Five communications trends for 2020

Five communications trends for 2020

Every January, we see a flood of predictions from marketing and communications practitioners giving their two pence worth about what is to come and how to make sense of it. But January, named after the Roman two-headed God, Janus, is as much about endings as it is beginnings – he knew that the future can often be derived from the past.

And inspired by Janus we have taken a look at work over the past year and recorded our observations. This is by no means exhaustive, but we trust it to be of relevance to your business over the year ahead.

It is worth noting that these are general observations. If you are interested in a more personalised solution, please do reach out to our team of specialised researchers, strategists and creatives at SPARC@portland-communications.com.

1. It’s the climate stupid

There is no doubt that over the last year the environment has risen in public consciousness.  

An IPSOS study published in August showed that 85 per cent of Britons are now concerned about climate change, with the majority (52 per cent) very concerned. IPSOS notes that these are the highest levels they have recorded since they began tracking concern in 2005.

We observed this trend in our own Total Value Index which shows climate as a top three driver of business perception in six out of the nine industries we analysed. And while we found it to be a stronger driver of perception in consumer-facing sectors such as food or retail, we also found it to be a top driver for water, real estate and banking.[i] 

This is of course a stark increase, but the question we need to answer is whether this concern brims action? Are people willing to make personal lifestyle changes to reduce their impact on the environment?

Research shows they are. From switching to a green energy tariff to going meat-free[ii], Britons are taking responsibility for their own carbon footprint.  

And this is most prevalent in purchase behaviours. As many as 53 per cent of UK consumers said they have reduced the amount of single-use plastic they use, according to a study from Global Web Index.

The same study also found that 42 per cent of consumers check whether an item is sustainable before they buy. And we have also seen a rise in businesses that restore or upcycle items with people turning to pre-loved instead of buying new.

What is more, as people continue to make changes to their lifestyles to reverse climate change, they come to expect more from businesses and governments too.

We saw this last year with the climate strikes lead by Extension Rebellion. Greta Thunberg was named TIME magazine’s person of the year. Over 130,000 people, mainly young, joined the action in September.

What does this mean for businesses?

This thread is likely to unravel at higher and higher speed, as people are likely to continue to put pressure on and demand action from corporates in 2020 to prove their sustainability credentials.

2. Let’s talk about mental health… at work

If Prince Harry, Lady Gaga and Mike Phelps are publicly talking about it, then the stigma around it is certainly lifting.

And yet according to Mind nine out of ten people who experience mental health problems still say they face stigma and discrimination, and 54 per cent of people say they are impacted most by this stigma in their place of work.

How do we then reconcile the heightened awareness with the growing number of people suffering from mental ill-health?

In the last year alone, the Labour Force Survey found 602,000 people suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in Britain which amounted to 12.8 million days of work lost.

This is certainly a startling statistic for business everywhere.

As people continue to open up, and as businesses start to better understand the impact that mental ill-health has on teams, projects and profits – we may begin to see an increase in measures taken not only to prevent employees from getting ill and giving them the right support when they do, but also to stimulate wellness, to create an environment that is conducive to creative thinking, problem-solving and productivity.

A strong example from the APG is the Right to Disconnect manifesto: https://www.apg.org.uk/right-to-disconnect

What does this mean for businesses?

As the conversation grows and as increasing numbers of brands and organisations will seek to, or feel like they must, have a position – at the very least as an employer – we would urge them to be mindful of authenticity as one cannot pay lip service to mental health.

3. Welcome to the era of post-trust communications

We are no longer moving toward a post-truth, post-trust era, we are living it already.

A recent study from Pew Research shows that young people’s distrust has moved beyond businesses and institutions, government, politics and the media – they trust their friends and families far less than previous generations.[iii]

In the UK, social trust research from IPSOS shows that millennials become more trusting of each other with age – and yet the thought that we have a whole generation of less trusting people is dire.

How should businesses respond?

A well-known brand that not only owns up to their actions but that of their suppliers too is Patagonia. They have put together a global glossier, The Footprint Chronicles, to report on their global footprint. Anyone can visit this and find out who makes their clothes, how the fabrics are put together, what it takes for them to be transported back etc.

There are of course other businesses with similar examples. These companies continue to grow and create value for their customers, employees and investors.

What we believe they teach us about communications in a post-trust world is the value of action and accountability. When people lose faith, when they feel stuck and out of options and when they feel that the system is rigged against them – they will only be convinced to restore their trust by sustained action that shows ‘skin in the game’.

