To answer the question, we have pulled together a list of four key trends for the coming year.
From a surge in plant-based start-ups to China flexing its cultural clout, the following are some of the top items to watch for in 2020.
Plant-based start-ups are the new brand stars
Driven by consumer interest in more sustainable food options and an influx of cash from a new generation of venture funds, put 2020 down as the year of the plant-based start-up.
This year has already been something of a coming-out party for the space with Impossible Foods hitting the mainstream in the form of Burger King's surprisingly strong-selling Impossible Whopper and Beyond Meat going national at Dunkin’ with its Beyond Sausage sandwich.
On a more local level, simply taking a lunchtime spin through downtown New York this summer involved navigating an ever-increasing supply of plant-based ice cream purveyors.
Money is pouring in as investors look to newer VCs like PowerPlant Ventures, S2G Ventures and NewCrop Capital to help them find the next generation of unicorns. PowerPlant, a Beyond Meat backer, recently raised $165 million for its oversubscribed, second venture fund -- more than four times the amount of its initial fund.
At a time when raising livestock accounts for a whopping 14.5% of greenhouse-gas emissions, plant-based businesses offer the kind of social-purpose brand narratives that are tailor-built for the cultural moment.
With money sloshing around the space and a wealth of compelling storylines for marketers to dream up, expect a surge of new market choices ranging from the truly breakthrough to the nakedly opportunistic.
TikTok's success sparks increase in Chinese internet exports
TikTok has been one of the year's most compelling stories with massive growth, a slew of existing and expected knockoffs (Facebook's Lasso, for instance) and a highly engaged audience of Gen Zers.
Even if you're only marginally familiar with TikTok, you may know its number one talking point as the platform that launched Old Town Road, the most successful number one single in Billboard history.
While much has been made of TikTok's silly videos, participatory culture and near incomprehensibility to anyone over 15, what is also noteworthy is the platform's provenance as a born-and-developed-in-China product (as was its predecessor Musical.ly). It is a new type of Chinese export that illustrates the country's growing role not just as an exporter of things, but an exporter of culture.
To date, China's internet giants have not been particularly successful in the U.S. market (nor, for that matter, have U.S. players been successful in China). But with TikTok providing a roadmap for how a made-in-China consumer internet platform can thrive in the U.S. (at least in the short term), it would not be surprising to see an increasing number of Chinese internet exports competing for our attention in 2020.
It's certainly something on the industry's radar. As Mark Zuckerberg noted in a recent speech at Georgetown, “a decade ago almost all the major internet platforms were American. Today, six of the top 10 are Chinese.”
One of the companies he specifically called out as a threat to free expression? Yep, it was TikTok.
Traditional brands get in on the rental economy
While being an owner rather than a renter has long been a cherished American ideal, shoppers -- especially younger ones -- have come to the conclusion that not everything they acquire has to be a forever purchase. It's this shift in mindset that has propelled the success of brands ranging from Rent the Runway to Fair to Spotify.
Apparel brands have been among the most impacted. Why invest in a small number of pricey clothes (that become obsolete the moment you post a pic wearing them on Instagram) when you can have a stream of the latest styles popping into your life every month?
Traditional names have taken note with several new rental options coming from a range of brands across the retail spectrum. These include offerings from casual luxe marque Vince, mall standard American Eagle and department store giant Bloomingdales. Urban Outfitters announced earlier this year that it expects to generate more than $50 million in annual revenue from its recently announced Nuuly rental business.
Rather than force the next generation of shoppers to adapt to a traditional model of consumption, expect the number of rental offerings from established names to increase as brands adapt to a new way of shopping.
Smart brands get smarter about social purpose
Can brands change the world? Should they even try? For years, the answer has been yes. After all, consumers have made it clear that they want to patronize brands that are socially conscious. Yet at the same time, they remain skeptical (often with good reason) about the efforts these brands are making.
It's a tricky line for marketers to navigate. And one that is ripe for parody and call-outs. Former Google communications chief Jessica Powell delivered one of the year's most trenchant (and hilarious) critiques with a NY Times op-ed on the occasion of International Women's Day. In the tongue-firmly-in-cheek piece she comes down hard on corporate efforts to celebrate women -- deriding, among other things, the Fearless Girl statue, empowering hashtags and Google Doodles.
Unilever CEO Alan Jope called out “woke-washing” as an industry issue and 45,000 people turned out to protest the corporatization of NYC Pride at the first-ever Queer Liberation March.
Expect smart marketers to become smarter about their social purpose efforts in 2020, moving beyond simply checking the boxes against a calendar of social purpose activations to a more thoughtful level of engagement that can withstand increased scrutiny while delivering a greater amount of good.