Outlook 2021 – The top 10 Marketing & Communications trends for Professional Services
December 9, 2020
No one was prepared for the Black Swan moment caused by COVID19. Besides the humanitarian catastrophe, it is a singular challenge for the global economy.
But what is coming, and what remains in Marketing & Communications?
Based on more than two decades of consulting experience, I venture an outlook in my #BeraterBeraterin (#ConsultantForConsultants) column on Consulting.de and formulate ten hypotheses for 2021.
MarCom-teams around the globe have been able to prove it since February 2020:
Agile transformation works. It is no longer a buzzword from the textbooks, but everyday life in the home office just as much as disruption and change.
All of them have experienced COVID19 as a turbo for trends with strong impact for the future. Although there is hope through vaccine candidates, no one can accurately predict what 2021 will look like.
Still, the questions are worth asking:
What comes? What remains? What’s next for marketing and communications in professional services? What should strategy consultancies, auditing firms and law firms think about whilst finalizing their 2021 budgets?
One thing is clear:
All players aim to further strengthen their visibility in a targeted manner and push their brand differentiation. In the diversity of channels and the loud noise of opinions, it is even more challenging to get through with one’s own messages.
That’s why I’m venturing ten hypotheses for 2021. All of them are based purely on experience and instinct.
1. Empathy and emotions join forces with analytics
The new year could bring a new Marketing ‘power couple‘ á la Amal & George Clooney: A symbiosis of analytics and emotions. The pandemic has proven: Strictly separating head and heart or instinct and data is outdated.
In the battle for clients’ heads (and hearts), both count. This combination has the potential for creative, effective marketing.
In this respect, I expect significantly more campaigns that reflect:
Clients are clearly more than the sum of their data points. They are people full of emotion.
And these emotional connections are powerful drivers to create affinity for specific consulting brands and inspire action – such as a pitch invitation or engagement.
2. Opinion leadership through personal branding
Probabaly some people don’t like to hear the word ‘personal branding‘ anymore. It seems to them a show for narcissists or sales experts. But they neglect the correlation: “People trust people; people buy from people – not just products.”
More and more CEOs of major professional services players are internalizing this. Even if they are often ‘only’ primus inter pares and their role is subject to the rotation principle, they see the relevance for perception and awareness.
In addition to interviews in leading media such as Handelsblatt or Wirtschaftswoche, tailored personal branding includes curating their stories in social media.
Spot-on, Handelsblatt writes in the feature “Duel for proximity and trust“:
“In business, as on LinkedIn, it’s all about attention, reach, personal positioning. Or rather, influence, power and opinion leadership.“
3. Social Media: Not a maybe, but a must
Not only Herbert Diess and Tim Höttges are doing it, but also Frank Riemensperger (Accenture), Matthias Tauber (BCG) or Martin Eisenhut (Kearney). They regularly engage on LinkedIn. Many industry leaders will follow them in the coming weeks and months.
This (virtual) human-to-human communication positions Professional Services-leader not as an abstract brand, but the people behind it as ‘consultants of choice’ who are trusted in the long term.
Communication via social (business) networks is not without alternative. But if you do without it, you sacrifice reach and impact.
Unfortunately, in order to make a consulting brand as widely visible as possible, the legendary Highlander dictum “There can only be one” doesn’t work. In addition to the #socialCEO, many active consultants are needed. On LinkedIn, they make their expertise as well as their canon of values tangible. In this way, they flank ‘the one’ and reach clients and prospects.
4. PR remains important
In the US, there are 6 PR professionals for every journalist. The ratio in Germany might be probably somewhat lower. Nevertheless, here, too, it is becoming increasingly difficult to win earned media successes due to shrinking editorial teams.
Nevertheless, I expect a certain renaissance of traditional public relations – also with regards to tightended marketing budgets. Here, resilient relationships can be built one-to-one, in person and in real time. In the battle for attention and visibility, success can be achieved not only by PR teams, but also by partners and MDs themselves. Modern tools like storytelling help them to do so.
The value and appreciation for strategically thought-out PR campaigns will increase. Especially if they are based on creativity, successful brand positioning, customer engagement and clear messages.
The same applies to the targeted secondary use of content as blog posts, webinars, panel sessions, infographics or LinkedIn posts, etc. Smart communicators know: ‘Owned media’ play just as big a role in the PR puzzle as ‘earned media’.
5. Attitude matters in the super election year 2021
Attitude and purpose will remain important and emotionally charged topics in 2021. In the mix – COVID19, heated vaccine distribution discussions, economic disruption and a super-election year – most communicators sense:
They’ll either get caught in the media crossfire if they take a stand through CEO activism, or just if they don’t.
