The 10 wide-ranging trends look at creative innovations set to go mainstream along with shifts in consumer behaviors.
The new report, developed by Wunderman Thompson’s think tank and innovation unit Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, highlights the trends that will shape the world this year across ten different sectors: culture, technology, travel, branding & marketing, food & drink, beauty, retail, health, business, and finance sectors. For the first time, the report also looks at work trends, as the dual forces of a mass shift to home working and the rise in unemployment fueled by the pandemic change our professional lives dramatically.
New gaming frontiers
Consulting firm Activate revealed that the consumer gaming industry is expected to reach a value of $198 billion by 2024, which does not include sales from hardware and devices, augmented reality, virtual reality, and advertising. This growth is likely due in part to the fact that digital games are increasingly serving as the backdrop for a variety of activities, from going to a concert to celebrating a graduation, etc. More and more traditional gaming spaces are transforming into cultural centers where people can virtually gather for community, entertainment, and business.
As per game payments firm Xsolla, the future of conferences and corporate events lies in gaming. Xsolla launched Unconventional, a platform for holding virtual events with 3D avatars inside virtual worlds, for the game industry. Teooh, an avatar-based virtual event platform was launched in April of 2020 and has gained massive popularity since. The platform has been used for everything from business meetings to birthday parties and is also serving as a stage for cultural events.
Gaming is no longer just for gameplay. According to Michael Wolf, Co-Founder and Chief Executive of Activate, it is set to emerge as the next dominant technology platform—much the way search engines, mobile phones, and social networks redefined industries in previous decades.
The demand for animated TV shows for adults is on the rise as a result of quarantine grinding live-action filming to a halt. This has provided much-needed time for animators to flourish and, even as filming resumes, the medium’s renaissance continues. One of animation’s attractions is the appearance of provocative guests. Streaming giants have already begun investing into producing more animated titles either by reviving old live-action franchises or creating animated spinoffs. The future of television will be animation. The global animation market is projected to reach $473.7 million by 2026, up from $272.1 million in 2020, and audience appetite for adult cartoons has strengthened over the years, with veterans such as The Simpsons and South Park still going strong.
The future of live events
Event organizers demonstrated creativity, resilience and technological prowess to pull off innovative virtual events throughout 2020. Various events that took place last year set the stage for at least the near future of live music. In August 2020, Virgin Money Unity Arena, which claimed to be the first dedicated socially distanced music venue in the United Kingdom, hosted its first concert. The venue features 500 elevated “personal platforms,” distanced six feet apart, each holding up to five attendees for a total capacity of 2,500. Similar concepts are being tested around the world.
Music promoters are itching to bring back large-scale concerts both indoors and outside. Plans for major festivals are still greenlit for 2021. Even with a virtual pivot, live event organizers have faced major revenue-stream setbacks due to the pandemic, and the industry’s fate rests on its ability to bring back pre-pandemic crowds. The incentives for doing this safely could be twofold. Although circumstances dictate that many events, including institutions such as CES and SXSW, will deliver all-virtual packages in the coming months, other organizers are planning “phased returns” for concerts and conferences that will give all attendees the VIP treatment.
Members are moving on from simply consuming pop culture to becoming amplifiers and content creators for their idols, online and en masse. Around the world, social media has connected the fans of hit TV series, movies, books, and musicians to the objects of their adoration and, crucially, to each other. With a single social media post, these fans can rise as a group to boost music sales, defend their heroes against detractors, and, increasingly, throw their weight behind social and political causes. The South Korean pop industry has applied new technology to fan engagement to a degree not seen elsewhere.
There are special content channels, personalized messaging platforms, and, during the pandemic, streamed concerts enhanced with augmented and virtual reality. Fans identify as a community and will buy and stream songs continuously on multiple devices to push them up the charts, as well as creating and sharing fan fiction, artwork, and compilation videos.
Devoted, digital, and global fandoms are moving from being boosters of their idols to becoming a force in their own right. Brands that align with fans, consumers, and people who support specific causes will gain their own loyal fandom.
