Just a year ago, I talked about how 2020 was unprecedented for so many reasons. And 2021 seems to be a “rinse and repeat” of the same themes, relative to the brands that showed up to surprise and delight us, as well those that failed or disappointed us. Once again, I turned to my 500 Prophet colleagues around the globe to help decide which brands won and which lost.
There was a lot to chew on. In a year when Square turned into a Block, Facebook became Meta and the Cleveland Indians transformed into the Guardians, the debates got intense.
For instance, last year’s clear-cut winner, Peloton, got votes on both sides. Is it a winner because people still love it? Or a loser since it just slashed its annual sales forecast by $1 billion, as more consumers head back to the gym? Zoom, another of last year’s winners, continues to be as integral to people’s workday as that second cup of coffee–and is on its way to becoming a leading tech sector brand.
Many mentioned the streaming wars, which rose to a whole new level. There’s the introduction of Paramount Plus. HBO Max is taking a gamble, streaming new theatrical releases, like “The Many Saints of Newark.” And then there’s Netflix, which may have seen new subscriptions levels drop but also saw “Squid Games” become the most popular show in its history, pulling in an astonishing 1.65 billion hours of viewing in just 28 days.
Some of our favorite ‘new’ everyday brands went public, including Sweetgreen, Roblox, ZipRecruiter and Instacart, while many crypto brands saw their market value aspire toward FANG territory, only to correct themselves dramatically. Every year, we think we’ve reached the apex of DTC brands, only to have us see another set of stellar performers. This year, those stars include Away, the ever-expanding Bombas, weight loss king Noom and the “lit” cosmetic world of ColourPop and Glossier.
And while everyone wants to pounce on Facebook renaming itself as Meta (and this would be an easy one to put on our brand loser list) as a colossal misstep, we do think the jury’s still out and want to revisit this a year from now. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for Alphabet and Google and, if they pull off the idea of taking us all into the next digital era, exploring augmented, virtual and mixed reality technologies, while working deeply on the many issues facing the brand, this could be a different story a year from now
We also took a close look at the sports betting business. While it’s currently dominated by FanDuel, followed by DraftKings, newcomer Caesars Sportsbook is also making a splash, vowing to spend $1 billion to build its fan base. That includes a deal putting its logo on the jerseys of the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Speaking of sports, we still embrace our love/hate relationship with Tom Brady as both the GOAT/Sports Illustrated Person of the Year, as well as becoming an increasingly influential commercial representative…see his star turn in Hertz’s new Tesla ads.
Finally, we still love our LEGO as it continues to lead the way in reducing gender bias and increasing inclusive play. We also love Target for putting the permanent kibosh on Black Friday, starting on Thanksgiving. Rarely do airlines get a mention, but three cheers to United Airlines for becoming the first to make vaccines mandatory, the first to fly passengers using 100% sustainable aviation fuel and the first to ensure that 50% of its flight school students are women or people of color. We also have to give kudos to Sesame Street, one of my favorite clients from a few decades ago, in continuing to give us all timely lessons on how to deal with racial challenges, inclusivity, diversity and empathy. It’s a brand that is as ageless as it is wise.
Now that we are done with the warmup act, let’s get into the winners and losers for 2021.
The Brand Winners
Moderna and Pfizer
It’s no surprise that Merriam-Webster named “vaccination” as the word of the year, injecting people everywhere with much-needed hope. Moderna and Pfizer top our list. (Johnson & Johnson misses, both because it was later for approval and because while its one-dose advantage could have been a game-changer, it suffered by being perceived as less effective.) With more than 8 billion jabs given, experts say vaccines are still our best shot at stemming the ongoing global health crisis and these two brands continue to lead the charge.
TikTok is now so much more than the 1 billion monthly users who vibe with its dance challenges or laugh with its happy pranksters or wiseass dachshunds. TikTok directly influences all forms of entertainment, all forms of business and pretty much everything in between. Just a few years removed from Lil Nas X and his Old Town Road becoming the O.G. for viral musical successes, TikTok creators used Adele’s Easy On Me in almost one million videos in the first month after its release, helping it go viral on the app alone. To say that TikTok has become the No. 1 global influencing platform would be the understatement of the year.
