The 10 most innovative brands of 2020


White Claw, Ryan Reynolds’s Aviation Gin, Popeyes, Mountain Dew, Patagonia, Netflix, Ikea, P&G, and Adidas show how to make some noise with customers.

When every brand is making noise, how do you break through? As this past year makes as clear as any, the brands that truly understand themselves have almost limitless possibilities to bring expression to that in a way that resonates with consumers. The brands we honor are varied in their businesses, but united in having figured out their core identity and having fun from there.


For riding the wave of hard seltzer’s rise by appealing to men, women, and memes

The overall hard-seltzer market exploded last year, with a 202% sales boost over 2018 and hitting $1.3 billion. And it was Mark Anthony Brands’ White Claw that led the way. It rode the wave of this rise with both a design and marketing approach that was appealing to men, women, and memes, making the most of events like the Kentucky Derby and Coachella, while embracing influencers and even unauthorized parodies.


For hilariously using meta advertising, pop culture, and Peloton’s misfortune to stand out in a crowded market

Over the course of the past year, Ryan Reynolds has managed to raise the profile of Aviation Gin among drinkers while also placing the brand comfortably in pop culture. Part of that is sheer celebrity, but the work itself has also been the envy of every marketer and ad agency. Using meta-advertising to pitch Aviation, Samsung, and a Netflix film—all at once—was impressive, but it was how the brand managed to find and hire the Peloton Wife for an ad while the viral flames around the exercise brand were still burning that really had everyone buzzing.


For cooking a new spicy chicken sandwich into a social media phenomenon

Although it’s been accustomed to being the third wheel of fried chicken (after KFC and Chick-fil-A), Popeyes upended all the rules when it introduced its new chicken sandwich last summer. In the process, it somehow managed to become a piece of pop culture. A huge part of that was thanks to the discourse on Black Twitter, which started hilarious memes and stoked the conversation. From there, Popeye’s new marketing team—stocked with vets from fellow Restaurant Brands International sibling Burger King—managed to use a witty social voice and the existing cultural hype to turn a sandwich into a situation where if we say The Great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019, you know exactly what we’re talking about.


For turning an apology to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan into a golden opportunity

The soda that gave us Puppy Monkey Baby had another successful Super Bowl blockbuster by inexplicably combining Bryan Cranston, Tracee Ellis Ross, and The Shining, but it was a lower-profile effort that really showed off its marketing chops. When a map that was part of the brand’s “Dewnited States” campaign launched in June, it mistakenly put Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Wisconsin. As expected, it was roundly called out on social media. But instead of ducking and hiding, the Dew decided to double down on an apology and give the UP its own special-edition bottle labels, then set up camp at the Upper Peninsula State Fair to atone for its geographical sins by giving attendees the chance to plop Dew employees in a dunk tank, all while giving away thousands of free products and swag.


For helping brands like Glossier, Snap, Farfetch, and Daily Harvest find their voice

This was the year Fndr cemented itself as a go-to adviser for an elite cadre of entrepreneurs. The secret sauce is how they help startups hone their stories by putting founders through a series of meetings designed to tease out their values and beliefs, challenging them to think about the human impact of technology and the social contract between their companies and the communities in which they operate.


For empowering teen activists to challenge government climate change deniers

The outdoors brand has been making compelling content and lobbying for years, and this last one was no exception. To raise awareness for Climate Week back in September 2019, the brand created a new campaign featuring teen activists from around America and the world, telling Congress and other leaders that there is no room in government for climate change deniers. By early 2020, the brand had released two new films, the first a feature documentary called Public Trust, about America’s system of public lands and the fight to protect them. The second was a compelling short called District 15, outlining the fight by young activists in the L.A. neighborhood of Wilmington to establish a 2,500-foot distance between oil drilling operations and the community’s schools, hospitals, and churches.


For getting Burger King, Coca-Cola, Nike, and Baskin-Robbins to hype Stranger Things

The third season of Stranger Things was a massive event for Netflix, and even though the streamer has no advertising on its platform, it turned the occasion into a blockbuster movie-style brandfest. The best part about it—across partners like Coke, Nike, Baskin-Robbins, Lego, and many more—was that each execution fit the tone, personality, and content of the show. The crown jewel? Convincing Coca-Cola to relive its New Coke disaster and turn it into a marketing masterstroke.


For embracing weirdness, from its catalog of TV-show living rooms to its grime diss track Christmas ad

Always a strong contender, the Swedish retailer continued its years-long run of prolific and fun marketing from around the globe, turning the TV living rooms from FriendsThe Simpsons, and Stranger Things into a cheeky furniture catalog, and making a UK Christmas ad into a grime diss track rapped by house trinkets.


For deploying its massive budget to provoke with The Look and the docuseries Activate

As one of the world’s largest advertisers, it’d be easy to blow off P&G as the opposite of risk-taking. But over the past year, the company has used its size and influence to push the boundaries of what high-quality brand content could—and should—be. In mid-2019, it announced Activate, a six-part documentary series on National Geographic Channel, featuring celebrities such as music producer Pharrell Williams, rapper Common, and actors Darren Criss and Uzo Aduba, on issues like the work of grassroots activists ending cash bail, eradicating plastic pollution, and more. Then in November 2019, building on the momentum from award-winning short film work like 2017’s “The Talk” and 2018’s “The Look,” the company teamed with Spotify for a four-part branded podcast called Harmonize, on racial bias starring John Legend and Pusha T, along with cultural commentator Cory Townes, and hosted by writer Jamilah Lemieux.


For converting social influencers into sneaker salespeople with its e-commerce app

The sports giant has a rabid fan base, and in mid-2019, it decided to experiment in incorporating them into the company’s sales funnel with a new partnership with the social commerce app Storr. The arrangement gives people the ability to open their own sneaker store from their phone in just three clicks. First opened up to the brand’s 10,000 Creators Club members, who could earn a 6% commission from every sale (or have the option to donate to Girls on the Run), the plan was then to expand social selling into the brand’s higher-end women’s products.

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