A closer look on the most important trends for 2021

Bloovi, a community of entrepreneurs, has interviewed our Founder and CEO Bart De Waele regarding the 15th edition of our yearly trend report. We announced 2021 as the year of paradox: distance versus intimacy, ownership versus access, superdiversity versus cultural convergence, privacy versus personalisation and - last but not least - productivity versus creativity. According to De Waele, it is now up to the marketers and communication professionals to reinvent themselves and reconcile the two extremes. “Now, more than ever, businesses must be present in the digital living environment of their customers. They must bridge the physical distance by creating digital intimacy.”

De Waele has witnessed a radical change in the role of the marketer: from inside out to outside in. “Previously, a company would develop a product that was consequently put in the market through a comprehensive and expensive advertising campaign. Today, the marketer has completely different things on his plate. In addition to rethinking product distribution, he also rethinks the products themselves. He is at the source. Companies must give their marketers more power, because it is they who bring the customer into the boardroom. They pick up on what the customers are into and they cater to those interests.”

To give the marketers a hand, we have identified five macro trends for 2021. Ten trends, actually, because in each instance two extremes confront each other.


1. Keeping distance versus seeking intimacy

“In the early 2000s, I met players from The Hague, Glasgow and Tel Aviv on an online role-play platform”, De Waele explains. “We visited each other and those contacts developed into genuine friendships. Why am I telling you this? Because I learned back then what many companies are only starting to learn now: it is also possible to create digital intimacy. COVID-19 acted as a pressure cooker. Due to the physical distance, they had no other option but to develop digital relationships.”

“For the longest time, companies thought that digital had to stay limited to the purely transactional. E-commerce is a textbook example of this. Before COVID-19, it was clear that online shopping was something you did when you knew what you wanted. It’s like taking your shopping list to the supermarket on Saturday: fast and target-oriented. Webshops are built on that principle, with dry interfaces. This has to change, because why would online fun shopping be impossible? Turn e-commerce into a digital girls’ day out.

Businesses must be present in the digital living environment of their customers. My bank closed its physical branch a while ago, so my relationship with my banker is 100% digital. But he follows Duke & Grace online, he comments on my posts and he knows what I’m up to. This is the digital equivalent of the banker you would run into at the pub, who knows the entire village and sponsors the local volleyball team.”


2. Ownership versus access

Everyone knows Netflix, Spotify ... Our trend report predicts that a decade from now, we will spend no less than one third of our salary on subscriptions to all kinds of products and services. “My father had an attic, a garage and two garden sheds full of stuff he might need one day. Just in case. Thanks to digitalisation, this becomes just in time. We no longer buy stuff ‘just in case’, but as and when we need them.”

The increasing popularity of the subscription formulas is - obviously - also changing the role of the marketer, De Waele explains. “The biggest marketing budget was always assigned to campaigns that win over customers. Nowadays, that customer often gets the first month for free. Customers must be acquired, but customer retention is the main thing.”

“That is why banks, for instance, invest more time and money in apps than in marketing campaigns. After all, those apps are an instrument to communicate with customers on a permanent basis. Not one-way traffic, but genuine interaction. Customers are no longer consumers, they have become users."


3. Superdiversity versus cultural convergence

“The superdiversity we know today bears no resemblance whatsoever to the diversity we knew twenty years ago”, De Waele emphasises. “Back then, your target group was 80% homogenous. You made one standard site and a few translated versions catered to the remaining 20%. That homogeneity is gone. The subgroups in our superdiverse world continue to multiply and fragment.”

For years, personalisation was the holy grail. Until it became simply impossible to keep producing content through artisanal means. The only way to make 3,000 different videos is to deploy machine learning and AI. But that also means this technology must personalise in a different way.”

“Today, personalisation focuses far too often on the characteristics of people. 'Female, 35, reads women's magazines and watches female-targeted TV channels': that no longer works, especially in a world where cultural trends no longer respect national borders and where every coffee bar in every far-flung corner of the globe looks exactly the same.”

“That 35-year-old woman from Ghent may have more in common with a 20-year-old man or woman from China or a 50-year-old American than with someone her own age who lives across the street. Personalisation will only work if companies transcend personal characteristics and focus on behaviour and context instead.”


4. Privacy versus personalisation

De Waele believes that if companies focus on behaviour and context, then personalisation will be much less at odds with privacy. “Context is everything when our privacy is involved. We don’t mind sharing particularly sensitive information with our tailor. It’s OK for him to know I’ve gained a few pounds, because otherwise my pants will be too tight and I’ll start popping buttons.”

“What we do mind is if that same tailor shares that information with the local butcher: ‘Hey Bart, I hear you’ve put on some weight, so how about an extra steak?’ That is precisely what has happened in recent years: the big tech companies have set up a business, with our privacy in the shop window.”

“The excesses of recent years have made consumers more careful. When it comes to our privacy, we constantly weigh pros and cons. What personal information do we share and what do we get in return? Businesses have to do two things: they must explain in detail why they can use that information to offer us a better product and they have to guarantee we’re sharing our personal information with them and only them. One on one.”


5. Productivity versus creativity

In recent months, companies have indicated that working from home makes their employees less productive. De Waele has noticed that distance has the biggest impact on creativity. “I like to compare it to a live orchestra. That’s also a different spectrum than a Spotify playlist: it strikes a different nerve, it stimulates different senses. Innovation and creativity don’t just come about in a vacuum, non-verbal communication plays a crucial role in this process. For 49 years, I’ve been trained in reading non-verbal signals. Online, that experience is totally useless and we have to start from scratch. We’ve learned a lot in the past twelve months, but there’s a long way to go before we close the gap.”

In the future, Duke & Grace will adopt an asynchronous work method: two days at home (or in a coffee bar, or wherever you do your best work), three days at the office. These past weeks, we’ve all discovered that our work consists of so much more than merely ticking off a checklist. It’s not content in itself that gives meaning to our work, it’s our interaction with others. (laughs) We have learned that the wonderful inefficiency at the office is actually the essence of our work.”


Curious to find out what else the experts have to say about these five paradoxical trends? Download our trend report and read more about the leading macro trends for 2021.