They fear the Damocles sword of the ‘cancel culture’ – that is, consumers turning away from brands that do not show an edge. And so the ‘Swiss neutrality rule‘ is being put to the test at many consultancies and the Big4.
In crises like these, people’s expectations do rise not only towards companies, but also towards their consultants. They are expected to make a positive contribution to society: for more diversity or environmental protection and climate change. And they should do so authentically and credibly without greenwashing.
In this respect, two things remain:
- Align marketing and communications even more closely with corporate values.
- Commit to issues that you are really serious about.
Net-net: There is no opt-out for “Attitude matters”!
6. Hybrid events still unavoidable
The COVID19 vaccinations from BionTech and Moderna give perspective – but not yet the ability to plan for 2021 in detail. For the time being, on-site brand experiences such as client dinners, fireside chats or large recruiting fairs are on hold. In this respect, marketers have no choice but to continue to play the digital card with web seminars, panel sessions, podcasts or videocasts, plus digital campaigning.
There was a lot of experimentation in the past year: Digital winetastings with board members, cocktail classes, lunches with home-delivered, chicly branded lunchboxes with supervisory board members to mental health sessions. By October 2020, participation rates were promising. But in the last weeks, I’ve been hearing more & more about ‘zoom fatigue‘; meaning stagnant to declining trends.
Hence the rule for 2021 is:
- Continue to develop hybrid formats.
- Be prepared for the moment everyone is longing for, when there will be physical events again. And this is where something new will succeed – because ‘same same’ has had its day.
7. AI navigates through data overload and uncertainty
AI is the big ‘elephant’ in Marketing. No one who wants to further improve their customer journey will be able to overlook it.
Just as many PR professionals no longer dispense with social listening, AI will optimize B2B sales and B2B marketing in a targeted manner. AI can analyze the flood of data and make specific recommendations to ‘humanize’ customer contact. The goal is more targeted 1:1 engagements, where partners and MDs optimally tune into their clients’ wavelengths.
As important as it was to launch studies on all facets of the pandemic, they nevertheless flooded the inboxes of decision-makers along with mailings. Now it’s the task to fine-tune the follow-up and targeting even more sustainably and in a more tailored manner.
Especially in professional services the rule applies:
Better communication = trusting relationships = better sales!
8. Employer Branding with meaning & purpose
COVID19 put employer branding to the test twice. First, all assessment processes had to migrate to digital; in other words, the talents of tomorrow were no longer interviewed face-to-face, but hybrid.
On the other hand – and this is almost even more exciting – ♯remotework has changed many things. The classic 5/4/3 rule no longer applies; i.e., many consultants have had a ‘normal’ family life for the first time in years and will therefore make new demands on future working time models.
The ‘War for talent 2021’ holds the dual challenge:
- Demonstrate the differentiating USP of the consulting brand to prevent interchangeability.
- To charge the whole thing with meaning & purpose.
The avoidance of further investments in employer standing and branding is not an option.
9. Human ♯remoteleadership against pandemic fatigue
In particularly hard-hit European countries, I am hearing from marketing colleagues who have not seen the office or their colleagues since February 2020. They are painfully aware that they will not see them again before March/April 2021. Therefore, not only Zoom Fatigue is on the rise, but Pandemic Fatigue as a whole.
As much as home office makes life easier in terms of combining work and family, I still see some people on the verge of burn-out or at least exhaustion and full of worry whereof they can to draw strength and creativity.
New forms of ♯remoteleadership are needed here. This presumably consists less in further digital creative tools than in targeted 1:1 communication and human appreciation borne by integrity and authenticity.
Perhaps this also includes rethinking the ‘team hygiene‘; i.e., once again the spontaneous two-way phone call marked by deep listening or MS team without camera?
10: Building trust is still a long way to go
If there is one key word for 2021, it is trust. According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, 67 percent of respondents express trust in professional services – compared to 57 percent for financial services (the bottom of the rankings) and 75 percent for technology (the top).
In 2021, companies and decision-makers alike will continue to need strong pilots in these uncertain times. On the one hand, this can be achieved for consultancies such as auditing firms through thought leadership that really provides answers for tomorrow. On the other hand, close, authentic 1:1 communication is crucial to further build relationships with clients and prospects and to further strengthen trust.
And what do you think 2021 will bring?
I would be very happy to hear your personal thoughts and hypotheses about marketing & communications! Feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or book yourself a call @