If 2020 dramatically underlined the absurdity of trying to predict the future, that hasn’t stopped agencies and consultants trying. Of course, the rampaging global pandemic was a “black swan” – a highly improbable event that has a major impact, as defined in the book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – but even calmer years rarely go as expected.
Just to rub salt into the wound we looked back at the “predictions” round-up we compiled this time last year. The only two roughly accurate statements were that online shopping would continue to grow and that consumers would demand more authenticity and engagement from brands.
Talking of online shopping, it’s fair to say that 2020 massively accelerated some existing trends, such as a more nomadic approach to work – enabled by online connectivity – and the rise of streaming platforms. So what can we expect from 2021, apart from hopefully getting a jab in the arm at some point?
For its report, McKinsey cautiously evokes The Next Normal, “barring any unexpected catastrophes”. Its predictions reach beyond this year, as it forecasts post-COVID trends such as “revenge shopping” – an enthusiastic uplift in spending, as already seen in China – and a “bounce back” for bars and restaurants. Leisure travel will also be a rediscovered pleasure. Conversely, McKinsey suggests that business travel may not return in the same form, now we’ve all discovered how to meet remotely.
One trend that McKinsey identifies as underway is a return of entrepreneurship and self-employment (partly among those whose former jobs have vanished, presumably). New business creation is booming in the States and “France saw 84,000 new business formations in October, the highest ever recorded”.
The Trend-Watching site has 21 “opportunities” for 2021 to sink your teeth into. Our two favourites? Working From Home tools designed for wellbeing, with meditation apps and breaks built in. “The era of ignoring mental and emotional health is coming to an end. In 2021, increasingly mindful people will look for products and services that seamlessly boost their mental wellbeing.”
And secondly, Norm Recalibration, especially concerning attitudes to gender. “Those who do not embrace the ‘new’ in everything can sashay away in 2021, as new norms – in gender, media, education and more – will dictate how brands communicate with their audiences, and what those audiences expect from brands.”
TBWA’s Backslash unit identifies what it calls “Edges” – an Edge being “a meaningful cultural shift that has the scale and longevity to propel a brand toward a greater share of the future”. TBWA’s report has an edge (sorry) because it often deals with observable trends rather than predictions. For example, take Cottagecore: “An escapist subculture that fetishizes pastoral life and the outdoors...a community of young millennials and Gen Zers who long for a slower pace of life, free from screens and busy cities.” We also liked Niksen: “The Dutch concept of doing nothing…such as listening to music or observing your surroundings, without purpose.”
It’s all part of a larger trend of “Zeroing Out”, says TBWA – escaping overwork and information glut to reconnect with life’s simpler pleasures. Another of the report’s overarching trends is Stability Pursuit, because “a shaky job landscape is making stability sexy again”. It contradicts the entrepreneurial trend, but there’s always more than one possible future.
Not to be outdone, Wunderman Thompson has produced its Future 100 report. We’ll leave you to peruse the other 97 ideas, but among those that struck us as spot on is Immunity Wellness: “The world has never been so interested in how our immune systems can be boosted.” It also mentions a trend that crops up in TBWA’s report: the rise of virus-resistant fabrics, which shrug off bacteria to protect us from harm. (See Diesel’s Upfreshing collection, which is treated with an antibacterial and antibacterial shield.)
The other prediction that struck us as realistic is “Data Sustainability”. You know The Cloud isn’t really a cloud, right? Data is stored at energy-sucking data centers, and digital technology produces greenhouse emissions almost equivalent to the aviation industry. WT’s report comments: “Digital is accelerating to accommodate remote work, online shopping and an expanding gaming landscape, which means the environmental implications of data usage are more urgent than ever for brands.”
A trend that a number of reports had in common was the idea of “Rewilding” – restoring eco-systems and biodiversity in places humans have ravaged. This was the rallying cry of naturalist David Attenborough in his Netflix documentary A Life On Our Planet. When the world stopped for lockdown and nature seemed more present, the concept felt plausible.
So – good luck in 2021. Our bet is that trash bags will still leak, screens will still freeze, and gum will still get stuck to the sole of our shoe. But to paraphrase Montaigne: what do we know?