The biggest brand opportunity in 2021? Ask questions, listen and observe.

February 4, 2021
February 4, 2021 Jen Maltby

Hello New Year.

I don’t know about you, but I have to imagine you are entering 2021 with a great deal of questions.

Questions about all the changes we have personally experienced.

Questions about all the changes we have professionally experienced.

Just plain boatloads of questions.

As a brand strategist (and consumer) I can’t help but to filter this idea of the power and possibility of questions through the lens of what they can help our clients learn as they charge ahead into the next, exciting chapter.

Don’t get me wrong. I know we can’t keep our rose-colored glasses on too squarely. We can all agree that no matter the client category, all have been impacted by the events of 2020, but two that I have been reading about in recent months are the broad worlds of retail and restaurants.

Let’s talk about retail for a minute.

We know from our client experience and never-ending conversations on the topic that retailers continue to be challenged not only by the pandemic but the changes to the overall categorical landscape.

The challenges faced by brick-and-mortar retailers have accelerated at staggering speed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis. The latest data from McKinsey shows that consumers are likely to keep the behaviors they’ve adopted amid stay-at-home orders. Retailers can’t afford to be in a wait-and-see mode. They need to reimagine their baseline requirements and then turn their attention to taking their customer experience to the next level.


There are many great minds coming up with hypotheses about how all this will play out as we begin again in 2021. In fact, we could read articles on the topic from day until night, but what is more important is asking questions, observing and listening to the customers you have today. Why are they still coming through your doors (virtual or otherwise)? What can you do to make them want to stay connected and dedicated to you and your brand? Why are you losing customers? What are they really looking for from you right now?

I would like to share an example or two of retail experiences that have shown great listening and not so great listening in recent months. Example #1: Upon seeing that I was shopping with two children during the end of the busy holiday season, a clothing retailer offered my kids a seat in the back of the store where the (now closed) but pristinely clean dressing rooms were so that my kids could relax and do what they really wanted to do (which was play a game on their phones). The lovely woman in the store even gave my girls a free sample of “unicorn” hand sanitizer. Why did that matter so much to me? I didn’t have to worry whether or not my kids were keeping their masks up, I didn’t have to watch them like a hawk to make sure they weren’t standing too close to other people, and, most importantly, I felt understood. She didn’t actually even ask me a question; she just was smart enough to OBSERVE the opportunity to make a potentially stressful experience more enjoyable. And you better believe I will be back.

Example #2: This one was online, where I acknowledge it can be harder to make a connection, but there is certainly enough opportunity to ask questions and gather data via the online platform. In this case, I ordered two care packages for people that had been quite ill.  I found a new online retailer that offered more than the flowers-and-balloons-type options and decided to give them a try. After 5 weeks of waiting for the packages (that I paid to have delivered in 3 days) they still had not arrived and I had not received as much as a note from the retailer to explain the issue. I understand that there are challenges with the delivery process these days, but a simple email would have gone a long way to making me feel better about the expensive purchases I made. I sent the retailer questions, I never received responses. At the end of the day, the packages were delivered but without the retailer ever asking about my purchase experience or acknowledging my complaints.

You can understand without my explaining the difference in these two experiences and I don’t think it has anything to do with the medium I chose to use when purchasing from their stores.  The difference was, one observed and listened and one did not. You can guess who will be getting my business going forward.

Switching gears, I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about restaurants right now. It’s a category we, as an agency, work with and think about all the time.

I used to love to cook. Every weekend I would spend hours prepping, shopping and preparing for the week’s meals. It brought me joy. But I also loved going to restaurants and taking a break from the cycle of cooking and cleaning at home. Now. After preparing three meals a day for my family (that’s 21 a week and 84 a month for those of you keeping score at home) cooking has lost all of its previous joy. Anyone else feel this way? Even though most are back to being able to go to restaurants in some capacity, it’s similar to the in-store retail experience. It often involves more anxiety than relaxation. As a mom, in the back of my mind I wonder, should I be here with my kids right now? Am I putting us at risk? But then, I also think about how much I love my local restaurants. I want to see them survive through this crisis and I want to support them. Is anyone else feeling this torn?

When I think about everything that restaurants have done during this time to question, listen and observe and as a result pivot, pivot again, and pivot one more time I am utterly blown away. So many (especially local establishments) have done such a good job trying to find ways to continue to serve customers like me and my family. But I also think it’s important to remind all of the amazing survivors in the restaurant industry to keep doing what they are doing, even when this all ends.

“I think restaurateurs are going to have to think increasingly more systemically about if food in the home is going to become much more the norm,” said Oliver Wright, global lead of Accenture’s consumer goods and services practice. “In terms of what we eat and where we eat, it’s probably going to be the biggest shakeout we’ve seen in our adult lifetimes.”


Attitudes are and will continue to change about the food experience and we can’t truly predict how it will all play out, but I have tremendous faith in the category and think that no matter how terribly challenging it has been, the ability to ask, observe and listen will ensure, not only survival, but exponential future successes.

2021 is a year that has left all of us as marketers, business owners and consumers with a lot of questions. So, let’s make sure that we are asking our clients, customers and ourselves what they really need from us to succeed. I think this year is the most important year for any brand to listen. Even though we have all been looking forward to the end of 2020, I think looking to our collective new beginnings in 2021 is where the real opportunity lies.


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