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These Marketing Trends Took Over 2021

These are the marketing trends that emerged this year to reach Gen Z and Millennials…

Last year was all about drive-thru and drive-in experiences, social distanced experiences, “scrappy” ads, in-game events, and brands making products to combat anxiety. While some of these trends stuck around this year, there were more marketing trends that were born in 2021 to reach young consumers. If 2020 was the year that brands got the hang of pandemic marketing, this year was all about fully immersing themselves in it. Digital marketing ruled, with campaigns rooted in virtual spaces and viral moments standing out.

Familiar marketing strategies, including brands creating livestream experiences and collaborating with beauty brands for makeup collections (who didn’t create an eyeshadow palette this year?) continued this year. But there were plenty of new ones to grab young people’s attention. These are five we know will keep going in the next year:


At the start of 2021, no one seemed to know what the f*ck NFTs were. But now they’re everywhere, and many, many brands have gotten into the trend. In case you need the refresher: They are “non-fungible tokens,” and are a unique type of cryptocurrency in that by having one, it’s telling someone else that you “own something” virtually—like a digital art piece, that you can also trade in. YPulse research found that more than half of young consumers are interested in owning/trading NFTs—and when they first started to take off, many celebrities and influencers, like Grimes, Logan Paul, and Elijah Daniel, got into buying and selling NFTs. One of the first brands that got into selling NFTs was Taco Bell, which launched a collection of crypto art and GIFs for $1 each. They sold out almost immediately and were being resold for thousands of dollars. Shortly after, General Mills auctioned off NFTs (or, as they called them: new frosting tokens) featuring 10 original digital artworks inspired by the ‘90s, to commemorate Chocolate Dunkaroos. Other brands that got into NFTs include E.l.f Cosmetics, Hot Wheels, Coca-Cola and luxury fashion brands like Givenchy and Burberry, who have all created or auctioned off their own NFTs. Perhaps one of the biggest moves from a brand to get into NFTs is from Nike, who recently acquired RTFKT Studios, a leading brand “that leverages cutting edge innovation to deliver next generation collectibles that merge culture and gaming.” Adidas also recently launched a “Into The Metaverse” NFT collection. It functions as a “very exclusive fan clubwhere NFT holders will be able to purchase special merch drops, and the company says members will help shape the kinds of products and experiences for the community.

Speaking of NFTs, the rise of virtual spaces took off during the pandemic, and digital communities inside video games, social media, and more platforms are only getting bigger. Now, the metaverse (the idea of a massive, centralized virtual community) is becoming a way for brands “to bridge the digital and physical divide,” and categories including fashion, beauty, music, and even social media platforms like Facebook are starting to double down on their virtual strategy. Warner Bros., Gucci, and Nerf are a few that have created their own virtual worlds on gaming platforms like Roblox, while Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and Anheuser-Busch InBev are creating their own NFTs, and Nike, Sephora, and Porsche continue to experiment with augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) on more traditional platforms like Snapchat. Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren, General Mills, Charlotte Tilbury, American Girl, and Mondelez’s Lacta, are brands that have created virtual stores in gaming platforms to expand their store footprint digitally. YPulse’s Clicking on Community trend research shows that 60% of 13-39-year-olds are part of an online group, and social media platforms and video games have become sources of solace for Gen Z and Millennials.

Viral Products

YPulse’s recent Pop Culture Redefined trend report found that 62% of young consumers say brands should comment on viral pop culture moments to stay relevant with their generation—and this year, a few brands took it a step further by creating product lines and forging partnerships inspired by some of the biggest viral moments. Boxed-booze brand BeatBox Beverages worked with Nathan Apodaca to create a line of his own Cranberry Dreams flavor, McCormick teamed up with vegan influencer Tabitha Brown seasoning, and EOS developed a limited-edition line of “Bless Your F*cking Cooch” shaving cream after TikToker Carly Jay penned the now iconic tagline. Perhaps the most recent example of a brand leaning into a viral moment is Panera working with TikTok’s Emily Zugay for an “Ugly Holiday Cup Collection.” She went viral in September for (jokingly) redesigning major companies’ logos and since then, Zugay has been teaming up with brands for ad campaigns on TikTok while consistently gracing social media with more ugly logo designs. The restaurant chain decided to put a spin on the holiday cup tradition Starbucks is known for by releasing an ugly holiday cup collection designed by her. The cups feature intentionally misspelled words like “RAINDEER,” choppy graphics, and fonts designers would never dare using—all noteworthy marks of Zugay’s beloved viral work. According to Panera, the collection emphasized that the only thing that matters this holiday is what’s on the inside.

