There are many reasons to be optimistic about 2021—but plenty of brands are bracing for an uncertain first quarter and doing their best to expect the unexpected in the coming year.

Marketers, according to the ANA, will “need to double down on those efforts that have proved successful in 2020: agile budgeting, an increased number of virtual events, and, perhaps most important, the accelerated development of digital capabilities.” This prediction is certainly well-grounded, and in line with many of the successes our clients have seen over the past year.

But these competencies are now status quo. Most businesses have grown more reliant on digital and developed comfort with virtual programming; many were also forced to be more nimble with their budgeting, planning, channel mix, and ways of working. At Sullivan, we’ve been impressed by the way our clients have swiftly embraced these best practices and incorporated them into their strategies.

What’s more inspiring, though, are the questions our clients are daring to ask in order to reshape their marketing programs beyond this new baseline. Across sectors, we’ve identified five themes that we’re expecting to grow stronger in the year ahead.

1. B2B creative will continue to be bigger and bolder.
Amid a crowded virtual landscape, many brands dared to take bold creative approaches in 2020. We took notice of the way the B2B sector, in particular, embraced these tactics. Sullivan clients were no different: whether we were crafting a head-turning identity for Insight Partners, making a splash in the market with American Express, or helping institutions like Crown Castle develop campaigns that looked and felt genuinely different.

We expect this trend to grow in 2021, as brands look to start out the year with a bang. Already, companies across sectors are asking us how they can break through the clutter or design a new memorable experience. As we shift from virtual to hybrid to in-person ways of doing business, striking visuals and creative will be important constants that will stand out to decision-makers.

2. New tools and content experiences will shake up the sales process.
The customer journey and sales process have irrevocably changed, and they’ll continue to shift in the year ahead. As businesses anticipate a return to some in-person meetings, they’re also mindful of the time and cost efficiencies that virtual selling will continue to drive.

With many important sales meetings retaining virtual elements, we’ll see an uptick in the use of new digital tools and “props” to create memorable experiences—especially in complex and technical B2B categories. Sullivan and our clients are already creating new demo experiences, clickable content hubs, video content, and customizable dashboards to keep audiences engaged beyond standard pitch decks and presentations. Sales leaders will try to ensure they can delight their prospects no matter the medium of the meeting—and will harness more tools that can be used in person, remotely, and as unique, always-accessible leave-behinds.

3. As the content race pushes on, video and audio present new opportunities.
In 2020, a proliferation of brands experimented with emotive storytelling through video. Thanks to remote work, it was often scrappy—shot on iPhones or staged at home, feeling unvarnished and real. Even as we return to production studios, the up-close and meaningful feel of video may well linger. And in the age of TikTok, Instagram Reels, and Cameos, we’re thinking that more B2B brands will embrace personal video content.

Audio is another opportunity area we’re seeing. Technology and financial services companies are increasingly experimenting with podcast advertising, as revenue from podcast ads grows significantly every year. In a recent content strategy analysis of top tier financial institutions, Sullivan also found that podcasts and audiocasts were a snackable medium for complex topics and a growing source of tentpole content for many firms.

Brands will look to explore new avenues for creating impactful content and serving it to their audiences, especially as advertisers phase out third-party cookies and opportunities for retargeting and personalizing traditional content change. These channels should prove to be interesting testing grounds.

4. Socially-conscious messaging is on the rise, but could risk falling short.
Social and political change has made businesses more reflective about their positioning around diversity, equity, and inclusion and sustainability. While companies looked inward in 2020, this will be the year that many put pen to paper to codify what their commitments mean for their long-term business goals. Whether recruiting new talent, communicating with and retaining existing employees, or growing revenue by marketing to clients and prospects, firms will need to demonstrate authentic commitments to these audiences or risk compromising important business relationships.

Several of our clients have asked us to help them think through more inclusive and welcoming messaging for their hiring and D&I initiatives. In the financial services space, we’re seeing increased focus on promoting sustainable finance and ESG, and a number of firms are hoping to make these products a cornerstone of their marketing story. We’re inspired that businesses are taking time to consider how new positioning, messaging, and campaigns around these themes should live up to their brand and feel like a genuine reflection of their organizations.

It will be critical to keep this thoughtful approach in mind this year. The landscape will be crowded, and meaningful differentiation will stem from connecting socially-conscious marketing to your brand’s larger purpose.

5. Marketing will need to drive results—and will be more accountable than ever.
Last year at this time, we were thinking about marketing and sales teams becoming increasingly unified, especially as marketers looked to emphasize their measurement strategies and ability to help drive ROI for their sales counterparts.
We could have never predicted how important this dynamic would become as partnerships grew stronger and teams joined forces to grow existing accounts. For many businesses, marketing’s success with these efforts has earned them a more consequential seat at the table—but also more scrutiny.

While an emphasis on performance and measurement is certainly not a new theme for most marketers, we’re anticipating increased analytical rigor up and down the funnel. More businesses will be eager to prove out the value of all marketing efforts, from high-level brand building to the performance of individual pieces of collateral. In tandem with sales counterparts, marketers will be eager to prove they’re growing business and will seek new methods to do so this year and beyond.

We’re equally eager to see this—and other emerging themes—play out across the year. Amidst a great deal of uncertainty, we are certain of one thing: Sullivan teams and our clients are never willing to settle for the status quo and will continue to challenge the boundaries of conventional wisdom across 2021.