The way history ultimately characterizes this momentous year won’t be known for some time. Will it be the year of the pandemic? The year of Black Lives Matter? The year of an extraordinary election? For brands, however, the takeaway for 2020 is clear.

“This is one of the most fundamental shifts I’ve seen in my 15 years in agency work,” says Lesley Sillaman, executive vice president at Red Havas. Sillaman is referring to the way the trickle of brands pivoting from one-channel communication to multi-channel communication reached a tipping point and became a tsunami. “I have worked on a mix of B2B, corporate and consumer clients during my time at Red Havas and this is a universal change for all – but probably the most so for traditional B2B companies,” Sillaman adds.

This year marked the double-whammy of customers being bewildered by world-shaking events, as brands faced their own existential crisis. This was indicated by Red Havas’ Meaningful Brands study, which found that 77 percent of brands could go away and people wouldn’t care. Further, the study found that number was increasing.

The study also found the way to brands to combat this indifference is person-to-person communications, which allows brands to bypass growing distrust of institutions to deliver messages to people in exceptionally trustworthy packaging. But, as complex and challenging as P2P is, it got even more so during the tumult of 2020.

“P2P means something very different than it did two or three years ago,” says Brad Young vice president of content and business creative for Prudential. For Young, most of that difference is due to the burgeoning need for brands to recognize, address, embrace and celebrate diversity, equity and inclusion in their communications. It’s central to his work, which blends business-to-business and business-to-consumer in the way it helps employers support employees.

“Employers want to know that we understand their employees and end participants in all their uniqueness and diversity,” Young says. “We spend a lot of time thinking about that, so that the employers who chose Prudential for their benefits know that we embrace the individuality and diversity of their employee base.”

Young adds that communications from employers is, in an era where institutions like media and government are widely seen as unreliable, still considered worth listening to. “People do trust the company that they work for,” he says. “So a lot of our communication works through the employer to the end participant. That’s effective. They respond well.”

But if it’s brought opportunities to make messages more meaningful, the year has also brought unprecedented challenges. For Tom Norquist, head of innovation for playground equipment maker Playcore, pandemic-induced gym closures have made the parks they equip more popular than ever. At the same time, customers had concerns about whether its benches, slides and other gear were delightful -— or dangerous.

“People just want to know, ‘Is it safe?’” Norquist says. “’Am I going to get Covid because I used one of your pieces of equipment?’” Playcore responded with an energetic effort to communicate safe practices to park owners as well as park users. That included setting a good example by wearing masks and washing hands, as well as using signage, video and social messages to impart sensible best practices.

“If you touch a piece of equipment, you probably need to hand-sanitize afterward,” Norquist advised through brand messaging. “Keep your mask on. Don’t get in large groups of people.. Keep your distance. And wash your hands.” It’s been an uphill battle. “It’s been tough,” he says. “One of the toughest things I’ve seen is playscapes that are roped off.”

‘Shouldering the Burden that Traditionally Would Have Been the Domain of Government’ 

When it comes to brands balancing obligation and opportunity, 2020 arguably has few peers. That presents brands with enticing prospects as well as sometimes-daunting challenges.

“Since March B2C brands have had captive new audiences, be that media or consumers, and they have had to quickly strike a new softer, more empathetic tone in comms and, in some instances, even shoulder the burden of responsibility which traditionally would have been the domain of government,” says Richard Clarke, London-based executive director for Red Havas UK, offering as example the way UK McDonald’s and Kellogg’s stepped in to support footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals.

But 2020 can’t take all of the credit. It’s becoming apparent that many massive shifts that have occurred during the Covid crisis have actually been brewing for a long time. One of those is the move to P2P communications, especially in B2C.

“Simply put – 2020 shifted this movement into overdrive,” Sillaman says. The biggest change she’s seen in B2C is the holistic way brands can communicate with audiences, including using employees and company leadership as ambassadors.