Brands and marketing
Generation Z is setting a new standard for brand purpose. In an October 2020 survey by Wunderman Thompson Data, 80% of US Gen Zers say that brands should help make people’s lives better and 82% believe brands should leave aside their differences and work together for the greater good. Guess what? Brands were listening. In response to the climate crisis, Microsoft launched the Transform to Net Zero initiative in July and teamed up with eight corporations including Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Unilever, and Danone to become carbon-negative businesses by 2030. Banding together in the face of the pandemic made for swifter research and innovation.
In the United States, the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 under police arrest, set off global protests and anger concerning systemic racism. Many brands were quick to respond. Nike released a tweet on May 29 saying “Let’s all be part of the change” along with a video standing against racism with the message “For Once, Don’t Do It.” The next day Adidas, replied with “Together is how we move forward. Together is how we make change,” in solidarity with Nike’s messaging.
The cultural shift from “me” to “we” is extending to brands, demonstrating that change requires collaborative efforts.
The visual language of connectivity
Scenes of clustered crowds and large gatherings will continue to appear inappropriate as 2021 unfolds. So how are advertisers and brands visualizing togetherness? Brands are dialing up key themes as a result of the pandemic: connection, support, and wellbeing, using visuals of families, partners, and quarantine pods spending time together in different scenarios. Airbnb has community at the heart of its messaging. In June 2020, the company launched its “Go Near” campaign supporting local travel and economic growth. The imagery selected for the campaign shows small intimate groups on vacation, portrayed informally.
Forget the compilation of faces via a Zoom call depicting togetherness (so 2020)—brands and advertisers are opting for smaller group settings and capturing intimate moments to convey a feeling of community in 2021. The message of community is being reframed.
The favorite Gen Z platform is the main driver of an uptick in short-form video advertising. TikTok is also helping users to monetize content rather than focusing on big-brand advertising in the vein of Instagram and Facebook. The platform also launched TikTok for Business in June 2020, essentially an in-house marketing agency along with the announcement of a Shopify integration in October. The result of these developments is an ecosystem that is friendly to brands but places the creator very much at the center. "The most important asset of TikTok is their own creators. So they always try to leverage the creator, because if you look at all the trends which have come out of TikTok and how they got very popular, it’s thanks to its creators,” said Fabian Ouwehand, Founder and Growth Director at Uplab.
By building these advertising and e-commerce functionalities, TikTok is clearing a path that will see the platform mature into a powerful social commerce tool as well as an epoch-defining creative hub.
Innovative companies are finding new ways to repurpose empty venues and assets, creating hybrid and adaptable experiences. In April 2020, the pandemic not only halted the airline industry, but the leisure industry too, as movie theaters closed worldwide. Thai Airways repurposed its airplane seats and first-class menus for grounded customers. At a pop-up restaurant at its company headquarters in Bangkok in September 2020, guests were served in-flight meals by cabin crew. The restaurant was kitted out with unused airplane seats and furniture made from recycled plane parts.
Lithuania’s Vilnius airport teamed up with the organizers of the Vilnius International Film Festival to transform the airport runway into a drive-in-style movie theater called the Aerocinema. Not only do these examples show how brands and businesses can spark joy in tough times, they also highlight the powerful role agility and collaboration can play in adjusting to change. These creative responses point the way forward to a new genre of experiences that champion adaptive spaces.
What is brand safety? Broadly speaking, it’s the protection of a brand’s reputation. Practically speaking, that translates into monitoring the environment in which a brand’s content or advertising appears. Increasingly, this is a critical consideration for brands to appeal to a rising class of vigilant consumers. Modern consumers are looking beyond messaging, diving into a brand’s ethics, actions, and values—and, most recently, are looking at where ads appear as an indication of those values.
Popular social media platforms are ramping up their brand safety protections, giving companies more control over the context in which their ads appear. TikTok partnered with brand safety platform OpenSlate in October 2020 to ensure that businesses advertising on TikTok won’t have their ads and branded content placed alongside material that is deemed questionable. In the same month, YouTube named Zefr as a brand safety reporting partner, with plans to develop and roll out brand safety measures in 2021.
