibility was to find new ways to remove the complexity from the challenges before us—both for our clients and colleagues. As we look to the year ahead, what’s top of mind for branding experts? Our senior leadership team weighs in on how companies can differentiate themselves in 2021. Read our extended prediction article from our global team here.

Empathy—delivered—takes center stage

As the global economy begins to rebound from one of the most challenging years in modern history, brands that lead with empathy—and deliver it with action—will win the hearts and wallets of customers and colleagues. After a year of personal and professional hardship in almost every industry and region, the days of merely talking about doing good in the world are over. “For-profit” organizations need to integrate a “not-for-profit” mindset into the core of their brand-building strategies and experiences. Take Bombas, for example: for every pair of socks purchased, a pair is donated to someone in need. As we move into 2021, this type of demonstrable commitment to “doing well by doing good” will be one of the key factors distinguishing great brands and organizations.

David Srere, Co-CEO + Chief Strategy Officer

Focus on sustainability to unlock value creation

2021 will be a transition year on many fronts, none more significant than the interconnection between brands and sustainability. The COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on business actions, and all stakeholders have elevated expectations. Customers, employees, boards, investors, and regulators are all signaling that they will reward the brands that commit to sustainability actions—from racial equity to climate change. The implication is that companies have both intensified pressure and permission to play a meaningful role in addressing societal issues, in addition to their profit mandate.

Expect to see a more intentional connection between brand purpose and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) commitments. Enlighted CMOs will revisit, reset, and rearticulate a clear brand purpose and anchor it in measurable ESG goals. They will become more interested in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and double down on mapping brand purpose to the best-fit goals, measuring and communicating progress according to this framework. (Listen to our recent CMO panel on sustainability to hear from brands on this journey.)

Margaret Molloy, Global Chief Marketing Officer + Head of Business Development

Mirror, mirror: What happens inside gets done externally

The world’s most prosperous companies are led from the inside-out. Successful brands in 2021 will invest in a renewed internal emphasis on recognizing individuals as individuals. Treating all people justly, meeting them where they are and where they come from is imperative. Treating employees as individuals drives better customer experiences. Organizations need to be extremely focused on prioritizing and delivering hyper-personalized and customized experiences to build and strengthen their relationships with employees. Creating employee experiences with the same broad-brush stroke will fail because one size doesn’t fit all. A company can’t say externally to the world, “We’re a brand that recognizes this,” if they don’t walk the talk internally. This year taught us that customers see through inauthentic actions. They won’t trust the external promise of a brand that says, “We honor this,” if they aren’t living it internally.

Gretchen Huestis, Director, Employee Engagement

Established brands lean into their legacy to overtake disrupters

In 2021, the battle on the disruption front will heat up between upstarts with fresh ideas but limited resources and established iconic brands recognizing the urgency of the moment. We will see a ten-fold increase in innovations launched by category leaders who recognize they can rethink how they exploit and evolve core competencies. By capitalizing on their size, networks, technologies, geographic footprints, and knowledge to bundle and deliver product and service innovations at scale, badged by known and respected brands—they will disrupt the disrupters.

Howard Belk, Co-CEO + Chief Creative Officer

Swapping dynamism for family values

When COVID hit, besides the toilet paper rush, baking materials were one of the biggest sellers. Brands like B&Q saw profits shoot up as other industries were furloughing staff. It was a telling sign of how much value we put in the idea of home and the sense of security it provides. For the longest time, businesses have pushed to make their brands edgier; more dynamic. After nearly a year of turmoil, I question whether customers still seek dynamism. I believe it’s the brands that double down on their heritage and family values that will be the winner in 2021. The complexity and unpredictability that’s currently flowing through society is something that brands can calm by taking a trip back to simple, home-spun family values. As people strive for consistency in their lives, it’ll be a move away from the push for dynamism and be replaced by simplicity.

