3 Top Consumer Trends for Marketers to Watch in 2021

December 2, 2020
Contributor: Gloria Omale

The 2020 Gartner Consumer Values and Lifestyle Survey reveals a significant shift in the consumer zeitgeist as social attitudes change and the pandemic transforms lifestyles and spending habits.

The colossal story of 2020 is a global pandemic that has left the world in a fragile and uncertain state. Heading into 2021, consumers are still adjusting to pandemic life. For marketing leaders, that means paying attention to profound changes in consumer trends, values, attitudes and behavior, and adjusting brand strategies accordingly.

A majority of respondents to a September 2020 survey of the Gartner Consumer Community predict that things won’t be back to normal until the fall of 2021 or later. Speaking at the virtual Gartner Marketing Symposium/Xpo® 2020, Kate Muhl, VP Analyst, Gartner, said, “How long consumers think it will take to get back to normal isn’t at all material to how long the pandemic will last, but it is an important metric for marketers thinking about what’s on consumers’ minds and what they’re getting mentally ready for.”

Gartner research on consumer trends captures the most important shifts in consumer behavior, attitudes or cultural experience to provide marketers with a valuable reading of the consumer zeitgeist going into 2021. Three trends are particularly important for marketing leaders to watch.

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Consumers will shift from public to private ways of living

The pandemic and its accompanying economic and societal crises have fundamentally rewired the way consumers live. Pre-pandemic, U.S. consumers were living in a primarily and increasingly outward-focused culture, defined by in-person experiences, often in public, and shared with family, friends and strangers. 

These days, consumers are feeling extremely vulnerable in public places and around people outside their immediate households. Sixty-four percent of consumers responding to the 2020 Gartner Consumer Behaviors and Attitudes Survey believe they are at risk of exposure in public places, and 77% say that socializing the way they did pre-pandemic is no longer comfortable.

“This realignment of life isn’t going away anytime soon, so brands need to find ways to meet consumers where they are,” said Muhl. “Now is the time for marketers to lean into the aspects of their brand values that support consumers’ self-protective instincts.”

Wealth gaps may lead to adjustments in consumer spending

Attitudinal differences between affluent consumers and everyone else are not new. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated these differences. For example, lower-income consumers are much more likely to say they have cut their discretionary spending because they don’t have enough money for nonessential purchases. But lack of money is not the key driver constraining spending for affluent consumers.

Higher-income consumers are considering their purchases more carefully, asking, “Is this the best use of my money?” Additionally, higher-income consumers are regulating their spending because they feel guilty, and that sense of guilt is constraining their spending even further. 

This attitudinal gap will be very challenging for marketers, especially those who need to connect with large swaths of consumers. As a result, marketers must be prepared to pick a lane, because it will be increasingly difficult to connect with the affluent and everyone else with a single message or a single brand.

Equality tops list of consumer values

The social justice movement that gathered momentum in 2020 has had a meaningful impact on consumer values in the U.S., including the emergence of a new No. 1 value. After a full decade atop the rankings of consumer values, loyalty has been displaced in 2020. Equality — “I strongly believe that all people should have equal opportunity and equal access in all areas of life” — is now the value with which the highest number of U.S. consumers identify.

Equality’s appearance on U.S. consumers’ list of values is simultaneous with other notable increases in rank for values relevant to consumers’ social justice awakening. Inclusion — “I believe equal consideration and inclusion of others advances the culture” — rose seven rank positions, from 26th in 2019 to 19th in 2020. Diversity — “I am always open to ideas, people and cultures that are different from my own” — rose six rank positions, from 39th in 2019 to 33rd in 2020.

Given the growing importance of equality, inclusion and diversity, marketers need to review both short- and long-term brand and communications strategies and realign themes to leverage consumers’ increased focus on social justice and civic engagement. Marketers should also emphasize the aspects of their brand values that speak to social justice or empower consumers’ participation in civic dialogue and expression.

Recommended Gartner client* reading: 2021 U.S. Consumer Values: Consumers Seek Social Justice and Serenity; Brands Must Respond and Guide to Addressing Cultural Tension Through Brand Activism and Social Cause Marketing

*Note: Some documents may not be available to all Gartner clients.

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