2021 Fast Company Brands That Matter

Brands
That
Matter

Fast Company’s first-ever Brands That Matter list—featuring Patagonia Provisions, McDonald’s, Ikea, Yeti, and more—honors companies and nonprofits that have had an undeniable impact on business and culture.

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.

100 Thieves

The world of esports and gaming has evolved beyond the screens into a much broader pop-cultural machine. 100 Thieves has built itself into one of its prime engines by combining the fashion and exclusivity of streetwear, the fan- and personality-driven hype of YouTube creators, and the ballyhoo of professional sports. It started 2020 with a total social reach of 45 million, and ended the year with 95 million. It’s created a top gaming podcast, sold out over a dozen apparel drops, and boasts partnerships with brands like Cash App, AT&T, Chipotle, and Rocket Mortgage. Last year, 100 Thieves opened its Los Angeles headquarters, named much like a pro sports stadium: the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound. The 15,000-square-foot place has areas for esports training, video-game livestream broadcasting, content production, fashion design, and a retail storefront for the brand’s upcoming apparel drops. In October, it was also the backdrop for filming a hype video ahead of the team’s appearance in the League of Legends World Championship, that starred 100 Thieves members with Lil Nas X performing his songs “Industry Baby” and “That’s What I Want.”

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300 Entertainment

Classy, bougie, ratchet, yeah. If you didn’t actually participate in 2020’s #SavageChallenge on TikTok, with 10 billion views and 50 million videos made by fans and celebs alike, chances are you definitely saw it. The indie record label 300 Entertainment managed to turn a hit single into a social media phenomenon, and helped turn Megan Thee Stallion into a pop-culture icon. The dance challenge not only helped make TikTok a force in music but became a case study in social music promotion. The label also used the limitations of the pandemic to encourage fan and artist creativity with its “300 Creates” art challenges, and its 300 Unplugged video series of up-and-coming talent helped boost the label’s YouTube channel views by 500%. The chart-topping debut album from artist Gunna and seeding the resurgence of Young Thug’s 2017 hit “Relationship” on TikTok further cemented 300 as a label at the edge of modern culture. Sassy, moody, nasty.

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3M

It’s tough to pin down a singular brand image when your company makes everything from cleaning supplies to dental and orthodontic products to electrical components, air filters, and face masks. Over the past two years, 3M has taken its reputation for consistency and near-ubiquity and applied it to the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic. It quickly had its respirator manufacturing plants running 24/7, quadrupling its annual production capacity to 2.5 billion respirators, while also working with governments to help break down trade barriers and direct respirators to serve areas of the world most in need. At the same time, the brand announced in 2021 plans to invest approximately $1 billion over the next 20 years to accelerate new environmental goals, such as carbon neutrality by 2050, reducing water use by 25%, and drawing down its dependence on virgin fossil-based plastic by 125 million pounds by 2025. All along the way, 3M has been using content—from podcast sponsorships to brand advertising—to tell the stories of its employees. These effectively illustrate that it’s not just a company making purification tech to help advance vaccine and therapy research for COVID-19. It’s real people. Plus, they make duct tape.

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AARP Staying Sharp

People over 50 make up 35% of all Americans, and about one-third of them are AARP members. Sure, they get perks like 5% to 15% off their bill on a room at Best Western, or 10% off groceries at Albertsons on the first Wednesday of each month. But AARP’s impact is significantly more than that. In 2019, AARP fought for passage of 139 new laws or regulations that helped 38 million family caregivers, like New Jersey’s Family Leave Act, boosting unpaid leave over 24 months from 6 weeks to 12 weeks. The organization’s Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers helped 2.5 million older taxpayers secure $1.4 billion in income tax refunds in 2019, and 122,000 elderly in need were helped to receive $5.9 million in government food assistance benefits. Last year, AARP launched a large-scale “Staying Sharp” campaign around brain and mental health, offering members research studies, activities, recipes, and exercises.

