This year, we’re shaking up our trends forecasts. Rather than focusing on industry sectors as in previous years, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be examining what 2020 has in store for the communications world through the lens of the five key stakeholder groups as defined by the Business Roundtable: customers, employees, suppliers, communities and – finally — shareholders. 

Turning first to customers, we asked some leading PR practitioners around the world what they thought would be the major trends in the way businesses and brands communicate with and engage the people who buy their products and services, whether consumer or B2B customers.

The responses had two overarching and complimentary themes. First, the way that business does business will need to continue to change on many fronts. Second, brands need to work even harder to understand and reach younger audiences. Being purposeful and transparent isn’t going to be enough to connect with the Gen Z’s anti-consumerism, pro-planet activists.

There was one other clear message: if 2019 was crazy, 2020 is set to be even more “interesting” for brands and communicators. A Boris Brexit is imminent, there’s a presidential election in the US and Trump continues to be unpredictable, the British royal family is fragmenting, and in the first few days of 2020, tensions between the US and Iran have already led to fears of World War III starting in the Middle East. Although there’s always the Olympics and the Euro 2020 tournament for a bit of sporting distraction.

For brands to cut through and connect through all the – unending – breaking news is going to be tough. As W executive creative director Mark Perkins says: “For communicators working with brands, creativity, agility and being on the pulse of events and trends are going to be more important than ever before. We need to buckle up, be prepared to throw our preparations and predictions out the window, and do great work that makes a difference.”

So here, in no particular order, are six customer trends to pay attention to in the year ahead.

1. Waking up to Gen Z

While Millennials and Boomers continue their squabbles over the heads of Gen X, brands will be more focused this year on trying to reach the younger customers of Generation Z, defined as those born in the mid- to late-Nineties. Avra Lorrimer, MD of consumer packaged goods at H+K Strategies, points out that we’re not just talking about kids: this is the year that Gen Z grows up, with the oldest members of this cohort turning 24 and entering the workplace, with more disposable income.

This generation is also driving other trends, as we’ll see below, namely consumer activism and purposeful brands. Those of us with kids at secondary/high school will be well aware of how tuned in many of them are to serious, grown-up topics such as the climate crisis and gender politics, and how anxious (and angry) many of them are with what they see as the dystopian social, political and environmental reality they are having to grow up in. Greta Thunberg is, of course, the most visible and vocal example.

DeVries Global’s Asia MD, Andres Vejarano, says: “Globally aware, conscious for local action, Gen Z’ers are concerned about society, the environment and ethics, and as ‘consumers’ expect companies and brands to care. And although this may be happening in more subtle, soft-activist ways, more through powerful social connections and influence than mass rallies, Gen Z consumers are increasingly making and influencing decisions on purchasing based on purpose and value.”

Vejarano brings the challenge for brands of reaching Gen Z to life, warning that even if brands do run environmental or diversity campaigns, the old tricks of celebrity brand ambassadors and old-school platforms such as Facebook aren’t going to work anymore. He uses the example of a fictional 21-year-old in Asia to illustrate the everyday multi-platform life of this always-connected, super-conscious generation: “Over the weekend she was online with her friend in Osaka, who was planning to attend a school rally on climate crisis; dancing with her Filipino friend who was coming-out on Tik-Tok and developing new connections with LGBT friends in Taiwan; talking with a Hong Kong high school friend, who just got off a chat on Telegram about brands that align with his values; and on WeChat with her friend in Shanghai, laughing about footage with millions of views.”

While we’re not quite at Minority Report levels of advertising yet, customers of all ages do now expect to receive communications from brands and business across familiar and emerging platforms. Brands targeting Gen Z in particular need to take care that comms are consistent, but this doesn't mean just making one hero piece of content and chopping it about. As Frank co-managing partner Alex Grier says, it’s about keeping it relevant to the platform: “Chances are consumers will come across your comms in a variety of places, if you get your targeting right, so use that as a chance to deliver your message in fresh and engaging ways, most relevant to the platform you’re using. A good creative idea should lend itself to numerous executions that mean it's engaging for consumers, rather than a case of ‘boring, I've seen that already’ as they switch between platforms.”

2. Raising the purpose bar

A closely-linked theme for the year ahead is, of course, an ongoing focus on purpose: a brand or business' reason for being in the world, hopefully for the greater good. Ronn Torossian, 5WPR founder and CEO, says that the company’s research shows that the younger the consumer, the more important it is for the brands they buy from to have a higher purpose: “Young people have raised the bar for transparency and social responsibility. They are forcing brands to state their purpose and walk the walk. This is no longer a trend: it’s imperative for brands to connect with their customers on an emotional level or they risk losing their business to competitors that do.”

There’s no question that customers do now expect brands to have and express some sort of purpose, although of course this has had mixed success, as sophisticated audiences can spot purpose-washing or woke-washing a mile off.

