Purpose in marketing: the trends we will see in 2021

Purpose in marketing: the trends we will see in 2021

The shock of 2020, the globe’s sustainability progress and the way we come together (or are divided) as a society, are still in play in 2021. With that in mind, how has the world, being shaken to the core, impacted the role of purpose in business for the coming year? What will be the areas of focus, and where are we set to see the most change?

These are our predictions.

1. Building back better

When it comes to business, the pandemic has challenged everything. Even for those fortunate businesses not in a fight for survival, the last year has forced adaptation to the extreme. The traditional corporate structure has been well and truly dismantled and 2021 will be a time to build back – and for some companies, they will build back better. With the reality that future crises brought about by climate change could dwarf anything experienced in 2020, brands must take this time to reflect on how they build back, so they become more sustainable, more ethical and more socially responsible. And for those who do build back with purpose at their heart, the rewards in terms of setting up for the future, will be great.

Having a clear and well understood purpose will encourage business leaders to think expansively about their future, rather than getting stuck in a constant cycle of short-term thinking.

Purpose provides long-term direction and a roadmap out of pre-pandemic ways of doing things, enabling brands to start thinking about how they want to set up for the future. The John Lewis Partnership is a good example of this. Founded 100 years ago, the business’ Partnership principles have helped to consistently direct its focus (you can see it in its 2020 rebrand and its recent strategy announcement) and helped build its commercial success.

2. The activist CEO

Rockstar CEOs will be replaced by activist CEOs, business leaders who are passionate about an issue or simply intent on leaving a positive mark on the planet. They aren’t afraid to stand for something, and to have their voice heard. This was a burgeoning trend in 2020, with CEOs like IKEA’s Jesper Brodin committing boldly to a green revolution in business; “The only way we can exist as a business model tomorrow is to be sustainable, so it's not about how we pay the premium to do it. It's the only way we can be the low-cost company of tomorrow.”

We expect to see a fresh boldness amongst CEOs and brands when it comes to activism as a result of the pandemic. Businesses that have managed to evolve in ways they could not have imagined pre-2020 are emboldened and consumers are looking for brands who are committed to making things better.

3. Increased scrutiny and backlash from consumers

Cancel culture isn’t an internet phenomenon that will go away, it is reflective of citizens’ rising expectations around the world and the increased scrutiny that brands and businesses will face this year. The events of 2020 mark a critical shift in people’s understanding of the role businesses play in society and consumers expect them to lead by example.

But as some brands rush to join the conversation before they’ve put in real plans and concrete action – we’ll continue to see more backlash against anything that suggests ‘purpose-washing’.

Last year, backlash swiftly followed the McDonald’s launch of its ‘Mc Plant’ meat-free range. Critics pointed out McDonald’s previous inaction on sustainability issues and the lack of a clear link between the launch of McPlant and its current sustainability plan. We expect purpose fails to be publicly denounced more intensely this year.

4. Sustainability sitting firmly on the board

If the 2000s saw the emergence of the CTO and the 2010’s the creation of the CCO (Chief Customer Officer) – then the 20’s will be marked by the arrival of the CSO (Chief Sustainability Officer) as the new most important voice at the executive table. We’ve seen the rising influence and importance of the CSO at board level in recent years, and in 2021 we’ll continue to see their efforts at a management level, bringing social and environmental issues into business decisions and strategy. This will also mean there will be a more concerted effort to improve the purpose knowledge base of board members – the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) has already reported a huge rise in demand over recent years for board education. Whether through training or briefings, or through the CSO’s increasing board presence – in 2021 we will see sustainability and purpose more fully integrated into the DNA of organisations and being led from the top down.

5. Business alliance over the common good

In 2021, we expect to see more businesses partnering on purpose-related issues, sharing agendas and working together to create positive change. 2020 fostered a spirit of collaboration for common goals and we will see more of this in 2021. At the end of last year, many businesses pledged their commitment to the new campaign Make My Money Matter, which calls for the trillions that are invested in our pensions to help build a better world. BT recently announced its £55bn pension fund – the UK’s biggest private company pension scheme managing the savings of over 300,000 people – is committing to Net Zero by 2035. In the same way, supermarkets in the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with Sainsbury’s against racism and discrimination after the racist backlash which followed its Christmas ad. Both examples demonstrate the opportunities businesses can create to deliver positive change, and to take a stand, if they come together.

We may even see increasing external pressure for these business alliances in 2021 – especially when it comes to the biggest players who can make the most impact.

This year, we have seen the UK’s biggest broadband firms petitioned to make broadband more accessible for the nation’s poorest families.

6. Sustainability becoming accessible

2020 was a tipping point for sustainability going mainstream. But still too many barriers stand in the way for those wanting to make better consumer choices. At Walmart, research showed that although customers desired more sustainable products, many did not have the means to pay extra. This led Walmart to focus less on consumers and more on suppliers – working with them to make products more sustainable without a meaningful increase in price. This year, we will start to see more businesses and brands provide solutions which make sustainability accessible for everyone – and it is imperative they do. Consumers being priced out of sustainable choices is unacceptable and they increasingly expect to see the cheapest available products made as responsibly as possible.