I’ve never put a nonprofit on the list of winners. But Feeding America continues to astound us with its rapid growth, canny corporate partnerships and ability to connect people even in these divisive times. It’s grim, but the U.S. is finally hunger woke, recognizing that 38 million people, including 12 million children, are food insecure. Feeding America’s brand makes it easier to help and, potentially, see an end to hunger at some point in our lifetime.
In a year when many automakers saw sales decline due to supply-chain shortages, Tesla sales hit new records. And with revenues and profits that are beating analysts’ expectations, its soaring market value shows just how deeply people love the house that Elon built. Even more amazing? While Tesla’s cars still rank nearly last in reliability surveys, it sped past Mercedes-Benz to become the third most popular luxury ride in the U.S. (Look out, Lexus and BMW. It’s gaining.)
Think of it as the anti-Nike, with the determination to move in on Lululemon and the athleisure market. This Gap-owned retailer welcomed high-profile athletes like runner Allyson Felix and gymnast Simone Biles, who publicly broke with Nike over its treatment of women athletes. And, with the Power of She campaign, it’s winning with teens–and well on its way to becoming a $2 billion brand by 2023.
Demonstrating that she’s one of the best marketers in the business, the singer struck back against the music machine by re-engineering 2012’s “Red” album, igniting her fan base and winning new admirers. The centerpiece is a 10-minute version of the heartbreaking “All Too Well,” which became the longest song ever to reach Billboard’s No. 1. (Adios, “American Pie.”) We’ll just quote Ms. Magazine here on Swift’s feminist tour de force: “Taylor Swift didn’t just re-record an album—she reclaimed her humanity.”
Yes, Bitcoin and cryptocurrency prices have fallen sharply recently, wiping out almost $500 million worth of value from the overall crypto market in just a few days. But cryptocurrency still had a breakout year, moving towards the mainstream. Celebrity endorsers are all in, with Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen telling us, “I’m getting into crypto with FTX. You in?” And Matt Damon is representing crypto.com, which is also the new name of the Staples Center. Like electric cars and Tesla, Bitcoin still dominates any conversation about crypto.
The Brand Losers
Some of the most disturbing allegations from Facebook whistleblowing centered on Instagram. Turns out the company has known for some time how toxic the platform can be to the teens who love it, with 32% of teens saying that when they feel bad about their bodies, Instagram makes them feel worse. Concealing that, in our book, is downright shameful. With just over a billion active users, it’s not going away anytime soon. The reports are damning enough that Lush, the body care products company, recently shut down its social media accounts, saying they risk customers’ mental health.
Billionaires in Space
I’m as eager as the next person to boldly go where no human has gone before, but companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin show they’ve got the wrong stuff. At a time when tension between the haves the have-nots keep growing, especially within Bezos Amazon world, these ego-boosting launches are about little more than celebs in space.
We’ve always wanted to love the Chevrolet Bolt. Not only is it the second-best-selling EV brand in the U.S., but it also beat No. 1 Tesla with a genuinely mass-market EV. And its vow to be all-electric by 2035 got our attention. Then came the massive recalls for defective batteries, with severe design concerns that shut production down for weeks. Then Bolt owners got more bad news when GM advised them to park at least 50 feet away from other cars to reduce the risk that a spontaneous fire could spread.
Robinhood started as an exciting brand, promising to democratize investing. With no fees, it’s tempted 19 million new investors into the stock market, gathering $95 billion in assets under custody. But with the GameStop frenzy, it closed trading, earning the enmity of both regulators and the Reddit bros that are its customer base, with a backlash that’s still generating contempt. The move was anything but customer-centric and now the brand is paying for it.
For years, branding experts (even us, sometimes) loved the way Casper, a DTC upstart, vowed to “own” sleep, with showrooms offering complimentary naps and ancillary products. But a year after its disastrous public offering and mounting losses, it’s gone private again. Besides illustrating its operational immaturity and brand braggadocio, it underscores the DTC dilemma. Acquiring new customers is expensive. And really, people don’t buy new mattresses all that often.
Let me know what you think. Which brands hit their stride in 2021? And which ones stumbled? Send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.