Explore the full 2022 list of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies, 528 organizations whose efforts are reshaping their businesses, industries, and the broader culture. We’ve selected the firms making the biggest impact with their initiatives across 52 categories, including the most innovative advertising, media, and design companies.
The two magic words tying together this year’s list of most innovative companies in branding are community and content. Each explored, in their own unique ways across platforms and audiences, work that added value to the experience—whether that was on Twitch, HBO, or at an NBA game—instead of becoming just more noise. Chipotle met its customers where they live: on Roblox and Discord. Wendy’s dropped into a slew of popular video games to connect. The Jif peanut butter brand from the J.M. Smucker Company took to TikTok. The rising-star crypto exchange FTX introduced itself to potential traders with an aggressive sports sponsorship strategy via the Miami Heat’s arena, Major League Baseball umpire uniforms, and stars Tom Brady and Steph Curry, among others. Of course, it’s not just about being in the right place at the right time but being there with the best content in the moment. The cult running brand On and surf-gear retailer Need Essentials struck the perfect tone with inspiring films that would work even without a brand attached. And the mindfulness app Calm and women’s athleisure brand Athleta found the right moments to participate in larger cultural conversations about mental health.
What brands put out into the world should always be met with the question, Why should we care? These brands answered not only in the level of ambition in their ideas but also in the sheer quality and creativity in how they came to life.
For unwrapping customer delight with clever activations
The burrito-centric fast-casual chain may well be the single-best brand at leveraging emerging social platforms and finding highly creative ways to use them for maximum impact. Chipotle hosted a virtual job fair on the chat and video server Discord after it raised its base wage to $15 per hour, cementing the idea that the brand knows where its customers are and what they like to eat during marathon Overwatch sessions. It created a Halloween-themed corn maze in Roblox, offering free burritos to the first 30,000 users to complete the game. The game was so popular that it was briefly (and incorrectly) credited with crashing Roblox. Chipotle is fueling its social cred with actual products designed to stimulate conversation, such as its December release of cilantro-scented soap. It then bolstered its efforts by harking back to the kind of content marketing that helped make Chipotle cool to begin with, doing a sequel to its famous “Back to the Start” stop-motion animation campaign of a decade ago. All of it is helping to drive sales and digital adoption for the brand: 2021 revenue grew 26.1%, to $7.5 billion, and 45.6% of sales are now digital, a remarkable comeback from its safety-related fall from grace six years ago.
Chipotle is No. 22 on this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies.
2. The Wendy’s Company
For raiding all the games
Back in 2019, Wendy’s dropped its namesake character into Fortnite to destroy all the freezers in a special “Food Fight” edition of Epic’s hit battle royale game. This year, the fast feeder took things up a few notches to redefine what it means to play with your food—and set a new standard for how brands get involved in gaming. “Super Wendy’s World” was a campaign that infiltrated a variety of popular video games and streamed the content on the brand’s Twitch channel. Wendy was in Minecraft smashing ice blocks. In Animal Crossing, she sold freezers to the lowest bidders. Other game appearances included Street Fighter, Super Mario Maker 2, and Super Smash Bros. Overall, gamers spent more than 9.8 million minutes exploring the Wendy’s video-game universe and downloaded the custom levels more than 988,000 times. Wendy’s became the first verified restaurant on Twitch and ranked in the top 1% of all streamers on the platform. The chain’s same-restaurant sales increased 10% globally in 2021.
3. The J.M. Smucker Company
For spreading itself into TikTok legend
The J.M. Smucker Company‘s peanut butter brand Jif jammed itself into the cultural discourse when it recruited Ludacris to modernize his rapping style to a more 2021 mumble flow with the help of a spoonful of peanut butter. It was more than just a fun commercial with a cameo from the new-generation ATL rap star Gunna; it was also an actual new single from Ludacris called “Butter.ATL,” the Fast & Furious star’s first in years. Ludacris then issued the #JifRapChallenge on TikTok, giving users a chance to rhyme with Luda himself in a TikTok duet. TikTokkers created enough of their own challenge videos to collect more than 7 billion views.
For seizing the moment
The mindfulness app continues to elevate its skill at creating content that adds to the culture—and doing so with the agility to tap into shared societal moments. In 2021, Calm added to its growing list of celebrity voices with LeBron James and Blackpink’s Rosé lulling users to a restful sleep. In 2022, it’s adding Pink, Maya Rudolph, Wanda Sykes, Randall Park, Diane Keaton, and Sleep Stories for kids featuring Peppa Pig, Kung Fu Panda, and Minions. On the brand marketing front, Calm topped its late-2020 election-night coup when it jumped into the conversation around athlete mental health by publicly supporting tennis star Naomi Osaka—who isn’t affiliated with the brand—and donating $15,000 (the sum of Osaka’s fine for withdrawing from the French Open) to Laureus Sport, a French mental health organization. The move earned $28 million worth of attention within a week, according to media-monitoring firm Critical Mention, elevating Calm into the pantheon of brand marketers who can both participate in and shape the zeitgeist.