The communication of a brand’s values goes far beyond its products; it includes everything from brand actions to treatment of employees to the context in which its ads appear.
The pandemic-induced hiatus in the public attending live sports has given rights holders a renewed appreciation for the value of engaging fans digitally. Moving forward, digital fan engagement will become indispensable—and could offer a roadmap for leveling up brand loyalty. Even before the pandemic, digital innovation for sports fans was ripe for development.
The Covid-19 outbreak has seen the trend reach new heights. In September 2020, the Mumbai Indians cricket club launched a number of virtual innovations to unite and engage its army of fans, known as the Paltan. La Liga North America is taking an exclusive approach, tapping the growing trend of watch parties to deliver a VIP experience for a group of Spanish soccer superfans. It is hosting a series of five exclusive watch parties on the LiveLike platform, presented by legends of La Liga such as Samuel Eto’o and Diego Forlán.
Alongside fun digital matchday experiences like these, fans want 24/7 content that gets them closer to the athletes and the action. That’s why legendary soccer club FC Barcelona launched Barca TV + in the summer of 2020, featuring more than 1,000 hours of content from live matches and replays, behind-the-scene exclusives, and gems from the archive.
A rich new era of fan engagement that prioritizes experience and immersion across multiple digital touchpoints offers brands a new playbook for consumer engagement—and could hold the key to long-term loyalty.
Digital fashion and virtual spaces are getting dreamy, transporting shoppers to utopic destinations for otherworldly escapes. In March 2020, Shanghai-based digital platform Xcommons partnered with retailer ICY to showcase a virtual runway show. The immersive 3D showcase for emerging designers transported viewers to a parallel universe of cavernous pink rooms and winding sage-green paths.
Virtual fashion house The Fabricant produces one-of-a-kind designs that only exist digitally. Using 3D modeling software, it meticulously creates outfits for customers’ avatars to wear in digital environments such as social media or gaming. The brand presents its creations against dream-like settings such as pink sand deserts and intergalactic terrains, which reflect its level of visionary craftsmanship. The company has seen a spike in interest during the pandemic.
As well as being used by fashion houses to present their collections, fantasy digital renderings are also seeing a rise in popularity in interior design—pointing to a future format for all-encompassing digital stores.
The desire for escapism is at an all-time high. This desire has further evolved the rise of immersive spaces and experiential stores in bricks-and-mortar retail over the past couple of years, translating them for digital application. Whether IRL or online, a store is no longer just a vessel for retail but also an experience in its own right, offering fantasy, imagination, and escape.
Combining the ease of e-commerce with the theater of infomercials, live commerce features a host or influencer video streaming live as they demonstrate products available for purchase and interact with their audience in real time. The format has been popular in Asian markets for several years and is now experiencing a global boom. Live commerce has already hit the mainstream in China, and it is starting to gain momentum in the West. Social media sites are also looking to expand their retail offerings by integrating live-streamed shopping. Facebook launched Facebook Shop and Instagram Shop in May 2020, adding live shopping capabilities over the summer in the US. Amazon Live launched in July 2020.
Live commerce is competing with bricks-and-mortar retail, and its rise in popularity shows that customers are still eager to engage with the combination of entertainment and shopping that in-store experiences offer. Access to brand ambassadors and influencers provides a new level of brand engagement that consumers crave—and can’t find in a physical store.
Influencers become the store
Influencers are moving into live commerce, selling as they go—and taking a cut.
In China, where top influencers can earn millions each year from live-stream product sales, the definition of the influencer is already undergoing a democratizing transition. A handful of Chinese mega-influencers have huge fanbases and drive massive sales in mere minutes. Brands have to compete to partner with them by offering them the best deals, which can lead to a discounting spiral and brand devaluation. As a result, some brands are shifting to nurturing peer-to-peer selling networks, particularly with Generation Z and Millennials, who compete to earn points on sales that can go towards their own purchases.
