2020 In Retrospective: A Year of Disruption & Acceleration

How our Outlook trends played out over this unusual year

Richard Yao
Dec 10, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

2020 has been a year defined by a devastating global pandemic that no one saw coming, which brought on a variety of changes in consumer behavior and accelerations in market trends to which all brands had to quickly adapt. Looking back on this highly unusual year, one thing stands out loud and clear — change is hard; it happens gradually and then suddenly.

Back in January when we released our annual Outlook trend report, we envisioned 2020 to be a year of sustained, steady growth of an increasingly digitized economy and algorithmic culture as big tech companies continued the race to establish the post-mobile platform of their respective choice. Then, all of a sudden, the NBA canceled their games while Tom Hanks revealed he had tested positive for Covid-19, and all the plans, goals, and predictions for the year went out of the window.

Everything was quickly reoriented around surviving a global pandemic. As a result, some emerging market sectors were rapidly accelerated, while others were disrupted seemingly overnight. The gradual shift from brick-and-mortar retail to e-commerce was sped up by about five years, per IBM data, and food delivery apps are expected to grow its U.S. users by 25.2% this year, per eMarketer’s estimates, which has prompted millions of shops and restaurants to pivot and explore digital sales channels. Meanwhile, the lights went out on the booming location-based experiential economy, which, along with travel and hospitality brands, had to contend with major disruptions to the foundation of their businesses. By October, 58% of the U.S. labor force had shifted to working from home either full-time or part-time, while about half of U.S. elementary and high school students started their fall semester fully online. All in all, while this year might feel rather stagnant to the millions stuck at home, in truth, more changes probably happened this year than the past five years combined.

Yet despite all the disruptions, all four key trends highlighted in our Outlook 2020 report remain relevant as ever, if not more so. The ways in which each of the four trends have developed over this unusual year point to some fascinating insights on what lies ahead. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

Democratized Creativity

The advance of digital culture and mobile adoption has democratized access to digital creative toolsets, which gave rise to a new generation of content creators and influencers. Platforms offering native creative tools, such as Instagram and TikTok, quickly became the ground zero of digital culture, and some brands started to tap into this trend by incorporating collaborative elements in their marketing efforts to engage with fans.

Throughout the year, the pandemic has pushed even more people to pick up on digital creativity tools and join the digital economy. Some did so out of necessity: when social distancing mandates shut down the offline channels that many people’s livelihood depended on, more people than ever turned to digital channels and creative tools to connect with their audiences. From barbers to pastors to fitness instructors, people of all professions that used to make money via in-person services, swiftly moved to online platforms to showcase and monetize their professional skills, often through live video, but also through social media and other platforms. Digital creative tools formed one of the pillars holding up the at-home economy by leveling the playing field of content and experience production.

All the creative talent and in-person services that were distributed via offline channels have shifted online and adopted new formats to reach audiences who are stuck at home. This greatly broadens the concept of being a digital content creator. Even after the pandemic passes, most digital creators will likely sustain their online presence and continue to display and monetize their talent and expertise on digital platforms.

Looking ahead, this trend may accelerate the evolution of democratized creativity into a “passion economy,” where people create and monetize content by simply doing what they enjoy. A larger follower number will no longer be the goal for them. Instead, personal enjoyment and connections with like-minded people will be the ultimate reward for these future micro-influencers.

Ambient Computing

Ambient computing refers to contextually aware software that can serve users without requiring explicit commands. Things like the smart home, smart cities, and other IoT-enabled experiences are all different factions building toward the future of ambient computing, where computing interfaces fade into the background as part of the ambiance and “just work.”

Given its potential to free us from touchscreens, ambient computing seemed well positioned to accelerate in development and adoption, particularly in public spaces or semi-public environments like stores and theaters, given the heightened need for public hygiene this year. With most people stuck at home, it appeared that smart home devices might have enjoyed an uptick in adoption as well. The reality, however, was a bit more complicated.

As people took shelter at home, existing projects aimed at transforming public spaces, such as Google’s smart city development in Toronto’s waterfront area, were paused or scrapped as cities and companies prioritized their resources to address more pressing issues. Smart home devices didn’t quite take off either, as shipment data suggests a steady growth rate on par with previous years.

That being said, as we enter the recovery phase, top-of-mind concerns about hygiene, health, and safety may push technologies that enable or aid contactless interactions, such as voice commands and authentication, mobile payments, and contextual suggestions, up the priority list. Most of these technologies would better demonstrate the full potential of ambient computing in a public or a semi-public context. Looking ahead, adoption of ambient computing in public spaces will flatten the learning curve and accustom consumers with the kind of context-driven, hands-free interactions that ambient computing devices can enable in and out of the home.