This is especially true for brands that are in the business of innovating, of always pushing the boundaries to deliver a cutting-edge product or service. They will most likely operate without a regulatory or legislative framework. They will be the ones educating consumers and politicians about their innovation – and they won’t always have been able to predict what people will make of their innovation, how they will use it and what it will mean for future generations. That is why they need to meet people where they are the most, to show the chances they take and the decisions they make to deliver the future they envision.

4. Make way for solution brands

The last year saw a rise in people turning to brands and the third sector for solutions to societal issues.

According to the Axios-Harris Poll 100, which is based on 20 years of Harris research on brand reputation, the companies with the most momentum include brands that are making commitments towards bettering society.

And this applies from global issues down to micro-issues. We now have brands that are acting and producing solutions on issues where the private sector may not have traditionally been expected to lead. Major brands from Diageo to Unilever have joined together to form the ‘Business Avengers’ promoting private sector work on the sustainable goals. Ikea’s phenomenal ThisAbles has opened up use of their products to many with disabilities who may previously have been excluded from their use. 

And there is a cynical argument that companies are always going to respond to consumer needs, but this trend goes beyond identifying an opportunity in the market – and beyond previous definitions of corporate purpose.

It impacts, first, the role of government and its relationship with these brands who continue to innovate and, second, on the demand or expectation this puts on more traditional corporates as being well behaved and simply avoiding negative headlines on social issues will no longer be enough in a world where consumers see brands as the champions of solutions to social issues.

And this is reflected in the media as well, with the rise of solutions journalism. This is news reporting that goes beyond reporting on the issue or crisis itself to report on the responses to social issues in order to drive more effective citizenship – with research also suggesting that this approach restores trust in the outlets that use it.

What does this mean for businesses?

As businesses review the value they create and work to define their purpose, they would be well advised to develop an offer and position that advances a social issue of importance to its customers.

5. Take a breath

The trend towards demanding ever-greater speed and convenience in our consumption shows no signs of abating. The appetite for everything from up-to-the-minute instant journalism through to on-demand GP appointments will likely continue. Only in the last year, as many as half a million patients were reported to have access to GP video consultations via Q Doctor.

However, there is simultaneously a growing appreciation for the benefits of consciously slowing the ever-gaining pace at which life can be lived. In the world of wellbeing, the need to actively create space for thought and reflection is seen in a growing appetite for meditation and mindfulness.

According to The Future Laboratory, trends like meditative spaces and intuitive platforms reflect how consumers are looking for moments of calm in their everyday lives. By swapping out choices in time, health or diet, people are developing a whole new way of thinking to achieve the best through balance.

In terms of the information that we want to consume, the steady rise of ‘slow journalism’ and ‘slow TV’ and the increasing popularity of long reads indicates a desire for quality and reflection in journalism as well as the instant.

And we see this coupled with a shift from a desire for perfection, to one for sufficiently better. We’re no longer cherishing moving fast and breaking things but slowing down and building steadily.

The increasing prominence of a culture of self-care, which encourages people to take the time they need and to be kinder to themselves, acts as a counter-current to a demand to achieve perfection which can set people up to fail. Self-care recognises the limitations of an individual, and that attempting to push beyond them can be counterproductive.

This recognition extends from the personal to the social. Within ethical consumption, where the personal and the social meet, the absolutism of vegan-or-bust has given way to flexitarian – recognising that aiming for enough and succeeding is better than aiming for perfection and failing.

What does this mean for businesses?

This is a welcome breather for communications as it means we can start to design iteratively better campaigns instead of the one big splash that usually sees a plunge in awareness as soon as it ends.


[i] Portland’s Total Value Index, the first comprehensive framework to measure the value generated by UK businesses, measured what was driving perceptions of companies’ citizenship among informed and influential commentators in 2019. Read more about it here: https://totalvalueindex.portland-communications.com/

[ii] One in seven Britons have switched to a green energy tariff according to a study from comparethemarket.com and more than one in three consumers say they make a point of regularly having meat-free days according to The Vegan Society.

[iii] As many as three quarters of US adults (73%) under 30 believe people “just look after themselves” most of the time. A similar share (71%) say most people “would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance,” and six-in-ten say most people “can’t be trusted.” Across all three of these questions, adults under 30 are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to take a pessimistic view of their fellow Americans. Source: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/06/young-americans-are-less-trusting-of-other-people-and-key-institutions-than-their-elders/

Teodora is a senior strategist leading the planning offer at Portland. Prior to joining Portland in 2018, she led the strategy and analytics function at Burson-Marsteller for the EMEA region.

Ronan is a strategy and research executive in the Strategy, Planning, Analytics, Research and Creative (SPARC) unit at Portland. He works closely with clients and client teams to uncover insights from primary quantitative and qualitative research.

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