Well here we are, the start of a brand new year, although for many of us the only evident change is the number on the bathroom scales…  Ever the optimist, I wanted to look back at some of the events of last year and see what lessons we can learn as we head bravely into 2021.  So here’s part one of my 20 Lessons from 2020, starting with a game on my home turf, marketing.

1. The first lockdown ads…

I’m feeling almost nostalgic for those early lockdown days, when we passed the long empty evenings playing ‘Spot the Brand’ in the ad break. Whether they’d spent big bucks on drone footage and sincere-looking actors, or got their team to film it themselves – in portrait, on their iPhones – everyone basically ran the same bloody ad. (Apart from the banks, who seemed convinced that we’d enjoy watching their internal Zoom meetings almost as much as our own).  Altogether now! In these uncertain/difficult/unprecedented times. Now we’re apart. We’ve always been here for you.  We’ll get through this together… Bonus points for sombre piano music and every shot of empty streets and stadia.

Should we applaud the agencies and client teams who managed to get something on air in such horrendous and extraordinary circumstances?  Or worry about the lack of original thinking and generic/absent brand purpose it exposed in our industry?

2. Bullshit brand purpose

Talking of brand purpose, there’s no doubt Modelez’s nauseating attempt at redefining marketing as “Humaning” will go straight into the Big Book of Marketing Failures, alongside ‘New Coke’ and the Royal Mail’s attempt to rebrand as Consignia.  Mark Ritson accurately describes this as “purpose wank”, citing it as a salutary lesson in ensuring your purpose is based on the substantive truths of your business. Putting aside that hideous made-up verb, suggesting that junk food can ‘bring you closer’ or tackle the ‘human hunger for connection’ in the midst of a global pandemic is patently untrue and tone deaf beyond belief, particularly for a brand that avoids paying tax and made hundreds of people redundant after explicitly promising not to.

3. Genuine brand purpose

Putting Mondelez to shame were the businesses who demonstrated real principals and did some proper, actual good.  Those that diverted production to make PPE or hand sanitizer, donated surplus stock to foodbanks & local communities and opened their hotel rooms to the homeless. The ones that failed – closing down contact channels, refusing refunds, changing Ts&Cs after the fact – will be remembered as the ones to avoid when life gets back to normal (if they survive, that is). Your brand is your biggest asset, so looking after *all* your stakeholders should be your priority, especially in the most dire circumstances.

4. Clarity of message

If there was ever a time when an organisation needed to land a message and ensure people got behind it, this was it. A literal life or death scenario. But the shambolic Covid communications of the UK government and Boris Johnson in particular has been an appalling failure from the start. From the ever-changing advice (stay home, eat out, stay home again, a Christmas bubble is different to a Support bubble, your local shops are now in a different tier…), to the constantly changing ‘points of proof’, death by powerpoint in the briefings and the unbelievably bad graphics (Wash-Cover-Make?), they have demonstrated exactly why clarity and consistency matter and will definitely be another future ‘how not to’ case study.  And to top it off, they’ve just launched a multi-million pound ad campaign fronted by the very person everyone’s apparently ignoring, and who is on TV every day anyway. Unbelievable.

5. Short-termism

Speaking of Ritson, his recent Top 10 Marketing Moments of the Year also included one of my own obsessions – the need to balance long-term strategy with short-term tactics. Without doubt, 2020 caught many brands with their pants down, and the fleeting nature of digital marketing – and Social Media in particular – means too many brands focus on the latter at the expense of the former. From my time in the hospitality sector it’s what I refer to as ‘never mind the strategy, how many chips did we sell in Wigan last night?’. Focusing on today means you’ll never prepare for next week, let alone 12 months ahead, or ever be ready for what life throws at you. And as any decent marketer knows, brands and reputations are built over time, not overnight

6. The rise of TikTok

The standout platform of 2020, TikTok was initially dismissed as a channel for tweens to show off their dance moves, it’s taken Sarah Cooper from lip-syncing videos to her own Netflix special and made micro celebs of thousands of other very creative people. Despite it’s early claim that it wasn’t an ad platform, it’s clearly a natural home for *appropriate* youth-directed content and should provide a clear example to anyone still labouring under the misplaced belief that repurposing existing content is an appropriate strategy for Social.

So what did we learn?  Brands still need to be built on a fundamental truth. Strategy will always triumph tactics, in every channel. Be clear, be consistent, look after your customers and your community.  In other words, the basics always matter and when the chips are really down (in Wigan or anywhere else), these are the things that sort the winners from the losers.