Here’s our recap of some of the key insights for marketers from CES 2021. Read what industry leaders said about addressability, AI and social responsibility, and preparing for a world that is returning to some degree of normalcy.


The 2021 Consumer Engagement Playbook
Carol Reed of WPP, Gabby Cohen of Harry’s Inc., Iván Markman of Verizon Media, and Alyssa Raine of Walgreens offered a look at how factors like new privacy laws, emerging technology and the gradual end of the pandemic might impact marketing in 2021. Here are some key points:

  • With new privacy laws, the slow death of the cookie and customers growing more and more concerned about how their data is used, first-party data will become more important than ever in building positive customer connections. We must leverage this data to truly understand what people are looking for and how to help them. Marketers must partner with IT to build exceptional customer experiences.
  • 2021 will be the year of giving back. However, brands need to make sure that any social mission is connected to who they are. Promoting a cause just for the sake of PR will come off as false to customers.
  • With life being so virtual for the past several months, customers are craving experiences like being able to touch products and gather together with others who share their passions. Technologies like AR and watch-together solutions can help fulfill these desires as we wait to get back to normal.
  • As many experience some degree of trauma related to recent events, there’s an opportunity for brands to infuse some humor and joy back to the customer experience—to offer a feeling of levity as opposed to being deeply thoughtful. Instead of just using social channels to sell, develop content that makes people smile and helps build trust.
  • Many brands will be focusing their marketing on reconnection as communities come back together post-vaccine. This messaging has the opportunity to be very personalized and specifically catered toward the values and needs of consumers who want to go back to feeling a sense of normalcy in 2021.

Confronting the 2021 Data Dilemma
Reshma Karnik, Vice President Data and Technology Solutions at MediaLink moderated this session with Hamish Kinniburgh, Chief Strategy Officer at UM; Matt Spiegel, EVP of Marketing Solutions and Head of Media Vertical at TransUnion; Jay Stevens, President of Hudson MX; and Lisa Valentino, EVP of Client & Brand Solution at Disney. They discussed how marketers should prepare for the death of the cookie. Changes are starting, but data will still be the key to success.  

  • It’s unavoidable that the end of the cookie will heavily impact companies relying on web display advertising. No clear new solution has risen to the top at this moment, and we’ll be spending a lot of time testing and learning in 2021.
  • It’s going to be more important than ever that agencies help their clients better identify insights that come out of the data they collect. Programmatic can be a rich source of information, as long as data is good. Good data is defined by its maintenance and accuracy. Breaking down silos between display and social teams can help provide better insights.
  • Data governance will become critical. Ethically sourced data will need to become the norm. Marketers should seek to connect data to the household instead of the device. For that reason, the connected home will become an important part of the equation.


Content Curated for a Kinder, Gentler Consumer
Jen Berman, CMO of Insider; Jesse Angelo, President, Global News and Entertainment at Vice Media Group; Aaron DeBevoise, Founder and CEO of Spotter, Inc.; Eric Ellenbogen, CEO and Vice Chair at WildBrain Media; and Allyson Witherspoon, Vice President and CMO at Nissan U.S., discussed the new needs and values that the pandemic created for consumers, and how marketers can understand this new consumer and make sure their brand storytelling resonates with them. 

  • The push toward racial equity has largely influenced how consumers interact with and view brands. Consumers want authenticity, not performative actions. It is not enough to post on social media; they would rather see the brand “put their money where their mouth is.” Brands that do so will be rewarded by consumers in the long run.
  • Gen-Z is a unique audience that has been dramatically affected by the pandemic. Mental health is a concern; in a global survey conducted by Vice Media, this audience was split 50/50 when asked whether or not the world would be better or worse after 2020. Brands should be thinking about how they can help this audience on a more personal, emotional level when designing their messaging.
  • A positive impact of the pandemic is that families spend more time together; 35/50 of the most-watched channels are now kids channels, and over 60% of families are saying that when they watch their smart TVs, they are spending time with their kids. Brands should take family friendliness into consideration when creating content for adults. 
  • When the pandemic does end, there will be a strong emphasis on finding joy and celebration. Smart content creators are thinking about how they will set up for that victory moment now. Experiential will have a huge resurgence, and we may have a period of increased spending, much like the Roaring 20s.