At Frank, Grier spells out that purpose can’t stand alone, and must be authentic: “We expect to see brand, corporate culture and customer experience becoming one. Yes, brands should have purpose and do good. That's a good start, but it's not enough to just communicate that. The authenticity of that comms has to live in every consumer touchpoint. Good comms, but a poor store experience undoes all the good work of the messaging. Employees, stakeholders and consumers expect the corporate company behind the brand to behave in the same way they communicate. Cause-led comms has to come from the heart of the business and live through every touchpoint to be authentic.”

At Edelman, global brand chair Amanda Glasgow also warns that customers are increasingly concerned that brands are “trustwashing”: “The idea of customers buying on their belief isn’t news – people want to buy and support brands that align with the values and support the causes that are important to them. However, while believing in a brand’s purpose is an accelerant to purchase, consumers are increasingly concerned that brands are taking victory laps on social issues without actually effecting any change.” 

Glasgow says Edelman’s last Trust Barometer report identified this phenomenon, with 56% of global respondents agreeing that brands are using a stance on social issues as a marketing ploy, and 53% believe brands are less than truthful when talking about their impact on society. “As more brands jump into the purpose marketing pool, we’ll see more drownings among those who aren’t acting on their stated purpose,” she says.

Running parallel to customer demands that the brands they spend their cash with are authentically purposeful is a growing movement towards spending less: the rise of the anti-consumer, if you like. At FleishmanHillard’s new social, creative and data agency Methods & Mastery, MD Brandy Fleming says: “Consumers are increasingly aware of the impact of their spending - whether it's the impact on their carbon footprint, their support of 'clean' businesses or their quest for minimalism - there are many factors that are causing the 2020 consumer to question whether that item sparks enough joy to outweigh purchase guilt. We've seen the rise of the sharing economy and now the 'reusing' economy. It takes a quick search on YouTube to see just how many Gen Z'ers have named 2020 their "low buy" or "no buy" year, declaring a New Year resolution to minimise their consumerism. Brands that help consumers feel good rather than guilty will see a surge of engagement.”

In terms of specific areas of focus for purposeful brands, it looks certain that the climate crisis means that the environment will be a major influence. At Hanover, corporate and brand MD Gavin Megaw says: “In the aftermath of the Australian fires, brands will need to (and will want to) show customers tangible actions they are taking on climate and, specifically in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, on reaching Net Zero. Expect the climate crisis to begin to feature even across consumer communications. Industries who can at best mitigate their impact (rather than make a net improvement to the environment) will come under some pressure and will seek to share the challenge with their customers (eg airlines asking customers to help offset carbon).”

3. Activists prompt Influencer Marketing 2.0 

Here’s a question: who would you rather get an endorsement from in 2020, Kim Kardashian or Greta Thunberg? At W, Perkins says this year we’ll see more brands engage with opinion formers on business practices: “Only a few years ago activists may have been dismissed as ‘tree-huggers’, but a swipe from Greta could damage brand reputation or even share value. Thanks to social media we are going to see more Gretas emerge, focusing on single issues and causes that connect with Gen Z audiences. They will be the real deal: their fame and influence is based on beliefs and actions, rather than the other way around.”

Perkins says we can expect customers to become increasingly vigilant about influencer behaviour this year. He cites the recent example of Kylie Jenner, who followed an Instagram post about half a billion animals being killed in the Australia wildfires with a post of her feet in mink fur slippers costing $1,100. This obvious contradiction around animal welfare was rapidly seized on by some of her own followers, making global news for all the wrong reasons.

Grier says the backlash on influencers, mainly due to a lack of transparency in their commercial relationships with brands, has shown how intolerant customers now were of inauthenticity: “That doesn't mean that brands should move away from working with influencers. They just need to find partnerships and collaborations where values align, and then be transparent about it. Keep it genuine and it'll be welcomed.”

At Edelman, Glasgow says as influencer marketing continues to mature and evolve, it will present new challenges and opportunities for brands and marketers: “Consumers will follow influencers on their digital channel of choice as long as they are learning something, being entertained and generally relating to the influencer who is increasingly under pressure to stay true to their personal brand. But the space has also attracted players who take shortcuts, seek to game the system through artificial engagement, platform loopholes and inflated follower numbers. On top of all of this, the space is constantly evolving as audiences seek out not only the top tier influencers, but micro and even nano-influencers who have smaller followings but significant engagement.”

At H+K Shanghai, MD Maggie Lu believes 2020 will be the year in which “key opinion consumers/customers (KOCs)” will take over from influencers and key opinion leaders (KOLs) in brand communications strategies: “Audiences are walking away from dominating voices and preferring varied points of views. That will push brands more than ever to relook into the consistency of their product development, marketing positioning and the story they tell.” 

