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Insight: TBWA’s Backslash releases 2021 Edges, explores cultural shifts shaping the world

SINGAPORE – Backslash, the cultural intelligence unit of TBWA\Worldwide, released its annual glossary of Edges. More than a trend, an Edge is defined as a meaningful cultural shift that has the scale and longevity to propel a brand toward a greater share of the future.

Backslash examines cultural shifts with an eye toward business impact, identifying opportunities for disruptive growth. This year, the opportunities are especially significant, says Agathe Guerrier, co-chief strategy officer, TBWA\Worldwide. “The pandemic has precipitated a cosmic reshuffle of global realities, social norms and individual beliefs. A world is ending, and another is being born. 2021 isn’t just another year, it’s Year Zero. And so this isn’t just a trend report. It’s a glimpse into a new chapter of our history.” 


Backslash’s 2021 Edges explore the cultural shifts shaping our world in six chapters: Chaos, Preservation, Advancement, Identity, Liberation, and Rebirth.

From culture wars to information wars, nowhere is safe from conflict. The opening chapter sets the stage for our current era of chaos, and urges brands to provide a release from the pressure. 

The second chapter explores how, in the face of disarray, preservation of our mental energy and physical resources will become a priority. As we hope for the best but prepare for the worst, we’ll look to businesses to help us shelter, build resilience, and secure the essentials.

The third chapter, advancement, calls technology into question and asks: are we really ready to sacrifice privacy for convenience, worth for automation, or humanity for optimization? 

The fourth chapter, identity, examines how jobs, relationship status and gender no longer define us. As outdated societal constructs are replaced with a more fluid and forgiving approach, brands that empower us evolve will secure their place in the future.

The fifth chapter looks at how a culture craving authenticity is liberating itself from constraints, toxic polarization, perfectionism, and needless consumerism. In the great undoing, brands that celebrate raw transparency and experimentation will offer a breath of fresh air. 

The final chapter, rebirth, offers a refreshingly optimistic vision for a new kind of world. One where greater inclusivity, sustainability, and equity become common goals.

“To find a pathway to growth in today’s world, it has never been more important to spend time observing and disentangling the macro cultural shifts taking place across the globe that will undoubtedly have implications – but also provide unique opportunities – for business, industry, and society,” said Sean Donovan, president Asia, TBWA\Worldwide.

The complete list of 40 Edges can be downloaded here.

Backslash’s rigorous set of criteria requires that Edges be rooted in human values, be recognizable through consumer behaviors, and lead to clear business implications. In order to be declared an Edge, identified shifts must have sustained relevance for over a year and should continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Each Edge must be globally relevant, manifesting in a majority of the world’s regions.

This year’s Edges were defined through a collaborative process that emphasized the expertise of over 300 TBWA “Culture Spotters” across the globe; strategists and creatives who are attuned to culture. Eight coalitions were tasked with pitching cultural shifts emerging within their region. This year, the review board received over 80 Edge submissions, and recirculated finalists with dissimilar cultures to verify regional relevance across 45 countries. From there, 40 globally-relevant Edges were defined.

As global headlines spread awareness around the now, Backslash’s Edges point to what’s next. These six Edges are especially pertinent to recent worldwide news:

Body Debates: Between doctors providing vaccine education on TikTok and record-breaking participation in “Veganuary,” matters of biology are being debated like never before. Decisions related to whether or not to get a vaccination, go vegan, wear a face mask, and have children are no longer private and personal. They’re at the center of heated public disputes related to freedom of choice vs. societal responsibility. As the discussion heats up, industries from entertainment to Big Pharma will take a stand in the battlefield.

Roots Revival: COVID-19 exposed the pitfalls of globalization, opening the door for localism and nationalism to make a modern comeback. While being worldly was once a point of pride, we’re now turning inward and getting in touch with our local and national heritage—gaining new appreciation for the people, land, and traditions that came before us. Consumer preferences are shifting, and the push to “buy local” is just the beginning.

Unglossed: An uptight world is ready to loosen up. Society is turning its back on impossible standards around one-note beauty, buttoned-up professionalism, and picture-perfect lifestyles—ushering in a new, unapologetic attitude. We’re breaking free of unrealistic expectations by shamelessly indulging in life’s pleasures and celebrating our flaws. Aspiring to perfection is outdated

Stability Pursuit: A shaky job landscape is making stability sexy again. From rapid automation to pandemic-driven shutdowns, disruptive forces are sweeping the global economy and rendering mass amounts of jobs irrelevant. As the transition to the “next” accelerates into a blur and the allure of startup culture fades, businesses will begin placing a new emphasis on stability. 

Counter Cancel: A record number of brands and public figures fell victim to cancel culture in 2020, causing both brands and individuals to tiptoe around important issues from fear of being boycotted. But as “woke fatigue” sets in, a growing group of people are refusing to participate in a hyperpolarized world. The Counter Cancel movement will favor healthy, nuanced debate over public shaming, ultimately leading to a more productive movement.

Health Hedonism: Health and wellness are converging. A once-sterile healthcare industry is taking cues from the pleasurable parts of wellness, ushering in a more holistic and hyper-personalized approach to medical care. From hospitals that feel like luxury hotels, to at-home test kits that offer exciting insights into our biology, healthcare is going from dreaded to embraced. Every brand is now in the business of making us well.

“We operate in a different, much more fluid world now. Identifying moments in culture, turning today’s stories into tomorrow’s opportunities have always been a core of what we do. By separating cultural blur from the shifts that matter, we hope these Edges can help businesses with a clearer direction forward and solidify their role in building a better future,” added Belynda Sim, head of cultural intelligence, TBWA\Singapore.

View the complete list of 40 Edges here.

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