2020’s surprising top three marketing trends


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

December 15, 2020 | 15 min read

There were many predictions about how the coronavirus pandemic would affect the marketing industry. Well, in his traditional year-end review column, The Drum columnist and keynote speaker Samuel Scott looks at three of the biggest media trends of 2020. And what they were just might surprise you.


If there is one thing that 2020 should teach the marketing industry, it is that no one knows what will happen in 2021 or any other given year.

Last week, Scott Galloway wrote that “the pandemic’s most enduring feature will be as an accelerant of existing trends”. He and others have long routinely recited the now-cliched Vladimir Lenin quote that "there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen”.

The basic idea – according to them – is that the coronavirus and resulting lockdowns have changed the world forever based on pre-existing trends. Especially in the marketing and media industries. But when you look at how this year has actually unfolded, the opposite has often occurred.

Shared TV viewing increases in the UK

For years before the coronavirus, people had always claimed that “TV is dead” even though that has never been true. In May, Judy Berman wrote in Time magazine that the pandemic “appears to be accelerating the decline”.

But today, according to a Thinkbox analysis of BARB data, Brits have been watching a lot more linear television – and TV ads – during the pandemic.

TV viewership

(Note: Thinkbox is the lobby for commercial TV in the UK and is biased towards the use of that channel. However, BARB is a neutral organisation.)

Thinkbox and BARB found that shared viewing of television has also increased by 30%. Moreover, 39% of survey respondents felt that TV has been important in helping people feel connected to each other and society this year. (For this and related information, see a virtual presentation I gave to a private organisation in Prague a few months ago.)

Think about the greater context. Over the past decade, online entertainment systems and personal digital devices have separated and isolated us. Four people in one household might be watching four different things in four different rooms on four different platforms. The days of fighting over the remote control had seemingly ended a long time ago.

But in difficult times, people need people. Here in Tel Aviv, I have been lucky enough to have a friend only one block away. Neither of us has family in this city. For months – intermittent lockdowns permitting – I have been going to her apartment every Friday evening.

We have dinner and binge How I Met Your Mother because she has not seen the comedy. One week, she cooks steak and gets wine. The next week, I bring pizza and beer. It helps us to remain sane while being alone in our flats the remaining time.

It seems that my friend and I have not been alone. According to a Gartner 2020 report that the company shared with me, 66% of US consumers as of May 2020 had rewatched some of their favourite TV shows and films “for relaxation, comfort and escape”. Exploring new movies and programmes had become a lower priority.

“These media consumption preferences and habits provide a window onto the consumer psyche,” the report states. “In an era filled with uncertainty and fear, marketers should emphasise attributes like familiarity, predictability and comfort over untethered discovery and exploration.”

In the UK in 2020, television increased in importance and prominence. As countless studies have shown over the years, TV programmes and advertisements have always been the most trusted sources of information and the most effective way to build consumer brands.

trust in media

If you want to get the latest credible news – whether during a global pandemic or not – you turn on the BBC or CNN. You do not look at Facebook or Twitter. People will remember that in 2021.

“The pandemic has put trust under the microscope,” Mark Inskip, chief executive of the UK and Ireland for Kantar’s media division, told me. “We have seen people become increasingly cynical of conflicting advice whilst questioning the experts who often fill in the gaps.

“The public appetite for trusted sources in a sea of disinformation has never been greater, and that feeling is exacerbated on social channels. In fact, our Dimension 2020 report showed that 70% of UK consumers don’t trust a lot of what they see on social media platforms.”

Smartphone use declines in the US

For years, those marketers who always fall in business love with whatever new, shiny object comes along have insisted that we should be “mobile-first”. Here is just one example with someone proclaiming in June that this year is “the age of mobile marketing.”

Enter the pandemic. For the US, Nielsen shared with me a preview of the company’s forthcoming Q2 2020 Total Audience Report (TAR), which regularly details the average media consumption of adults in the country.

smartphone use declines

To examine each type of media further, I looked at prior Nielsen reports and created some charts to see the overall trends. For the long-term changes, here are the TARs from Q3 2013 and Q2 2020.


Over the past seven years, live TV and radio consumption declined by 19% and 18% while smartphones and tablet use increased by 351% and 489%. If the pandemic would have merely accelerated these trends, then consumers would have shut off their televisions and radios while turning on their mobile devices.

But that has not happened – at least not so far. Here are the TARs from Q2 2020, Q1 2020 and Q4 2019.

change in media use

US lockdowns began in March 2020 (the end of Q1). In Q2, most media use remained level with slight rises or falls here or there. But the most significant development was a marked decline of 28% in smartphone use since the end of last year.

"In addition to a change in methodology for our mobile measurement, where we have enhanced the reporting to organic usage of smartphone apps, we have seen a shift in consumer behavior exacerbated by Covid-19,” Peter Katsingris, Nielsen’s senior vice president of audience insights, told me.

“We have seen consumers of all types lean more into streaming content, and typically that premium content is watched on a larger screen. During this time, all the ways that consumers can connect to this content – be it gaming consoles or multimedia/TV connected devices – have all seen increases in consumer usage, which also accounts for this shift. Of course, with a finite amount of consumer time and that methodology enhancement, it's no surprise that different media behaviors emerge.”

I have a theory as well. Whenever I would take a train or bus in Israel or a plane to a speaking engagement somewhere in the world, I would always be listening to Spotify through my mobile phone. For most of this year, I rarely took trains or buses – and I certainly did not fly anywhere. I barely used Spotify.