Algorithmic Culture

As our lives shift online, the role that algorithms play in our cultural consumption and digital interactions is becoming more pronounced than ever. Customized relevance, as indicated by past behaviors, replaced recency as the key marker of importance in news and entertainment, and our online interactions and purchasing choices became heavily influenced by algorithms deployed by platforms to optimize user experiences.

As the pandemic forced more people to work and learn remotely, our culture retreated further into the digital world where algorithmic influence is stronger than ever. This is perhaps best illustrated by TikTok, which saw a significant pandemic boost in users and cultural relevance. The main “For You” page is entirely algorithmic, as TikTok’s data cohorts and machine learning abstract different cultures and create high-precision feedback loops that utilize every bit of consumption data input to fine-tune its recommendation engine.

Yet, every peak in hype inevitably invites backlash, and algorithmic culture is no exception. As an election year, 2020 saw a strong pushback against algorithm-driven news consumption and its detrimental implications on social unity. Major social platforms like Facebook and Twitter stepped up on their content moderation initiatives to combat fake news, misinformation, and hate speech. In addition, services such as HBO Max and Substack are making a conscious effort to balance algorithmic recommendations with human curation as a competitive differentiation.

Looking ahead, as digital culture broadens its reach and depth, our cultural consumption will continue to be influenced by algorithms. Yet, thanks to today’s fragmented media landscape, other sources of influence such as meme culture, dark social, or good ol’ word-of-mouth, will remain just as important in bridging the gaps between platforms and determining which piece of content or which product breaks out of its respective niche and into mainstream consciousness. Although most of these cross-platform factors are out of reach for most content platforms today, that doesn’t mean they won’t be captured and integrated into the algorithmic system someday soon. Still, algorithms, like any other digital tool, are man-made and subject to changes. As we continue to struggle with the downsides of the dominating algorithmic culture, regulators may soon take action and implement necessary countermeasures, as evidenced by recent EU moves against Facebook and Google.

The Age of Anxiety

When we decided on The Age of Anxiety as the cultural trend of our 2020 Outlook, we had no idea just how anxiety-inducing this year would turn out to be. Although we were able to foresee the mounting anxiety brought on by an increasingly algorithmic culture and automated workforce, potential misuse of ambient computing applications (as evidenced by the backlash against facial recognition this year), as well as a polarizing, high-stakes presidential election, few could have predicted the sheer volume of pandemic-induced anxiety over public health and safety that we collectively suffered through.

If anything, the pandemic was such a dominating, top-of-mind issue that all the other anxiety-inducing factors we cited in the Outlook report now feel insignificant by comparison. In truth, however, those anxiety triggers are very much still in place, merely overshadowed by the global pandemic for now. Apprehension over losing agency and control to incomprehensible “black-box” algorithms still exists, as does the worry over eroding personal privacy and autonomy in an increasingly surveillance-driven economy aided by ambient computing. But saving lives takes top priority, so these reservations were swept aside as we spent more time doom-scrolling on social media and willingly turning on location tracking for contact tracing purposes.

As we hold onto the promising vaccine news and look beyond the pandemic era, these anxiety triggers embedded within our digital culture will inevitably resurface. And because we have been collectively distracted by the pandemic, we have not done enough to figure out how to address those issues. Moreover, new anxiety triggers will arise, as cultural and technological acceleration caused by the pandemic will continue to fragment the media consumption and consumer behaviors between different audience segments, sowing new divisions. For example, office workers who will likely continue to work remotely, either full time or part-time, will lead a very different lifestyle over deskless workers who will continue to commute and work in-person five days a week. The incoming wave of automation will play out unevenly across different sectors of the workforce over the new decade, and so will the accelerated digital transformation of legacy industries like healthcare and mobility. Overall, a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that everyone has equal access to the digital economy and partake in digital culture without compromising our privacy and autonomy, or being discriminated against by poorly designed AI tools.

So, worry on, we must, for not to worry would be either dangerous ignorance or willful negligence. For brand marketers, this means a diligence to learning the potential downsides of implementing a new digital tool, and actively helping customers engage with the causes they care about, or offer them a welcome reprieve from our increasingly anxiety-inducing world via products and services that spark joy.

Market analysts and innovation pundits make a living off market disruptions, yet very few saw nature’s ultimate disruption coming. Perhaps, hindsight is indeed 2020, for this is the year that we’ll be constantly looking back on for the lessons we learned, the things we lost, and a first-hand understanding of our collective capacity to change and adapt. This has been a truly difficult year that many will wish to forget, but the priorities it revealed for us and the necessary changes it facilitated shall be remembered for years to come.

IPG Media Lab

The media futures agency of IPG Mediabrands

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