There’s also a diversity and inclusion angle to this shift in the triangular relationship between brands, influencers and customers. Fleming says that while most businesses are still getting to grips with this area, she expects to see D&I measurement metrics applied to marketing and comms work this year: “Our clients are increasingly asking us: are we listening to the right audiences, even those voices who are typically under-represented? Do we have influencer relationships that span the spectrum of ethnicity, ability, gender identity, sexuality and socio-economic backgrounds? Did our campaign reach and engage an audience that's adequately representative? I believe these measures will go beyond inclusive representation in campaign imagery, with a move to KPIs that move the needle. It's about time.”

4. Mental health goes mainstream

At FH, Fleming also predicts a “brands against burnout” movement. We are more aware of – and more comfortable talking about – our mental health than ever before, and customers are considering the toll that the “conveniences” of modern living can take on their own wellbeing: “Digital wellbeing has been top of mind for tech brands for some time, with moves to help customers better manage the temptation of the endless scroll and the impact of screen time,” she says.

“But I expect to see new and novel initiatives from brands across sectors in the year ahead that help customers experience a little more zen in their lives. B2B brands, in particular, can do more to help their customers manage work-life balance, or show how their products and services reduce the risk of burnout.” 

Mental health was taboo so recently, it’s no surprise that brands and celebrities talking about it still feels refreshing. But W’s Perkins sounds the authenticity alarm once again in this area: “We’ve crossed the awareness threshold whereby talking about it is not only permissible but encouraged. Brands can take some credit for this, but it has to be authentic and have a purpose now beyond awareness raising, such as driving governmental action for increased funding. Consumers are quick to pick-up when a mental health campaign is self-serving and/or ill-conceived, and that’s an own goal.”

5. The reinvention of retail 

The retail sector is likely to see some changes in customer relations – both B2C and B2B – in the year ahead. As Hanover’s Megaw says: “Amidst economic uncertainty (particularly in the UK as it enters a new era of trade negotiations) and increasing societal inequality, expect very tough behind the scenes pricing conversations between FMCG brands and their retail customers. At least one or two of these will spill over into the public domain and a few shelves will stand empty during an, ultimately resolved, stand-off.”

H+K’s Lorrimer has some specific thoughts about how businesses might deal with the growing dominance of the Amazon behemoth on our lives as consumers: “Brands need to innovate in order to go head-to-head against the conveniently-delivered brown Prime box. Brand experiences and pop-ups will continue to be ubiquitous, in an effort to evolve the purchase process from a transaction to a relationship.

“So 2020 will continue to see the blurring of lines between digital and bricks-and-mortar shopping, with traditional retailers working to create a seamless digital experience, while digital first brands follow Glossier and Casper’s lead in establishing a physical footprint. Whether shopping online or in-line the competition for customer’s hearts and wallets will be fierce.”
George Candon, H+K’s strategy director, says the fashion industry in particular is going to face a year of increased and intense scrutiny in 2020 as the previously-mentioned movement towards anti-consumerism takes hold and “fast fashion” becomes an anathema to those looking to reduce their environmental impact and the backlash against oil-based synthetic fibres and microfibres grows, on a par with the rejection of single-use plastics.

Candon says: “Apparel brands and retailers will want to hedge against any potential hit on their turnover, and look for alternative revenue lines to make up the difference. We could then see the sharing economy make deeper inroads into the fashion industry, with its progressive diversification and ideas like high-end fashion rentals gaining traction – something H&M has already announced. Some higher-end brands many even encourage consumers to buy fewer goods – but their own. This will tie into another trend we expect to amplify in 2020 – spending more on fewer, better-quality products, from fashion to food.” 

6. Keep customers smiling: the need for fun

This is all serious stuff, and rightly so. We’re living in serious times. But we’re still human, and darkness must be balanced by light, and laughter. As Frank’s Grier says: “In the scramble to understand how to use new platforms, target new generations, use dark social, figure out what can be done with AI, AR, VR, voice and keep up with emerging trends – all of which can be exhausting – there's a role for being a brand that makes consumers smile.”

Customers, as we’ve seen, want to see brands doing good. (And, it has to be said, their agencies like winning the Cannes Lions that often come from these sorts of campaigns.) But there’s also a place for fun. Consumers appreciate brands with humour, pure and simple. Grier adds: “If you can make consumers laugh or smile, maybe they buy the brand. Maybe some people don't get the joke and they won't buy the brand. But that’s OK. If you try and please everyone, chances are you end up being bland and unmemorable. Marmite shifted a few jars by being honest about the fact that you either love it or hate it. Brands should look to create cross-market appeal that has fun and light-heartedness as its core.”

Coming back to the start, this year – whatever transpires in geopolitics – we have the Olympics to look forward to in Tokyo, and this may end up pulling together many of this year’s big trends. As Hanover’s Megaw says: “The Olympics will give everyone a moment to take a breath and seek a glimmer of optimism amidst a year of uncertainty. Brand partnerships will be bigger, more immersive and creative than ever. Expect brands to champion their sustainable credentials. We will, of course, celebrate the power of human endeavour to achieve greatness but expect campaigners to also take the opportunity created by a focused media circus to actively challenge brands and sports that say one thing and do another.”