Branded Getaways
As young consumers slowly started getting back to doing their normal lives, travel picked up—but Airbnbs have now surpassed hotels in popularity with young travellers, and this year brands found ways to integrate themselves into these shifting travel preferences. From the Home Alone house in Chicago to Carrie Bradshow’s iconic apartment in NYC to the last Blockbuster, Airbnb led the way by coming up with the most themed rentals inspired by popular TV shows, movies, and iconic locations. YPulse research found that 62% of 16-34-year-olds are interested in staying at a themed Airbnb, and 67% of that group tell us they would travel far to stay at one. But it wasn’t just Airbnb that came up with their own themed getaways. Ahead of the holidays, Vacasa recreated the Grinch Cave in Utah so fans could live like the Dr. Suess character. Meanwhile, brands like Hasbro teamed up with VRBO to turn an Oklahoma lake house into a Nerf paradise full of top-of-the-line toys, blasters, gear in every corner, and bucket ball and water trampoline games. KFC got into the trend by spicing up its annual tradition of selling a scented firelog by creating the Kentucky Fried Chicken Firelog Cabin, which has four bedrooms, a theater, built-in bar, and a pool and hot tub all themed around the fried-chicken cabin. A QR Code was packaged with the scented log that consumers could scan to enter to win a three-day, two-night stay at the KFC cabin. Meanwhile, Mtn Dew took a different approach to a branded getaway by constructing a playground for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy mountain activities, with a giveaway where one lucky winner scored the position as a Mtn Dew Outpost Ranger along with a $5,000 payment, travel, accommodations, a branded uniform, and a Polaris Ranger vehicle.

Celeb Meals
From Dunkin’ working with Charli D’Amelio to Chipotle collaborating with Shawn Mendes and Miley Cyrus, we told you about all the ways fast food brands reinvented celebrity and influencer collabs last year. And in 2021, the celebrity meals were bigger, better, and seemingly endless: McDonald’s continued their Famous Orders campaign by collaborating with BTS, Saweetie, and Mariah Carey. Burger King jumped on the trend with their own “Keep It Real Meals” backed by celebs and influencers including Nelly, Lil Huddy, and Anitta. Each celebrity handpicked items from Burger King’s menu for their celebrity orders: Nelly’s meal, dubbed the “Cornell Haynes Jr Meal,” includes a Whopper, small fries, and a small Sprite; Lil Huddy’s “The Chase Hudson Meal” features a hand-breaded spicy chicken sandwich with cheese, 4-piece mozzarella sticks, and a 16-ounce chocolate shake; and Anitta’s “Larissa Machado Meal” includes a meatless Impossible Whopper, small fries, and a small Sprite. Tim Hortons partnered with Justin Bieber for a line of limited edition donut holes. Meanwhile, Popeye’s tapped Megan Thee Stallion to collaborate on a new “Hottie Sauce” (as an add-on to the restaurant chain’s original chicken sandwich, or as a standalone dipping sauce) and co-branded merch featuring bikinis, long-sleeve shirts, hats, tumblers, and Popeyes chicken tenders plush dog toys. Taco Bell also recently hired Lil Nas X as its Chief Impact Officer, while KFC just announced a partnership with Jack Harlow, which kicked off with a food truck outside of the rapper’s first hometown show in Louisville to promote KFC’s fried chicken sandwich. YPulse’s celebrity and influencers research shows that food collabs are the No. 1 type of influencer branded content young people want to see, and with the number of collabs that fast food brands keep pushing out—we’re bound to see more in 2022.