How Retail Brands Can Prepare for “The New Normal”

How can brands position themselves for success in the new normal? We spoke with market leaders to ask their thoughts on what lies ahead for advertisers, and which consumer trends are here to stay.

Our latest MasterConnect event convened a virtual forum of industry leaders who took a closer look at what has changed for today’s brands—and how to best prepare for the future.

2020 profoundly shifted how we live, work, play, and connect. In some cases, those changes were temporary adaptations to unique circumstances. But other changes could be around for the foreseeable future.

In order to get a better understanding of how brands can position themselves to thrive in this new normal, we hosted an in-depth conversation with three of our valued clients:

New Normal Participants
Dana Toering
Walmart Connect Canada
Vice President
Gillian Fitzsimons
Director Media & Communications – Centre of Marketing Excellence
Monika Sharma
Senior Director, Marketing & Strategy
Riza Javellana
Senior Director, Marketing, Digital
Industry professionals

We kept the virtual session interactive and polled the nearly 300 digital media and marketing professionals in attendance for their perspective on how brands can prepare for the new normal. Our expert panelists discussed how consumer trends might evolve, and how innovative brands can situate themselves for success.

Mapping out the landscape of “the new normal”

The moment the world moved to working from home, marketers knew they needed to make changes. At Nestlé, that meant rethinking every media dollar across 40 flagship brands. “The pandemic has changed every target and plan we had in place,” says Fitzsimons. “People across the globe want choice and convenience at their fingertips—it’s been an acceleration of the inevitable. Canada is a lively market from an ecommerce perspective.”

Spending habits and behaviours have been shaped by the events of the last year, and consumer expectations are higher than ever—yet many trends are starting to settle and steady. Javellana notes that online sales for the toy industry in 2020 grew by 58% compared to 2019, and while it’s still elevated, it’s more stable year to date. A similar trend has occurred for Walmart, where YoY growth for curbside pickup hit 64% in 2020 and delivery exceeded 56%, though consumers are now making their long-awaited return to brick and mortar stores.

Audience Pulse:
Will the new normal impact your approach to marketing and advertising?
Absolutely 89%
No 1%
Unsure 9%
MasterConnect Insights:
In many ways, the new normal is just a continuation of the social and market trends that were already in motion. The pandemic accelerated digital transformation across categories, but now marketers need to balance short-term gains against long-term strategies.
The transformations to watch

There’s no denying that customer mindsets have changed for the long term, and companies are adapting accordingly. As consumer habits change, marketing strategies must adapt in tandem. As we now look ahead to the future, here are three areas to keep an eye on.

 Ecommerce is here to stay
In the early months of the pandemic, Javellana watched as ecommerce in Canada accelerated until it was nearly on par with the US, even though Canadian markets usually lag about three years behind. Now, a new trend has emerged. “Forty-five percent of Canadians who have tried digital shopping are not really missing the grocery store because of the convenience of delivery and curbside pickup,” she says.

“Ninety-three percent of Canadian consumers plan to do more online shopping after the pandemic, or at least stay at the same level, so there’s significant growth in this space,” says Sharma. It’s fair to say that adoption of ecommerce is a consumer trend marketers can expect for the long term.

Audience Pulse:
Do you anticipate ecommerce traffic will increase or decrease moving forward?
Keep growing 37%
Stay the same 5%
Stay strong, vary by category 56%
Go back to pre-pandemic levels 1%
Unsure 9%
MasterConnect Insights:
While ecommerce experienced a boom during the pandemic, our speakers agreed that the most future-forward strategies will integrate brick and mortar locations with a seamless digital experience. Though ecommerce is here to stay, it is most effectively utilized within an omnichannel strategy, where multiple brand and purchase touchpoints are available to the consumer.

 Consumers are more empowered
Fast, affordable delivery and curbside pickup are no longer just pandemic necessities, but also crucial differentiators. From now on, brands will need to compete on convenience.

“Consumers have told us one big benefit of the pandemic was having the time to reflect on what’s important to them, and that’s created seismic shifts in their behaviours and expectations,” says Sharma. “The outcome is centered around convenience, comfort, safety, and values. And I find that last one fascinating and important.”