Sophie Lutman, Executive Creative Director

A spike in virtual worldbuilding

Gaming was once seen as a subculture, but lockdowns and restricted movement during the pandemic saw non-gamers enter into virtual worlds seeking community, entertainment, and competition. The result is an industry boom, transforming gaming into a core culture for many. In the absence of live music events, artists have become digitized characters and performed in games like Fortnite. In this new era of gaming, virtual goods will become just as valuable as physical currency. Whether buying tickets to a show or outfits (“skins”) for avatars—there are endless opportunities for companies to leverage beyond media and traditional sponsorship. On a recent Siegel+Gale panel, Twitch CMO Doug Scott said, “people need community; they need a place where they can show up for one another, and that’s what we’re building.” In 2021, savvy brands will strategize on how to capitalize on a billion-dollar business.

Jared Fink, Group Director, Experience

A return to shared sensemaking

2020 made clear that the Age of the Algorithm has broken our information ecosystem, disintegrated shared societal beliefs, and, in many cases, waged war against truth itself. As our nation heals from a devastating year, I expect a renewed interest in shared sensemaking. We’ll seek a deeper understanding of our information, factual and cultural divides, and (hopefully!) devise brilliant new ways to bridge them. We’ll give more people tools they can trust to understand the world and build a renewed sense of shared purpose. Of course, brands will have a significant role to play—supporting platforms that bring people together, not those that tear us apart.

Matt Egan, Executive Director, Strategy

The return of the Roaring ’20s

It is apropos that as we begin 2021 and see a potential end to the pandemic, it marks a full century removed from the Roaring ’20s. Starting in mid-2021, America will again unleash itself from the constraints of a pandemic and once again enjoy travel, leisure and social activities, and trigger the boom for another decade of historic growth and cultural advancement. Once a vaccine becomes widely distributed, consumers will enjoy the excesses of society they were deprived of for 12-18 months: travel, celebrating in person, dining out, outdoor activities such as sports, parties and a return to our cultural institutions (theater, sports venues, etc.) in droves. Brands need to cater to and celebrate America’s newfound desire to be free, uninhibited and indulgent. Optimism, personalization and social sharing will be paramount for brands who seek to ride this new wave of growth.

Jason Cieslak, President, Pacific Rim

Simplicity and data-driven decisions will be essentials in 2021

Every decade, there tends to be a major event that transforms our perspectives and behaviors; COVID-19 has made 2020 one of those transformative years. In business, tighter budgets and continued uncertainty have led to increasing demand for research, and a growing focus on simplicity. Reason being–the more clarity you can bring to your work, the quicker you will be able to adapt. And having a clear sense of what you stand for and how you prioritize adds stability to so much uncertainty. Early in the pandemic, brands like OpenTable moved quickly, implementing a grocery feature and adding bars to its system to help customers pivot to a new reality – all possible because they had both insight into their audiences, and extreme clarity about their brand. As we move into 2021, brands will continue to rely on insights that allow them to simplify, clarify and have the greatest impact.

Lisa Kane, Group Director, Strategy

Not everything needs to say “connected”

As the pandemic begins to wane, there will be a surge of new product and service innovations. But there will likely be some COVID-19 era naming and branding trends that carry forward. Because we’ve all craved human connection and the warmth of a smile or hug in person, expect to see companies over-index and capitalize on names that communicate the themes of humanity, approachability, warmth and connection. While a new file sharing app or web conference service might benefit from a name with these themes, your sparkling water, yoga mat and fancy sweatpants probably don’t need to jump on the “human connection” bandwagon.

Aaron Hall, Group Director, Naming

Hard-won lessons for 2021

No prizes for suggesting that 2021 might be the year that learns more from the preceding year than any other. But the brands that thrive or simply survive will be putting those lessons powerfully to good use. Like those that really know who they are and why they do what they do—and can express that with ease and originality—will compete harder, resist unwanted change and enjoy stronger, more progressive cultures. Said differently, having a purpose that connects customers, colleagues and communities, even when human interaction is limited, with a personality that is not only authentic but not beholden to the diet of word-salad that would make Orwell turn a particularly unpleasant shade. Those are the brands that will lead, adapt at will, innovate naturally and triumph whichever adversaries or adversity come their way.

Philip Davies, President, EMEA

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