What The Marketing Word of the Year Should Be, For Those Who Care

Coming out of what may well be the greatest year of self-reflection for all of society, the ad industry had a huge opportunity -- and it blew it. Instead of learning the lesson of what makes a brand most relevant in the throes of an existential crisis like a global pandemic, the industry has chosen not to think about the impact on its customers, but on itself.

How do I know this? Because the Association of National Advertisers this morning announced that -- according to results of an annual poll of its members -- the "Marketing Word-of-the-Year" for 2020 is "pivot."

While that's a powerful business term for early-stage businesses, and one normally associated with startups that failed to deliver on their initial "product/market fit" and pivot to a different one in order to find a new pathway to success -- or at least another round of funding -- it's not one that should sum up how the world's greatest marketers reflected on one of the world's greatest existential threats.

On the plus side, it shows that Madison Avenue has embraced some of the positive attributes of Silicon Valley, especially the concept of "agility," which, along with "resiliency" and "virtual," were runners-up for 2020's marketing word-of-the-year.

On the downside, it shows that the world's leading marketers are far more introspective than I would have thought, and that they failed to identify the most important element of 2020 from a consumer perspective: the need to show how and why brands care for their customers -- not themselves -- during an existential crisis.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised by this, because over the past nine months I've seen and reported on reams of marketing research and consumer polls showing that very thing -- from Ipsos to Mindshare to Kantar to Nielsen to Wavemaker to you-just-about-name it.  They all identified that what consumers most wanted during this unprecedented time was for brands to show customers they care about what they were going through and how they could help, even if it was just offering words of support, diversionary content -- or even better, some solutions to the problems they were coping with.

Pandemic and economic crisis aside, it was also a year of self-reflection for marketers grappling with responses to an outpouring of racial injustice and their own role in responding to it, as well as diversity in their organizations and marketing programs.

That's why I was eagerly awaiting the ANA's annual release -- and even made a little side bet with myself to see if they would "get" it -- and identify that the most important marketing word of the year for 2020 was "empathy."

That's the word I heard most from marketers, agencies and some of the best consumer researchers in the world express as their takeaway from 2020. While it's not always an easy one to deliver on, it is the word that should focus everything organizations do during, and coming out of, a global pandemic.

In fact, it is a word that came up time and time again, while MediaPost went through our annual exercise of reviewing and considering candidates for our annual agency, client and suppliers of the year for 2020. I will tell you it was an important factor for picking several of them.

While I applaud the ad industry's ability to adapt, be flexible, find new product/market fits, and yes, pivot, during unprecedented times, all of those business maneuvers should be at the service of the people they serve -- including their own organizations, those of their partners, and especially customers, which are the reason for their very existence in the first place.

3 comments about "What The Marketing Word of the Year Should Be, For Those Who Care".
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  1. mike donahue from connecting the dots, December 14, 2020 at 11:01 a.m.

    You never get right to the FRINGE of things

    Beginning in January,I'll return 
    to my Media Post blogging using your
    no fringe stuff as my creative model.

  2. John Grono from GAP Research, December 14, 2020 at 3:38 p.m.

    Mike, many hairdressers do.

  3. Bill Duggan from ANA, December 14, 2020 at 5:16 p.m.

    Joe – thanks for your interest in this.  “Empathy” was on our list of 2020 marketing word of the year candidates. Among 12 options, it placed fifth (behind pivot, virtual, agility, and resiliency).  Among those who did vote for empathy, here’s what we heard:

    "Through empathy, marketers can better connect with customers, prospects and community. During trying times, we all need more empathy. It’s the key to human connection."
    "The world needed empathy in 2020 and customers responded to brands that demonstrated it and took action to help others."
    "Empathy has always been part of great marketing. In 2020 empathy took a central role as marketers led the way in helping their organizations grow guided by insight into their consumers and the larger needs of their communities."
    "We've seen an incredible amount of empathy through the year - towards families dealing with COVID, our frontline workers, opening eyes to racial injustice, colleagues balancing work from home with little kids or elderly parents, etc. We've all been exposed to areas we've never been before and forced to step in someone else's shoes."
    Empathy is a good word to identify with 2020 marketing, but just didn’t get the votes as the other top words.  Just curious, are you protesting this election?  (-:

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