Consumers are also becoming more deliberate about supporting brands whose values align with their own, and Sharma points out that 64% of Canadian consumers are willing to switch brands based on their societal impact.

The need for businesses to engage with social and environmental initiatives has never been higher. As consumers reflected on what was most important to them during the pandemic, brands must now adapt to changing expectations around convenience, customer service, and corporate values.

Audience Pulse:
What will the post-pandemic consumer consider most important when selecting where to shop in the new normal?
Delivery and curbside pickup available 8%
Seamless online shopping experiences 18%
Virtual interactions and customer service 1%
Corporate values and social responsibility 3%
All of the above 70%
MasterConnect Insights:
As today’s marketers and advertisers embrace the new normal, there are several factors that should be top of mind when developing strategies around the customer journey:
• Generation Z is gaining increased spending power and is the most diverse generation the world has ever seen.
• Socially conscious millennials also constitute a large portion of the market.
• Both these groups are digitally savvy and expect effortless, one-click customer experiences.
• Brands need to be intentional in how they attract and connect with customers of different backgrounds.

 A healthy media mix is more important than ever
Advertisers should think twice before ruling out any channel. When the team at ViacomCBS studied the returns on their investments in television campaigns compared to digital spend, the ROI in the linear space—particularly in children’s content such as Nickelodeon—was still very strong.

Linear investments can add tremendous value in creating a halo effect—elevating awareness so that ads resonate across other channels and amplify the effectiveness of the spend. Digital investments are paramount in order to deliver niche and targeted advertising, as channels such as TikTok and Instagram continue to see increasing traffic.

Brick and mortar stores will soon be at full capacity again, and, as Fitzsimons explains, this brings both obstacles and opportunities. “The consumer journey has become more fragmented, and it’s a challenge for marketers,” she says. “We need to have meaningful conversations at every point of conversion.”

As customers physically interact with spaces, people and products—from trying on clothes to testing electronics—brands need to be creative about making each touchpoint a positive one.

This holds true for advertising as well. Campaigns need to resonate across all touchpoints, just like the shopping experience itself. “You transact on attention—in my opinion, marketers spend too much time on the science of advertising versus the art,” says Fitzsimons. “The message does the heavy lifting for us. If an idea is strong, it can work across platforms.”

Audience Pulse:
Where do you think advertisers are best advised to effectively spend ad dollars in the “new normal” world?
Mass advertising (e.g. television ads/radio) 3%
Retail media (digital and traditional) 9%
Social/influencer 4%
Experiential 2%
Omni mix 82%
MasterConnect Insights:
Traditional media is still important in a diversified media mix, but adaptive brands recognize that a culture of experimentation is necessary in order to succeed. Those brands must look at data, track trends, and conduct media mix modelling to effectively engage with their customers. Reevaluation, assessment, and optimization is essential, and so is the courage to be willing to fail.
Moving forward—together
Audience Pulse:
How confident are you in your current marketing strategy as we approach the “new normal”?
I’m confident in the opportunities the new normal brings. 30%
I’m starting to get comfortable with how to connect with my audience. 44%
Not quite there yet—I am always tweaking and trying new things. 23%
I’m pretty lost. I could use more guidance. 3%

“We’ll all be in different stages in trying to navigate this, and the need for transparency between partners has emerged,” says Sharma. “We have to move in lockstep together. Sharing respective goals and insights is incredibly important.”

Brands also have to be bold and take risks. “The only constant is change and that comes with discomfort,” says Javellana. “You can’t afford to brace yourself against that—you have to embrace it.”

There are a lot of voices competing for limited attention. If brands want to cut through the clutter, they need to develop more holistic strategies, deliver authentic messages, and continue focusing on the future so they can identify opportunities as they arise.

“I spend a lot of time encouraging myself, my team, and our external teams to be comfortable being uncomfortable—what we know today will change tomorrow,” says Fitzsimons. “If we all get around a table and admit we don’t know the answer, we’ll come to the best answer collectively.”

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