Red house sinking in river with COP26 sign

What were the standout trends for 2021? We asked people across the market research sector what issues stood out for them in another tumultuous year.

IN the year of COP26, environmental issues were some of the biggest trends among our respondents.

Kelly Beaver, CEO UK and Ireland, Ipsos
All things green and the level of public concern about the environment really came to the fore in 2021 – particularly driven by the COP26 effect, but not solely, as we have been seeing public concern rise consistently in the UK, and globally, for a number of years now. The challenge in the years ahead will be maintaining that level of public support when people are personally impacted financially and in their lifestyle choices.

Caroline Frankum, global CEO, profiles division, Kantar
There’s been a palpable, increased focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) this year – not just from a business and investor perspective, but also from a personal, human one as we’ve witnessed the terrible impact and destruction of unprecedented flooding and fires across the globe this past year.

COP26 and the Glasgow Climate Pact of watering down the ‘phasing out’ of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies to ‘phasing down’ further-fuelled the ESG focus and debate. But the current ESG space still lacks standardisation when it comes to data. I feel the market research industry can play a leading role on developing a currency that better informs how to drive meaningfully, sustainable change for the better.

Ryan Howard, marketing science consultant
We’ve been asking consumers about sustainability for a very long time, naively expecting attitudinal shifts, our trackers limping, year on year, with anaemic straight lines. Green credentials have never explained purchase decisions. They score on or near the bottom of the pile in every market level model I have ever produced. Until this year, that is. Is it enough to impact shopping baskets? For the first time, the surveys say ‘maybe’.

Ben Shimshon, co-founder and managing partner, BritainThinks
‘Mainsgreening’ (because, apparently, all trends require a portmanteau name) – the mainstreaming of environmental awareness.

Others noted a continuation of one of 2020’s key themes – hybrid working and the evolution of the post-Covid-19 workplace:

Jane Frost, CEO, MRS
It’s hard to look past the emerging relationship between in-person and online methods of working and the emphasis on mental health in particular, and well-being more generally. Both have their benefits and limitations, and it’s up to us as employers to develop systems that effectively combine them for the benefit of everyone.

On a slightly less positive note, the increasing digital and data skills gap has become more obvious, especially for older employees. It’s vital that we offer appropriate support and training so that everyone, regardless of their age, can best make use of these recent technological leaps.

Andrew O'Connell, managing director UK, Dynata
The increase in fast-paced small, tactical research pieces as clients try to navigate the post-pandemic world. Some larger strategic projects have been delayed until the ‘new normal’ emerges, which is not yet.

James Endersby, CEO, Opinium
The standout trend for me has to be hybrid working – kudos to those teams that truly embraced the power that hybrid working offers. All the benefits of work from home deep work, focus, life balance, combined with the collaborative superpower of all being back together in the office again and all collectively feeding off the energy, creativity and, yes, positive mental wellbeing forces of interacting with colleagues.

Anna Cliffe, joint managing director, Trinity McQueen
Flexibility. We’ve all had to bend to whims of Covid-19, lockdowns, inconveniences and the every-closer interplay between work and home. We’ve all had to become more flexible as a result – that’s no bad thing.

Bob Qureshi, CEO and managing partner, I-View
The way in which all firms, no matter what their sector are area of expertise had to find a way to adapt; to meet client needs and in many cases adapt to keep their businesses afloat. Of course, perseverance, commitment, belligerence and pivoting all required a group effort by the teams within any firm to keep the industry relevant and integral to all client decision making. This often meant the notion of competitors being pushed aside for the value of collaboration and sharing of ideas for a common goal.

Jane Rudling, managing director of insight and analytics, Unlimited
With 2020 being ‘unprecedented’ and the year of ‘pivoting’, then 2021 has very much become the year of ‘hybrid’. Hybrid working has become the norm as our teams have come to terms with the options to return to the office and flexibility to work from home as needed.

Rebecca Cole, managing director, Cobalt Sky
I think we’ll look back on it being the year where companies across the board started investing in developing long-term flexible working models. It’s something we’re still learning how to do efficiently and there will inevitably be some teething problems to work out. But I believe in the long run, and if done properly and with consideration, this flexibility will be a huge benefit to the industry on many levels for years to come.

Lisa Wilding-Brown, CEO, InnovateMR
From what I’ve experienced this year, there has been more professional humanity than ever before; I was excited to meet my clients’ dogs on Zoom calls, calling from the car on the way to daycare became commonplace, and I was able to connect with my colleagues on a new level. Even though we transitioned to a fully virtual culture, I felt that in some ways, we were more connected than ever before.

There were other industry trends for the year too, from greater inclusion and diversity, to the rise of new techniques and technology.

Nick Baker, global chief research officer, Savanta
Leopard print? Or perhaps resilience. As a sector we have responded robustly to the challenges of the past two years and have seen good growth in many areas, as well as more limited growth – but still growth as a sector.

Shazia Ginai, CEO, Neuro-insight
Finally, we’re talking about menopause in a real way. The standout trend for me is that businesses are putting in place policies (or at least talking about doing so) around menopause support and proper maternity/paternity leave. So many reports show gender inequality in our industry – that’s old news – and businesses are signing pledges and ticking boxes left and right, but this year its felt like the industry started digging into the why, and unearthing one element that has never really been tackled. 

Stephan Shakespeare, CEO and co-founder, YouGov
There are two big ones from my perspective. Both revolve around clients’ need for 360o data 24/7 and consumers getting a good deal from sharing the views and behaviours. The first is the rise of zero-party data as an ethical source of consumer insight for the industry. By having a close-up and fully consented view of people’s actual digital behaviours, we can provide consumers with proper value for their data and give clients an ever-more accurate view into the world as it is right now.

The second is that, following changes to cookie regulation, lots of clients are making much more use of research and panel companies as rich sources for consented and permissioned activation.

Peter Totman, head of qualitative, Jigsaw
Diversity and inclusion becoming focus – a good thing in many ways, but hopefully the tone will remain positive/persuasive and not become too emphatic/insistent. It must also include political and social class diversity.

Ray Poynter, chief research officer, Potentiate
The growth of platforms and the move to more research being conducted internally by clients.

This is the first in a series of articles over the next few weeks reviewing the main trends of 2021 and looking forward to 2022.