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Adobe

Adobe could easily be a very behind-the-scenes provider of tools for creative industry and still be a wildly successful business. However, as a brand it instead strives to highlight the power of creativity in driving purpose through its content. In late 2020, it launched a film dedicated to Black creators called When I See Black, showcased in The New York Times, Hulu, and ComplexLand. During the pandemic, Adobe created the experiential campaign “Honor Heroes,” asking its creative community to create artwork honoring frontline workers in healthcare, first responders, delivery drivers, sanitation workers, mail carriers, supermarket staff, schoolteachers, and more. Adobe’s video featuring submissions reached more than 52 million people online and 3.4 million YouTube views. Not only is Adobe empowering creators to make work, it’s also seeking to ensure its authenticity for viewers and consumers. Adobe has collaborated with Twitter and The New York Times to launch the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI), in order to address the challenges of deepfakes and other deceptively manipulated content. The CAI is building systems to provide provenance for digital media, giving creators tools to express objective reality and empowering consumers to evaluate whether what they are seeing is trustworthy.

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AeroFarms

From the start, AeroFarms has made its vertical farming systems and technology, as well as the reason for it all, the foundation of its brand. The brand isn’t simply about getting the tastiest produce possible into your mouth; it’s about using that tasty produce to educate and inspire you as a consumer to take on our existing and impending food-supply challenges. It’s not just about using 95% less water than traditional agriculture, or being 390 times more efficient per square foot compared to field farming. AeroFarms also launched a flavor spectrum on its labeling to illustrate the variety of its leafy products: Cool blue colors mean sweet and mellow, while intense reds translate to bold and zesty. The certified B Corporation has also partnered with Jersey City and the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the first municipal vertical farming program in the United States, as part of WEF’s global Healthy Cities and Communities 2030 Initiative. This program will consist of 10 vertical farms throughout Jersey City, located in senior centers, schools, public housing, and municipal buildings. The 10 sites will grow 19,000 pounds of vegetables annually using AeroFarms’ proprietary aeroponic vertical farming technology, and the produce grown throughout the year will be given to the community for free. Zesty!

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Allbirds

Quickly making its name after launching in 2016, Allbirds’ brand has always been tied to its simplicity—of both product design of its decidedly unbranded wool sneakers and the quirky, fun voice of its marketing. The company has turned its status as one of the world’s most comfortable shoes into cult-brand status—and a calling card for the potential of digitally born brands. It’s taken that and pushed further to address sustainability issues in its industry and supply chain. In August, the brand launched a new activewear line for women and men designed to have a smaller environmental impact than standard workout gear, made with creative fiber blends that are made from 75% plant-based or recycled materials. It follows the five-year game plan that Allbirds laid out in its 2020 Annual Report, which focused on reversing climate change through better business practices like using renewable materials and ones grown through regenerative agriculture practices, and transitioning to renewable energy across its supply chain. As it quickly approaches an impending IPO, the brand’s next challenge is to keep all of its manufactured goodwill going in public.

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Asana

Work is tough enough without all of the work that goes into doing the work. The meetings, the calls, the endless feedback loop . . . and it all didn’t go away during the pandemic. It just pivoted to video. Asana, a web and mobile project management platform founded in 2008 by Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and former Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, has established itself as a leader in helping work teams better sift through the BS and more efficiently organize and track their progress. Its third Anatomy of Work Index, released in 2021, is a proprietary research report surveying more than 13,000 workers to understand how their attitudes and behaviors have evolved in the past year, and what organizations, teams, and individuals can do to thrive in the year ahead. It found that despite organizations’ best efforts to re-create what worked in the office in a remote setting, global workers are losing 60% of their time on work coordination rather than the skilled, strategic jobs they’ve been hired to do. Asana, and its growing arsenal of tools, is a brand aiming to help fix it.

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Athletic Brewing Co.

