Patagonia Provisions and McDonald’s could not be more different as companies and brands. Yet in 2021 both have had an undeniable impact on business and culture, far beyond the products they sell.
When Provisions, the iconic outdoor apparel company’s food spin-off, launched Long Root Pale Ale beer, in 2016, it wasn’t trying to create the next Budweiser. The brew was merely the best way to devote more agricultural acreage to a perennial wheatgrass called Kernza, a regenerative crop that helps build soil health and sequester more carbon. The beer amplified Patagonia’s mission to fight the climate catastrophe and make it easier for others to join them.
COVID-19 led to greater food insecurity worldwide, and in response, more major corporations accelerated climate initiatives, particularly regenerative farming techniques, to fortify fragile food systems. In May 2020, Budweiser reported better-than-expected success in its initial efforts to reduce water usage as well as emissions in its rice production by using regenerative techniques, expanding its efforts to 2.7 million bushels. And in September 2020, the Nature Conservancy corralled Target, Cargill, and, yes, McDonald’s, to join a five-year program to improve soil quality in Nebraska beef country. As Provisions director Birgit Cameron told Fast Company shortly after its Kernza initiative began, “If we can illustrate a path for the bigger companies to take, then we’ve won.”
Despite its global ubiquity, McDonald’s has rarely tapped the full cultural potential of its iconic status. Last year, though, the fast-food chain’s Famous Orders meal partnerships with such global music superstars as Travis Scott and BTS began changing that—creating a playbook for social media marketing, merchandise, and new music to push customers to the drive-through (where they can make TikToks of themselves ordering Famous Meals). “This has shown us this rabid fandom that exists if we can find the right ways to unlock it,” says Morgan Flatley, whom McDonald’s promoted to global CMO in August.
Whether it’s leading on the environment or pop culture, engaging B2B customers or responding meaningfully to current events, a brand’s ability to forge an emotional connection with consumers is critical in establishing a long-term relationship, enthusiastic loyalty, and advocacy. In our first-ever compendium of Brands That Matter, we recognize nearly 100 companies and nonprofits that give people compelling reasons to care about them—and offer inspiration for others to buy in.