5 Key Customer Loyalty and Engagement Trends for 2021

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One way to characterize 2020 is as the year of unexpected pivots. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, no one could’ve expected so many industries (other than cleaning-supply manufacturers) would need to broadcast their cleaning and safety protocols. But that’s what circumstances demanded, so companies recalibrated their marketing approach with little notice.

Now it’s time to strategize and anticipate post-pandemic changes in outlook and behaviors. What challenges and opportunities should customer loyalty and engagement specialists consider as they move further into 2021?

Let’s focus on five key trends:

1. Mitigating Risk

During the pandemic, consumers have been relying on brands and stores that take their safety seriously. Consider the growth of contactless transactions: According to a retail-industry report, contactless transactions have grown 69 percent since January 2020. That trend is expected to continue. In fact, 94 percent of retailers surveyed expect contactless payments to expand even more in the next 18 months. And travel companies have taken significant steps to reassure customers that it’s safe to fly, stay, or rent with them. Alaska Airlines embraced that trend with a dance video parody of a 1980s pop song. Because we’re seeing the number of COVID-19 cases soar in the late fall and early winter, consumers are likely to keep safety at the top of their criteria into 2021.

Action items:

  • Gain the trust of your customers by understanding and responding to their emotion- and reason-based concerns—and then be transparent about your safety measures.
  • Look at partnering with other brands or suppliers to create a custom, safety-based experience for your consumers.
  • Consider how to implement or increase contactless transactions.

2. Emphasizing Wellness

Wellness has been a key concern during the pandemic—especially among Gen Zers and Millennials, who report feeling isolated and struggling with mental health (Kantar, U.S. Monitor, August 2020). Many of us are looking to the outdoors to boost our wellness. According to a prepandemic study from the Outdoor Industry Association, less than 20 percent of Americans spent time outdoors more than once a week. But since the pandemic, many of us are combatting our isolation fatigue with outdoor pursuits. For example, during the pandemic, adult bike sales have risen 121 percent nationally.

Others are seeking out mental health services. Ginger, which offers text-based mental health coaching, teletherapy, and psychiatry, reports that utilization rates rose to their highest level ever in the last week of September 2020. Use of the company’s text-based mental health coaching was up 159 percent, and use of virtual therapy and psychiatry was up 302 percent, compared to pre-COVID-19 averages.

Action items:

  • Examine possible new partnerships that center on solving stress points in your customers’ journey map.
  • Help your consumers connect with each other by fostering mini-communities that focus on common interests, including wellness.
  • Prioritize customer service by leaning into conversation, care, and surprise and delight.

3. Embracing Social Consciousness and Social Action

More and more, today’s consumers are factoring in larger ideals (e.g., racial equity and sustainability) when they decide what and where to buy. And callout culture means brands are held publicly accountable for their decisions. Socially conscious decisions can be good for society and your business. Just two of the many examples are outdoor retailer Backcountry’s pandemic donations to homeless shelters and frontline workers and Starbucks’ goal to hire 10,000 refugees by 2022.

Action items:

  • Communicate your company’s values, how those values are leading current choices, and how they’ll help you look to the future.
  • Invite members to participate in social causes that authentically amplify your efforts.
  • Remember to think local—invest in your community through job opportunities and by harnessing volunteer hours to help local organizations.

4. Staying Resilient and Supporting Reinvention

Since the pandemic began, we’ve shifted how we work, shop, and access entertainment, to name a few. For example, while movie theaters were already seeing smaller audiences, attendance dropped exponentially during the pandemic. In response, studios have chosen to release movies in theaters and on streaming platforms simultaneously. Will consumers want to leave the comfort of their couch and pjs to return to theaters? Or will this mark a lasting industry shift? And how will the pandemic’s great work-from-home experiment change business travel?

Action items:

  • Leverage your loyalty data and advanced analytics to anticipate how pandemic behaviors and expectations are likely to impact your brand going forward.
  • Explore the potential to repurpose products and facilities that may be in lower demand — due to less business travel, for example.
  • Examine how technologies like AI and augmented and virtual reality could offer your business new ways to entertain and create personalized experiences for your customers.

5. Preparing for a Resurgence

Consumer demand will return after the pandemic. Many people will be ready to jump back into life in a big way by traveling, eating out, and spending more time with friends and family. Some will be unsure about where they can travel for vacations. United Airlines hopes to alleviate those concerns by creating an interactive domestic and international map that shares easy-to-find information on travel restrictions, necessary visas, etc.

Action items:

  • Keep informed so you can better predict what’s coming. Start by analyzing how the distribution of vaccines will influence your operations.
  • Track consumer behaviors to target those who are ready to get active again.
  • Get ready for pent-up demand by designing for flexibility, anticipating high loyalty reward redemption, and continuing appealing new services (e.g., curbside pickup and delivery).

Rigorous analysis and strategic preparation can help your brand emerge from the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with deeper insights into your customers’ relationship with your brand and an even stronger consumer experience.

Michelle Wildenauer is senior vice president of strategic services at The Lacek Group, a specialist brand company of Ogilvy, where she leads loyalty and customer engagement strategy. She has developed customer strategy for global brands that include Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Disney, Ford, American Family Insurance, and Gap Inc. Wildenauer also leads the agency’s thought leadership and business development practices.

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