The rules of business seem to be changing constantly, and no one model of success is dominant, so it’s particularly fascinating when a company breaks through the noise. But what are those qualities that allow for one startup to fly while so many others like it fail? That’s what the global brand consultancy Interbrand set out to determine with its Breakthrough Brands report–now in its second year–which names 40 companies that it says represent the next generation of brands across a variety of new, emerging, and evolving categories of business.
The companies on this year’s list were selected as a whole, through a criteria ranging across five factors:
- Audience engagement.
Last year’s list featured a number of now, close to household names like Casper, Venmo and Blue Apron. And this year’s crop includes some solid stars, like Slack, Alphabet’s Verily, Samasource, and Square. But there are also a number of companies on the list that, while they may have broken through, are not necessarily sure bets. TaskRabbit, for instance, is contemplating a sale, while Cylance recently announced layoffs.
A list like this sparks as many questions as it answers. Why is Square there and, say, not Snap? Given Apple’s push into health tech, why is it not included here but Verily, which shares a parent company with Google, is?
Interbrand says that after selecting a master list of brands, they were broken up into seven categories. “The working future” focuses on career building and workflow with brands like Slack, and General Assembly; “from lifehacking to better living,” brands are removing obstacles and solving problems of our everyday lives, like TaskRabbit, Instacart; “not-so artificial intelligence” is a look at brands building new tools using AI like 30SecondsToFly, Face++, and Cylance; “Move me” is about companies focused on the future of mobility like Ofo, Drivy, and Ninja Van; “Funding change” focuses on financial organization like Square, Ripio, and Wealthsimple; “Experiences on demand” are brands that make it easier for us to find and get what we want, when we want it, like Clique Media Group and MikMak (2017 and 2016 Fast Company Most Innovative Company honorees, respectively).
Interbrand’s chief communications officer Paola Norambuena says the breakthrough list is confined to primarily start-ups that are less than 10 years old. Square is one of the elder statesbrands on this year’s list, but its appearance is for its relatively recent shift beyond its original payments product.
“The reason we focused on Square is because its business model keeps adapting,” says Norambuena. “They were certainly breakthrough when it came to the credit card payments, but what they’ve done is really pushed their model to stretch into a new category to fund small businesses. If you have a very strong brand, you often have consumer permission to go beyond your initial category, and this is an example of that. So it’s fascinating to see how they might grow.”
Both Apple and Google’s Verily appeared on Fast Company‘s Most Innovative Companies list for healthcare this year, and yet only Verily was named an Interbrand Breakthrough Brand. Norambuena says that’s down to Verily becoming a start-up on its own.
“The reason we pulled out Verily is because they’re being spun out of Google as a separate business,” she says. “It’s a bit arbitrary, but we thought what they’re doing is important to talk about, will continue to grow, and is indicative of a larger area of growth.”
There is an equal balance between product quality, financial growth, and brand strength. Norambuena says that for many start-ups, the focus is primarily on the former two, and not enough on the latter. “We see a lot of comparable businesses, they may all have interesting technology, be of similar size, but the ones that pull ahead are the ones that understand the value of a great brand,” she says. “They need a cohesive story that will help them break from the pack.”
One example was Chinese bikeshare company Ofo, which is among a handful of strong companies, including rival MoBike, in that highly competitive space in China. Norambuena says Ofo was specifically picked over MoBike based on the strength of its brand. “It’s a stronger brand in everything from identity, packaging, the experience itself,” she says.
See the full list below, and read more about the methodology and category breakdown of the 2017 Breakthrough Brands list here.