“We’ve seen the CEO brand skyrocket in terms of influence, and employee-generated content now adds on to the use of paid influencers in terms of the way target audiences get information from brands,” Sillaman adds.

For Clarke, a similarly noticeable change has been the need for a softer, more empathic tone in brand communications. “B2C brands have had to communicate like people and play active roles in the communities in which they operate,” he explains. For him that means having to recognize the needs and essential humanity of B2C audiences.

‘It’s a New Language that Bridges These two Audiences Together’

For brands, purpose is the bright thread binding together 2020’s chaotic weave. “This presents an incredible opportunity for B2C brands to engage people through the lens of purpose—building deeper relationships with customers, but also with a broader audience they did not typically engage before,” Clarke says.

One clear-cut example of this is the willingness or even eagerness brands have shown to become involved with a broad range of social issues. “The current political climate is placing brands on the front lines of the discussion around crucial topics like social justice, inequity, climate change and privacy,” Clarke notes.

Examples Clarke points to include the Nestle brand Allen’s move to rename two product lines. Red Skins became Red Ripper and Chicos became Cheekiest, stripping the brands of minority-marginalizing labels. Clarke also pointed out the way Unilever’s Ben & Jerry’s criticized the UK government over migrant policies.

But Clarke warns brands against talking to all brand stakeholders in the way they talk to partners and internal audiences such as employees. “Your corporate message internally doesn’t always resonate with a consumer audience,” he says. “P2P is not B2B = B2C, it’s a new language that bridges these two audiences together.”

Last, but far from least, is the element of experience. The Merged Media paradigm Red Havas has developed combines earned, social and experiential storytelling content. But since we’re in a pandmeic, large multinationals have slashed experiential budgets by a whooping 56%, at least according to a spring 2020 World Federation of Advertisers survey.

At Playcore, however, Norquist has no doubt about the most effective form of P2P communications. “It’s experience,” he says. “It’s the consumer actually getting to feel the joy and experience through the product.”

‘Understand the Zeitgeist, Where People Are, Where Their Insecurities Are’

Like a lot of powerful tools, P2P has to be treated with respect. Done wrongly, it can wreak havoc. And the consensus about the most likely way to do P2P wrong is to pair it with purpose that is inauthentic

“Staying true to purpose – even when it gets difficult – is also critical.” Sillaman says. “During crisis, it is often easier to put purpose on pause – to focus on the immediate crisis at hand. This is a misstep – as it’s more important than ever to stay focused and aligned on a greater purpose.”

That consistency has to be matched with care to ensure messages are crafted to minimize inadvertent offence. “I can say something to you and you might misunderstand and somebody else, it might turn off,” Norquist says. “So we have to be very mindful. It’s always good and wise to have a top-rated firm of professionals to help you craft your messaging.”

But more than that, communicators have to devise narratives that ring true. In the context of diversity, Young says that means genuinely embracing all people and going beyond lip service. “It’s not just about choosing the right photos,” he says. “You have to do more than that and be more than that.”

As to how brands can do more and do it with the right timing and message, Young says it comes down to listening, and not just tech-enabled social platform monitoring. “It’s also listening outside of a social context and understanding the zeitgeist and where people are and where their insecurities are,” he says.

It could be the zeitgeist or it could be the simple fact that half the stores are shuttered, but it seems unlikely that mindless consumption will be something 2020 is remembered for.

“People care about every aspect of the products and services they buy and about the companies they work for and vendors they work with,” Sillaman says. “B2C companies need to be aware of the integrity of their full supply chain and understand the impact that has on them and on their end user.”

A final admonition 2020 has for B2C brands is to truly put P2P at the center of what they do, now and in the future. “As humans, especially in this time of digital work and school, and social distancing, we’re craving more and more ways to connect with the people in our lives,” Sillaman says. “It’s my belief that P2P will continue to guide brand communications further in the future, beyond the pandemic, and into the new normal.”