Next up in our 2020 trend forecasts is a look at communities — the public and private groups impacted by business and how they, in turn, will be impacting business in the year ahead. At a time of rampant polarization — which is primed to boil over between now and the November US presidential election — communicators, whose very job is building relationships, in 2020 will face a range of challenges forging the alliances with public and private groups that companies need to succeed. All while business is increasingly expected to rise up above the noise and be the voice of reason amid the instability.

“In 2020, it’ll be especially important for brands to understand nuances of identity in how they connect with the communities they serve,” said Porter Novelli global diversity & inclusion leader Soon Mee Kim. “As people feel more anxious about issues like climate change, election-year politics, threats of war, gun violence, and hate crimes to name a few, we’ll see more brands addressing big issues in intersectional ways to create connections in and out of the workplace.”

With that in mind, below is a look at four big influences on society, all of which have the potential to rally or further divide communities, and the challenges and opportunities they offer brands.

1. Politics

Trust is already waning, news is being tuned out and anxiety is rampant among communities — and we have 10 months to go before the US votes for its next president. Toss in other world events that are affecting the public’s mood and to which side their political leanings are swaying — Brexit brewing, protest and crackdowns in Hong Kong, trade wars — and, well, you get the picture. Brands, still finding their footing after the US presidential election, need to look long and hard at the forces at play that could define their future in the year ahead (while keeping in mind it can all change on a dime). In their own look at trends, 10company principals Valerie De Maria and Clare DeNicolo put it this way: “Election fever makes everyone ill. Rhetoric and negativity continue to impede constructive, positive discourse during the year-long election season and the ongoing impeachment saga of a US president."

And that doesn’t even delve into how those goings-on are fueling communities, or causing them to retreat, and how the public mood will ultimately sway the course business takes in the year ahead and beyond. Sure, business & politics have been inextricably linked since time immemorial. But given the death of Business as Usual, coupled with the deep fissures pitting communities against each other, it’s incumbent on companies to look long and hard at the communities who keeps them afloat — and how they will be able to be strike partnerships with some while not repelling others who don't see things the same way.

“The middle ground is becoming less of a reality. Hard left and hard right, the only two viable options. Communities will be divided by their personal stance, and people will take voting much more seriously. Businesses will need to weigh in and take a side when outputs of politics endanger their own existence. This will get ugly,” said Blue Impact chief development officer Suresh Raj.

All of which makes it extremely difficult for brands to stay the course, as we’re not really sure what that course currently is — or where it’s going to go.  There is no longer a norm when it comes to brands working with regulatory and legislative bodies, appeasing special interest groups and working with advocates from neighbors to NGOs — and it's all fluid.

2. The Planet

If there’s one thing communities are rallying around it’s the planet — and they are expecting brands to not only fess up to their role in climate change and other issues plaguing the planet but do something about it as well.  The proof is in stats and visibility. Yale University research released earlier this month shows the number of Americans “alarmed” by climate change is three times higher than it was five years ago, growing to 31%; A majority of Americans registered being “concerned” or “alarmed.”

“Communities, regulators, NGOs, activists – and even customers – are waking up to see this for what it really is – an unsustainable and unfulfilling way of being. Groups of stakeholders understand that the commons – those shared resources that none of us own but we all depend upon – are in peril. Corporations are increasingly being asked to participate in playing a greater role in caring for the environment and society by acting from a clear purpose that benefits the greater good and communities worldwide,” said Porter Novelli innovation & impact leader Sandy Skees.

Teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg being named Time Magazine’s 2019 person of the year — and having the gumption to stand up to President Trump’s disparaging tweet — is indicative of how those coveted Gen Z consumers are pushing the issue of sustainability to the forefront and expect brands to do the same.  In turn, terms like “supply chain,” “deforestation,” and “carbon footprint” have become of the larger vernacular, bringing the issues so mainstream that companies that want their support have no choice but to take big steps toward sustainability, whatever their motivation. “The younger generation are concerned about their inheritance, that is being destroyed by material greed.  They'll take to the streets and fight to protect it,” Raj said.

It is also simply good for business.

3. Skepticism

These are tricky times for brands. On one hand, according to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 76% of the public feels CEOs should be driving change rather than wait around for government to do so. The rise of consumer activism means companies that get it right in buyers’ minds — cleaning up their supply chain, using sustainably sourced products and the like —  could pay off big in customer loyalty. Companies that not only embrace, but actually foster diversity & inclusion, get high marks from communities seeking and seeing change. At the same time, however, communities don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for screw ups these days, meaning that brands, while being asked to go out on new limbs, also are more subject to wrath when they get it wrong. Just ask Peloton, whose holiday ad, focused around a man giving his wife exercise equipment, lit up the internet with critics deeming the spot as sexist and feeding the problem of negative body image.

“I think it is fair to predict that consumers are going to continue to be intensely salty and hold grudges against companies for every minor infraction -- whether that’s an ad where a husband gives his wife a premium piece of exercise equipment for Christmas or a tweet that was maybe slightly tone-deaf,” said Jennifer Mylett, H+K Strategies’ New York managing director. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry North American director Meredith Eaton sees the trend growing, too. “We’re entering an interesting time in which we’ve never before seen so many businesses in tune with corporate social responsibility missions, nor so many consumers skeptical of those missions’ authenticity. And, in 2020, this won’t slow down.”

All of which can be at least partially allayed by brands forging relationships with communities, particularly the dubious ones, to avoid making the kind of errors that come from, say, running a “pink-washing” campaign for breast cancer awareness with no real substance, or touting diversity & inclusion before adjusting their own pay inequities. Their insight and input is critical. “Support from the right community groups could be a difference-maker when brands inevitably find themselves in these situations where they need some support in their corner to get them through the news cycle,” Mylett said.

“In 2020 and beyond, the next phase of the purpose movement will be pushing brands to 'localize' their efforts, not just by geography, but also by building relationships in their area of purpose with communities who believe in the same things to meaningfully affect change.  There will be closer scrutiny of brands who have declared a purpose that they are actually living that purpose and that it is affecting people and their communities more tangibly. Consumers will expect NGOs, committees and neighborhoods to be involved in brand purpose efforts more directly. These groups legitimize the commitment and action from a brand. We will likely see increased connection and collaboration between brands and these groups as a result,”  said Loretta Markevics, chief strategy and creative officer at DeVries Global.

4. Capitalism 2020 style

As if business weren’t already upended, brands could be in another round of shattered norms given the state of flux we're living in. Communities will be driving business in a range of ways, depending on their needs, wants and demands, signifying not only a shifting power dynamic but also mindset. Porter Novelli’s Skees said the sustainability movement essentially breaks the cycle of consumerism, which is driven by desire over need, for example. There are communities that have very real, pressing needs, like access to healthcare, which companies can win over by providing what they aren't getting elsewhere. And, while business will always be about making money, brands from hereon in will have to act in accordance with a much bigger picture.

“2020 will be the year when capitalism is remodeled,” said Gavin Megaw, managing director of corporate and brand at Hanover.  “Businesses are already under huge pressure to be more socially focused, both at home and internationally. That’s an opportunity for advisors who are trusted by the c-suite. Business will no longer be able to purely focus on shareholder return – and, ironically, is likely to be more successful if it does not. It will need to commit to being proactive in taking on the societal problems usually left to governments. This will impact how businesses work in partnership with third-party groups and NGOs, as well as how they use their sizeable marketing budgets. An unbeatable understanding of human behaviour is their opportunity to create positive impact and connect with society.”