Boundaries are blurring between influencers and retailers—between inspiration and point of purchase. The definition of who’s an influencer is also blurring, with extreme examples of mega-influencers at one end of the spectrum and individual social media users at the other. But it all speaks to a broader shift.
Clicks and mortar
In July 2020, Burberry opened its first “social retail store” in Shenzhen, China’s vibrant technology hub. It did so in partnership with Tencent, which owns WeChat, the social media and messaging app with more than a billion users. A WeChat mini-program allows shoppers to book appointments, reserve fitting rooms and book tables at the café (and unlock special menu items), all the while accruing social currency. According to Burberry Chief Executive Marco Gobbetti, "the store marks a shift in how we engage with our customers.”
The debate over online versus physical in retail is over. Stores of the future will blend both and more, from social media to augmented reality features that go beyond sharing a selfie in the fitting room.
As the work-from-home model, historically a rare luxury in more traditional companies, becomes the norm for many, home design is adapting for flexible functionality. “What was our home has to become an office or a schoolroom,” said Ivy Ross, Vice President of Hardware Design at Google. “So, how do we build in the most flexibility into our environments so they can accommodate different modes of being?” Some designers are proposing creative convertible solutions to answer this question.
In July 2020, London-based design and architecture firm Jak Studio developed a sofa concept that can be reassembled into a work pod—ideal for small spaces that need to function for productivity as well as relaxation.
Other designers are creating more permanent solutions. Boano Prišmontas launched its prefabricated home office in September 2020, which the London studio says can be put together in a day and is “easier to assemble than Ikea furniture.”
Living spaces are quickly evolving to encapsulate everything from the boardroom to the bedroom, marking an important shift in home design and space functionality.
The swift normalization of flexible remote working is affording employees a newfound freedom to work from anywhere—and popular holiday destinations are hoping to attract this freshly-minted class of wanderlust workers with novel long-term visas and extended-stay offerings.
Dubai is promoting itself as a semi-permanent destination for foreign workers looking for some sand and sun. The Emirati city announced a new remote work visa program in October 2020 which allows visitors to live in the city for up to one year.
“The global pandemic has changed how we live and work. As multinationals and leading start-ups across the world accelerate their rates of digital adoption, the need to be physically present to fulfill professional responsibilities has been redefined,” says Helal Saeed Almarri, Director General of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
Dubai joins a growing list of destinations offering similar programs. Barbados was one of the first countries, with the introduction of its 12-month Welcome Stamp in July 2020, and Georgia announced its Remotely From Georgia initiative in the same month.
As work continues to transition to remote formats, employees are no longer tied to a particular place. Tourist destinations and avid travelers alike are taking advantage of this newly liberated workstyle, advancing digital nomadism. As the lines between home, office, and getaway continue to blur, brands and businesses have a unique opportunity to redefine how the new luxury vacation looks, catering for both work and relaxation.
Around the world, working from home is quickly becoming the norm. In Europe, some countries are even introducing legislation to protect home workers’ rights. The question is how we can turn technological progress, new business models, and higher productivity into progress not only for a few, but for many. Tech companies are leading the charge with inventive, digitally-driven solutions—turning temporary mandates into permanent models and paving the way for a flexible and virtual future of work.
In the absence of their traditional clientele, hotels and restaurants are repurposing their spaces as rentable offices. From boutique accommodation to chains, hotels are redesigning their rooms as semi-permanent offices and offering new daytime rates geared towards remote workers. Cafés are also adapting. In July 2020, Starbucks unveiled a new Tokyo store designed expressly for remote workers. Created in partnership with Think Lab, the second floor of the café is effectively a business center, with enclosed solo working areas and a larger space for collaborative meetings.
The pandemic has fast-tracked growth in the short-term office rental market, giving rise to on-demand workspaces and pointing to a future where the function of places such as restaurants and hotels is much more flexible
The road to recovery begins this year. Brands, leaders and individuals are guiding us towards a hopeful journey that requires collaboration and resilience in order to achieve restoration and betterment.