Mobile devices are used by people on the go. And most of us went somewhere a lot less often this year. At home, we use large screens -- such as when we watch shared television. At work, we use our personal computers. I would never type these columns on my smartphone. So it is little surprise that global smartphone sales fell 20% in Q2 2020.

In 2021, people might remember that they do not need to treat their smartphones like dopamine-releasing slot machines and fumble with them every 10 seconds.

The coronavirus pandemic did not quicken these existing media trends – it reversed them. Contrary to the past seven years, TV increased in popularity and smartphones declined. Stressed-out people have been turning their phones off and televisions on.

How movie theatres can recover

But if there was a clear victim throughout the world this year, it was movie theaters and cinema advertising that fared the worst.

Advertising revenues at British cinemas this year will likely be less than half of what they were in 2019. Two movie theatre operators in Singapore may merge because of their difficult economic situations. Disney will skip theatrical releases for upcoming films in favor of Disney+. Warner Bros will screen its entire 2021 line-up on HBO Max at the same time as their theatrical releases.

In Israel, cinemas have been closed since March. The last movie I saw in a theater was Avengers: Endgame at this location in central Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv cinema

I just hope that was not the actual endgame – even though the Marvel Cinematic Universe now feels like it was a lifetime ago.

In March 2019, Zenith Media predicted that cinema advertising would see modest but respectable global spend increases through 2021.


Of course, we all know what happened. Pundits will debate forever whether the coronavirus pandemic qualified as a so-called “black swan event” such as the eruption of the first world war, the September 11 terrorist attacks and the rise of Justin Beiber’s music career.

But the fact remains that no one saw it coming. (Pandemics in general? Yes. This specific one? No.) And that is a shame because I have always loved cinema advertising in both a personal and professional capacity. I always ask that my friends arrive at theatres enough in advance for us to see the ads.

Think about it. There is zero ad fraud – everyone who buys a ticket and sits in a seat is an actual human being and not a bot. The audience is forced to see a gigantic screen that cannot be turned off with ad blockers. People are together in happy, receptive moods. Advertisers know how many people saw their ads due to the ticket sales.

What more could marketers want? I have no idea why cinema advertising gets so little respect and ad spend. Regardless, the industry is still facing difficulties that existed even before the pandemic. Ever-increasing ticket prices for uncomfortable and dirty seats. Vastly overpriced popcorn and soda (which is how cinemas make most of their money). People buying quality TVs and sound systems for home use instead.

People go to the movies to have a cheap, communal entertainment experience. If cinemas close forever, I will remember two specific memories. The crowd yelling when a certain Avenger appeared out of nowhere to help an almost defeated Captain America in Endgame, and the audience cheering when the opening Star Wars theme in The Force Awakens began after we went more than 30 years without a good movie in the franchise.

After all, there is a stigma against seeing a movie alone. Common first dates have often been “dinner and a movie” even though the couple cannot talk to each other during the second part. Why? Interpersonal bonds form when people laugh together during a romantic comedy or hold each other during a horror movie.

But after the pandemic, the high prices and mass availability of cheaper options will still hold cinemas back. If you charge a high price, then your product or brand must be worth it. So, I have a solution.

People who think only about prices are like economists and procurement departments – they know the cost of everything but the value of nothing. And cinema’s value is the communal experience. Movie theatres cannot be replaced. Floating cinemas are a temporary phenomenon in select locations. Drive-in theatres are for certain, specific experiences that are usually not done in groups.

When the pandemic is over, cinemas should position themselves as luxury brands and experiences – and charge a premium price that will be even higher than before.

Take out enough seats for social distancing. Have gourmet food and drinks with servers who bring trays that connect to seats easily. Create pods of two seats each. Make the chairs very comfortable and let them recline. Have a privacy wall on the sides of each pod. Show fewer ads, and charge more for them. Play the movie in bathrooms so people do not have to worry about missing anything. These premium theatres in Hong Kong, for example, can serve as models.

The volume will be lower, but the margins will be greater. People who want to see a movie in the cheapest possible way will always do so. We commoners will watch most movies on TV and streaming at home – except when the type of film, such as an action or superhero flick, is best viewed in that luxury experience. But others with a lot more money will still want that cinematic environment all the time. “Dinner and a movie” could now happen at the same location.

And if cinemas see smaller volumes at higher prices, they can use their facilities between movie releases to host events and show other programming besides the latest films. Tom Jarvis, the founder of the Wilderness Agency, suggested something similar in The Drum four months ago.

As a professional keynote marketing speaker myself, I can tell you that movie theatres could be perfect venues for rented business events whenever films are not playing. The large screens and expensive sound systems would suit such occasions well.

Past performance does not predict future performance

In 2018 and 2019, my year-end review columns judged the major predictions that analyst firms and marketing software companies made for our industry in those years. (Read the articles here and here.) But for obvious reasons, that would not be fair to do for 2020.

This year, my point is to demonstrate how some human behavior this year has completely contradicted the prior trends that many marketers had assumed would just continue.

Prediction is largely impossible because human behavior is not simple. If it were, I could make a million dollars just by drawing continuing future trend lines on PowerPoint slides based on the recent past. I could make a billion dollars by purchasing company stocks that are already doing well. But past performance indeed has little to do with future results.

No one knows what will happen. Hell, Justin Beiber might even release a second album this year after he dropped Changes in February. And that would be the most 2020 thing of all.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual corporate speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.


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