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The 10 most innovative branding companies of 2021

Top brands from Patagonia to TikTok to Avocados From Mexico showed how to meet the cultural moment—or created their own—in a year unlike any other.

The 10 most innovative branding companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]
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It takes particular skill to break through the noise and convey your brand authentically to consumers in any year. In 2020—amid a global pandemic, social unrest, and economic uncertainty—that challenge was exponentially greater. The brands that succeeded took risks, doubled down on their core values, and built connections with the right consumers even when the world was upside down.

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1. Avocados From Mexico

For catapulting humble produce into a covetable branded product

Avocados From Mexico is doing everything it can to make sure that its fruit stands out. With no packaging and no label aside from a sticker, the brand has become a household name by creating opportunities for recognition across touchpoints. Avocados From Mexico even opened its own restaurant, called AvoEatery, in Dallas, to test out new ways to add avocados to menus and inspire consumers and food service operators to do the same. It launched a digital partnership with Walmart in March 2020 that included tips and recipes, via branded pages and chatbots, to educate the consumer and encourage sales. Its #Homemadecinco social campaign encouraged users to share their recipes from a “guac generator” that paired avocados with pantry items like peppers or corn. According to the company, site engagement grew 90%, and 5.6 billion impressions. The innovations have paid off: In 2020, Avocados From Mexico broke import records for the second year in a row with 2.1 billion pounds imported in only one year—5% growth year over year, and 90% of the market share in the United States.

2. TikTok

For helping brands create their own cultural moments

The social media platform proved to be a propellant for brands last year (even as the company itself battled the threat of shutdown in the U.S.), with companies such as Ocean Spray capitalizing on viral organic user content to become cultural moments in their own right. TikTok also introduced TikTok for Business, which allowed brands to elicit original content from users. Chipotle, for example, issued a challenge to its followers that resulted in tens of millions of user-generated videos in which users shared their own custom burrito orders for a chance to win $10,000. Only the sheer fun and virality of TikTok could inspire users to make ads for brands for free.

3. Impossible Foods

For giving its plant-based protein a meaty identity of its own

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Impossible Foods‘ in-house design team carved a unique niche for its products in 2020 with a new visual approach, using compostable, recyclable packaging that has bright colors and kooky abstract shapes reminiscent of 1980s Memphis design style. The fresh visual treatment, created by the company’s in-house design team, distinguishes the product from its competitors in the protein aisles, which tend to evoke either nature or rugged, char-grilled, Western-movie masculinity. 2020 was also a huge expansion year for the brand. It launched its own direct to consumer site, and its flagship product, the Impossible Burger, became available in 15,000 grocery stores nationwide; a one-hundred fold increase in the company’s retail footprint since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company also expanded to Canada.

4. Patagonia

For making sure we read the tag

Patagonia scores a spot on this list again in 2020 for putting its money where its messaging is. In September, before the U.S. elections, the company quietly began printing “Vote the Assholes Out” on the backs of the tags in its “Road to Regenerative” shorts, which promptly sold out. In addition to harnessing its connection with consumers to vote climate-change deniers out of office, Patagonia criticized Trump administration policies on public lands, and even produced a movie on the topic, Public Trust, which it released on its website in September. And it’s all reportedly boost company sales. The company continues to be a case study in melding advocacy with corporate branding, while delighting an audience along the way.

5. Ford Motor Co.

For bucking convention in launching its Bronco legacy brand

Ford had one of the first—and best—advertising responses to the pandemic, focusing on helping people with car payments over vague platitudes of solidarity. But it’s masterstroke was the Bronco relaunch, with a groundbreaking partnership with Disney that became a first-ever, prime-time product reveal across ABC, ESPN, Hulu, and NatGeo, in a series of three short films, directed by Oscar winner Jimmy Chin.

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6. Converse

For cultivating a new, diverse generation of all-stars

While the media attention that resulted from Kamala Harris sporting Chuck Taylors on the campaign trail was a nice plus, Converse was already having a big year. The brand launched a new program to the public called “Converse All Stars” which will turn a worldwide network of young creators into a de facto internal creative shop for the brand. A $1 million dollar accelerator program will fast track 13 “Converse All Star Captains” who will get funding for their ideas and mentorship from the likes of Issa Rae and Virgil Abloh.

7. Yeti

For celebrating adventure and art with compelling creative content

Yeti is a perennial creative heavyweight in branded content, but this year’s work raised the bar even higher. The company’s output included a sailing adventure series with world champion surfer John John Florence, a compelling music interview series with Oscar winner Ryan Bingham, and dropping eight short films in one day to create its own film festival, after the pandemic forced the brand to prematurely cancel its 12-city 2020 film tour.

8. New Balance

For elevating unconventional superstars

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This year New Balance has reaped the rewards of investing in unconventional athletes, and then tailoring the marketing to their personalities and styles. Examples include  NBA star Kawhi Leonard, and his shoe collaboration with Jolly Ranchers, a defiantly stylish ad campaign with tennis star Coco Gauff, and a documentary about the year NBA youngster Darius Bazley, who spent time in 2018 as an intern with the company.  Judging by these creative ventures, New Balance is clearly aiming to be a viable, exciting alternative to giants like Nike and Adidas.

9. Dr. Bronner’s

For standing on its soapbox to lobby for psilocybin legalization

The venerably quirky personal care brand continues to put its beliefs on the line—and on its packaging—when it comes to politics, social, and sustainability issues. It not only donated $1 million to an Oregon campaign to legalize psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in “magic mushrooms,” for therapeutic use, but also used its iconic text-heavy soap labels to spread the message. State residents voted to pass the bill in November.

10. Democratic Party of Wisconsin

For making a (blue) splash

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin—or WisDems, as they’re known online, emerged from the heated and swing-state targeted 2020 campaign as the only state party with its own national identity. How? First, it focused heavily on the Supreme Court election in the spring, putting more organizing effort into that race than the entire 2018 midterm elections. (That win, narrowing the gap on the court to a 4-3 conservative majority, helped fend off later presidential election challenges made by the Trump campaign). WisDems adapted early to campaigning during the pandemic, launching a series of viral, virtual fundraising events reuniting beloved movie and TV series casts, from The Princess Bride to Parks and Rec. (The Princess Bride script reading alone raised $4.25 million.) The efforts not only delivered the state to Joe Biden but also helped preserve Democratic governor Tony Evers’ veto against Wisconsin’s heavily gerrymandered Republican-led state legislature. Not content to wait, WisDems has already launched a very visible and voluble effort to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson in 2022.