Great Unbundling in Video
Andrew McCollum, CEO of Philo, and Scott Reich, SVP of Programming of Pluto TV, explained how the pandemic led to more frequent use of streaming platforms as well as longer viewing times. The events of 2020 caused more viewers to both stream live news and crave light-hearted entertainment to help them cope through these turbulent times. Some more takeaways are outlined below:

  • With decreasing amounts of live sports and new shows, the pandemic has accelerated the trend for consumers to “cut the cord.” Streaming services have helped fill the gap in new production by reminding customers of their favorite programs from the past and introducing them to older shows they might not know. 
  • Ad-supported streaming platforms will continue to play a strong role by offering more premium content, along with the convenience of consumers not having to log in to enjoy the service.
  • Streaming is not a “winner-take-all” landscape. Different streaming platforms will serve different markets, and consumers will mix and match a suite of services to fit their interests and viewing habits. Marketers should watch where their audience is going before investing heavily in one place.

How Marketers Are Embracing New Tech for Good
Megan Greenwell, Editor at Wired.com, moderated a discussion with Molly Battin, Vice President of Marketing Communications at Delta Air Lines; Norman De Greve, CMO of CVS Health; and Bob Lord, Senior Vice President, Cognitive Applications, Blockchain and Ecosystems at IBM. They offered tips on how to safely and ethically integrate AI into your business.

  • Marketers need to be able to deploy more analytics on top of the data they’re collecting. AI can help by quickly focusing the huge number of decisions that come out of data so that brands can act upon insights in an effective time frame, ultimately making real-time predictions without the latency of analysis. 
  • It’s time to “open the black box” on AI. Decision-making must be transparent and explainable to avoid bias—or the perception of bias among consumers. Consumers must also know where the data is going and how it will be used. Once the consumer understands the AI, then companies will have more flexibility in adapting AI to fit consumer needs. 
  • As people emerge from the pandemic, they’re likely to still want the conveniences they’ve come to rely on in the virtual world. Digital and physical must work together to provide more personal interactions and elevate the human touch.


The Commerce Conundrum: A New Journey
Donna Sharp, Managing Director of MediaLink, moderated this panel that included Celiena Adcock, Head of GTM & Global Business Marketing at Honey-A PayPal Company; Daren Baker, CEO of Edge by Ascential; Brian Norris, Senior Vice President of Direct to Scale & Commerce Partnerships, Ad Sales at NBC Universal; and Jen Wong, COO of Reddit. They discussed opportunities for marketers to win over customers as digital shopping becomes the new norm. 

  • When brands are able to meet people at the consideration stage, shoppers are much more likely to convert. Hearing about real experiences from real people in online communities is taking the place of consumers actually being able to see and try products in physical stores. Brands who are active participants in those communities not only drive increased sales but also build loyalty faster.
  • In uncertain times, people are looking for value more than ever—especially for purchases that are not absolutely essential. By leveraging the network efficiencies of big retailer databases, marketers can better deploy personalized deals at scale.
  • The speed of e-commerce is accelerating. Customers often discover a product on one platform, research it on another, and then purchase it on yet another. Access to data and the ability to nimbly act upon it are essential. Investing in both data technology and teams to manage it can pay off for marketers.

Retail Trends: The New Shopper
Deborah Weinswig, CEO of Coresight Research, discussed the top six retail trends for 2021, while Lauren Hobart, President of Dick’s Sporting Goods, illustrated how despite the challenges brick-and-mortar has faced due to the pandemic, the physical store is here to stay through omnichannel innovation.
The six most important trends in retail for 2021:

  1. Consumers will change the way they spend, with a large focus on health and wellness. 
  2. New tenant mixes will reshape the store and mall landscape. Mall owners are increasingly adding healthcare and residential tenants to their mix, and interactive advertisements and games at physical retail locations will boost shopper engagement and conversion rates.
  3. Digital-first retail will be key. Livestream selling, which is already popular in China, is estimated to reach $25 billion by 2023 in the U.S. This, along with social commerce and the platformization of e-commerce, will continue to gain traction with retailers looking to better engage customers.
  4. Doing good will be doing good business. All retail stakeholders seem increasingly committed to sustainability and inclusivity, sparking the growth of new markets like recommerce and adaptive apparel.
  5. Retailers will find new ways to transact with consumers. Seamless payment systems, gamification, loyalty programs, and personalization will be key to attracting and retaining customers in an increasingly competitive retail space.
  6. Resilient, flexible supply chains will be vital assets in an uncertain world. The pandemic shed light on the vulnerabilities of many supply chains; retailers and suppliers will likely invest heavily in technology and infrastructure that can be leveraged to adapt quickly in times of crisis. 

Lauren Hobart explained how the unification of technology teams and in-store teams is key for a successful future in retail. At Dick’s Sporting Goods, the teams worked together to incorporate WiFi into parking lots, contactless in-store checkout, more efficient inventory management, and a safe, comfortable shopping environment for consumers. These innovations also fostered employee empathy and created a stronger culture within the company. The pandemic created an omnichannel ecosystem at Dick’s Sporting Goods, where the traditional brick-and-mortar storefront was revived with digital capabilities.


Eat, Drink, Play, Pay: Will We Ever Be the Same?
John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll, and Cheryl Guerin, EVP of North America Marketing & Communications at Mastercard Worldwide, provided a deep dive into four accelerating consumer behavior trends that marketers should consider as they plan for the new year. 

  • The touchless revolution: Consumers now live a contactless lifestyle and are willing to switch to brands that offer the option. Heightened health concerns due to the pandemic have meant that consumers prefer touchless payment methods rather than cash or signing at the register; 41% of transactions globally are now contactless.  
  • The betterment boom: We’re breaking the taboos around talking about mental health and seeking help. We’re focusing more on improving our homes, getting healthy and learning new skills. Data shows that 42% of Americans want to be more physically active, 31% have changed career paths and people are trying to learn new things (there have been over 50 million online course enrollments in 2020). Brands need to show up for the customers, supporting them in both home and personal care renovation. “Empathy is the new black.”
  • The rise of revenge spending: People have been focusing on saving, but now the dam is about to burst as we all seek to spend money on things we used to enjoy—especially travel. Covid-19 has caused the “unattainable effect.” Intent to purchase has risen due to the inability to do so right now. Brands can take advantage of this joy spending period and help consumers by reinforcing safety, offering people rewards and supporting the “Pinterest effect” with ways to plan now for future purchases. 
  • The uncalendered year: The uprooting of the timing of regular events, from sports to seasonal celebrations, have made people more flexible with timing. Marketers need to be agile and look beyond traditional shopping cycles.

CMO Moves: Preparing for 2021 as the Short Becomes Long
Melanie Washington, SVP of MediaLink; Kenny Mitchell, CMO of Snap Inc.; Minjae Ormes, CMO of Visible; Rick Webb, COO of Timehop, Inc.; and Richard Yaffa, Head of Brand Partnerships at Universal Music Group, shared the three tips that CMOs should follow to be successful in 2021. 

  • Embrace performance storytelling. CMOs need to be seen as “growth hackers” in their companies. It is no longer enough to focus solely on metrics like brand affinity. The key to achieving growth is bringing together performance marketing and brand storytelling. Storytelling must convert to sales, and marketers should always be searching for new avenues to tell their story. AI can help make this possible by speeding the creation and deployment of content.
  • Encourage CIO partnerships. CMOs and CIOs need to work together to find the best ways to use technology to better fulfill customer needs and create more rewarding experiences throughout the customer journey. For example: AR can help customers shop more efficiently in stores, and robotics can speed up the delivery process when ordering online.
  • Bring empathy to the forefront of leadership. When facing challenging times, lean into your brand’s purpose. Develop content and brand experiences that truly help your customers—whether that’s solving problems they’re facing or simply providing hope and levity through your communications. Diversity, equity and inclusion will continue to be vital, and brands should play an authentic role.

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