For hitting its marketing stride
The Zurich-based sneaker brand On has built an incredibly strong following with a quiet confidence, nothing too flashy or in your face, just pure quality and style. This is evident through its products—which communicate comfort, performance, and affluence in their instantly identifiable air pockets ringing their sides—its brand ambassador Roger Federer, and the content it creates around its community. The company oozes sincerity, utility, and inspiration in its brand-produced films and docuseries. Its episodic work included Run the City Guide (which provides a runner’s companion to New York City; Melbourne, Australia; Berlin; Shanghai; Vancouver; and São Paulo), as well as a six-episode series called A Fork in the Trail, starring athlete Xavier Thévenard to inspire the trail-running community to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle. On’s full-length documentary, Untethered: The David Brown Story, tells the inspiring story of a two-time world champion and the first wholly blind athlete to run 100 meters in less than 11 seconds. These big doses of motivation helped the company boost net sales by 77% over the first nine months of 2021.
For sticking the landing in its support for women athletes
The Gap-owned athleisure label Athleta has taken significant strides over the past couple of years in establishing and growing its reputation as a brand that puts its purpose at the center of its business. It did so by signing track star Allyson Felix in 2019, and it continued to do so over the past year in a number of ways. It helped Felix launch a $200,000 grant aimed at covering childcare costs for professional athletes competing during 2021. In April, the brand signed another Olympic superstar in gymnast Simone Biles. The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to be a celebration of that new partnership, but when Biles pulled out of multiple events citing mental health issues Athleta doubled down by sending a public message of support to Biles, illustrating its commitment. In September, Athleta sponsored Biles’s post-Olympics, 35-city Gold Over America tour, a multimedia gymnastics extravaganza that also featured Laurie Hernandez and Katelyn Ohashi, among other prominent athletes.
For taking sports sponsorship to the moon
When the Miami Heat in March 2021 announced a new 19-year, $135 million arena naming rights agreement with FTX, one of the most common reactions was: Who? Since then, FTX’s expansion from a cryptocurrency exchange for sophisticated traders with little U.S. name recognition into one of the major (and fastest-growing) players in everything from transaction platforms to nonfungible token marketplaces has dovetailed neatly with its broad yet tactical sports-sponsorship strategy. FTX followed its Heat deal by adding relationships with the MLB Players Association and Major League Baseball (umpires wore FTX patches on their uniforms; Mercedes’s F1 team, which includes superstar Lewis Hamilton; and naming rights to University of California, Berkeley’s field at Memorial Stadium. In mid-December, it was reportedly adding a relationship with the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, whose star Steph Curry had become an FTX brand ambassador earlier in the year. Curry and the Warriors are not the only athlete or team to do so either: NFL legend Tom Brady, the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Jones, former Red Sox hero David Ortiz, and the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team all also rep FTX. The crypto player’s valuation rose along with its public profile: In October 2021, it raised an additional $420.69 million (yep) and then in January raised another $400 million, giving it a $31.6 billion valuation.
For getting high on high design
When Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg launched their cannabis brand, Houseplant, in the United States in March 2021, it wasn’t just about the weed. Having had a head start by hitting the Canadian market in 2019 (the brand has since split with former parent company Canopy Growth), Houseplant had already made a name for itself with an award-winning retro design sensibility and a brand image that somehow seamlessly straddled ’80s fun with mid-century modern. This is where its Housegoods line of products—including tabletop lighters and ashtray designs—may be its secret weapon in brand building. The weed may be available only in California as of now, but Houseplant is nationally known, thanks to these wildly popular homewares. As Rogen told Fast Company at launch, “Weed has lived under your coffee table, in your sock drawer, in the back of your desk for a long time, and it doesn’t deserve that. It belongs with the other things you feel represent your sensibilities.”
For riding to glory with its most passionate fans
The past year for the L.A.-based electric motorbike brand Super73 (which began as a Kickstarter in 2016) can be summed up in two words: community and collaboration. While it may be cool to have Justin Bieber, Jack Black, and Madonna ordering Super73’s electric bikes, or ASAP Rocky and Will Smith giving them as gifts, the real power lies with the brand’s Super Squad. This engaged group of global customers shares photos, stories, and, more importantly, spearheads the brand’s experiential work. The squad organizes rides and gatherings in cities around the world, and in the spirit of old-school bike customization, some Super Squad members have created side businesses of products that are made exclusively for Super73 bikes. On the partnership front, Super73 has pedaled into the consciousness of hypebeasts everywhere (and new customers like Jay-Z and Beyoncé), thanks to custom bike collaborations with Hot Wheels, Tyler, the Creator’s Golf Wang, and global football club Paris Saint-Germain. Super73 thrives by balancing its own brand image and how its most passionate customers see it, then actually integrating that into its products and brand experience.
10. Need Essentials
For embracing adventure
Founded in 2013 by former Quiksilver exec Ryan Scanlon, Australia-based Need Essentials declares its foundational values are just that—only the essentials that are required to responsibly make and sell the highest-quality wetsuits and surfing accessories at the best price. Despite being a brand that produces no advertising and whose products have no visible branding, Need Essentials still managed to drop arguably the year’s most compelling, exciting, and inspirational piece of branded content with its four-part film series Lost Tracks Atlantic. Starring and created by surfer Torryn Martin and photographer Ishka Folkwell, the series follows the pair on an epic, monthslong van journey, surfing from northern Scotland to the West African coast. No major music partnership and no marketing or social budget to speak of, yet the series’ sheer quality and infectious spirit of adventure fueled rabid word of mouth among the planet’s surfing culture, outdoors media, and beyond. This is a brand that stays true to its ideals, while serving up style and substance to the masses.