There’s a reason major brewers like Heineken and Anheuser-Busch have been investing tens of millions of dollars in the nonalcoholic beer market. According to market research firm IRI, U.S. sales of nonalcoholic beer were up 38% in 2020 to roughly $188 million in total sales, with all indicators pointing to that growth continuing. Athletic Brewing has quickly established itself as the craft king of nonalcoholic beer, winning beer awards while hitting 500% sales growth in 2020, and attracting A-list investors such as NFL stars J.J. Watt and Justin Tuck, Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, and chef, restaurateur, and media mogul David Chang. “I don’t drink as much as I used to, and I care more about wellness and my own well-being than ever before, especially since becoming a dad,” says Chang. “Where they’re at now is just the starting point of where I think they can take the brand. I really believe that the team has a great vision that’s focused on products with true value.” Chang cites the brand’s Two for the Trails initiative, launched last year, donating 2% of all revenue back to trail-based organizations in order to build and maintain outdoor spaces. “There’s a real sense of ‘strong opinions loosely held,’ that helps make Athletic such a strong brand,” he says. “They’re constantly looking to make their products even better and improve their ideology, all while staying committed to their core values.”

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Beats by Dre

By its own admission, Beats by Dre had let slip the strong cultural brand voice it had long-ago established. It used 2020 to turn that volume back up. “I think there was a real opportunity for Beats to go back to its roots a little bit, have that powerful voice again, stand up for what it believes in, and really [have] the permission to be one of the strongest brand voices out there,” CMO Chris Thorne told Fast Company in late 2020. In November, Beats launched a powerful new ad stylishly addressing the massive gulf between America’s love of Black culture and the systemic racism still inflicted on its Black citizens. Directed by Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim), written by Lena Waithe, and with music by Solange Knowles, “You Love Me” starred everyday people alongside such stars as Naomi Osaka and Bubba Wallace, as well as activists like Janaya Future Khan. Then, leading into the Tokyo Olympics, the brand once again jumped into the cultural zeitgeist by dropping a new ad during Game 6 of the NBA Finals, starring sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson (who was controversially banned from competing for testing positive for marijuana) and debuting a song off Kanye West’s yet-to-be-released new album, Donda—a deft combination of one of America’s most of-the-moment athletes with one of its most polarizing artists, smack dab in the midst of the NBA Finals. Outside its own projects, the company also developed the Beats Black Creators program, a three-month, paid program for rising creatives at HBCUs to be mentored by industry leaders.

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Ben & Jerry’s

The iconic ice cream makers have fought for what’s right for four decades—and aren’t slowing down. Earlier this year, when Israel bombed Gaza (which much of the world had already concluded to be illegal settlements of Palestinian territory), Ben & Jerry’s pledged not to sell ice cream there. Although it infuriated the Israeli government, the company has never been afraid to speak truth to power. In its earliest days in the 1980s, it took on rival Pillsbury when the maker of Häagen-Dazs tried to prevent the Vermont upstart from selling pints in nearby Boston. A buzzy ad posited “What’s the Doughboy afraid of?” and helped pressure the goliath to back down. In the 1990s, Ben & Jerry’s took on Monsanto after it rejected the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in its ice creams. In the 2000s, now as part of the global conglomerate Unilever, Ben & Jerry’s protested the Iraq war and President Bush’s attempt to open up the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, using the world’s largest Baked Alaska dessert to make its point. And in the 2010s, amid reports of brutal treatment of incarcerated citizens (as well as private companies profiting off them), the brand forcefully stated, “Slavery never really ended.” It focused its social justice efforts on advocating for criminal justice reforms, giving Ben & Jerry’s credibility when it redoubled its efforts in the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd.

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Beyond Meat

Why choose between health and sustainability? Beyond Meat doesn’t think you should have to. With its better-for-you plant-based ingredients, Beyond Meat remained the No. 1-selling brand in the refrigerated meat substitutes category last year. The company produces a burger alternative that requires 46% less energy, generates 90% less greenhouse gas emissions, and has 99% less impact on water scarcity and 93% less impact on land use than a traditional beef patty. Committed to health for both its customers and the planet, Beyond Meat launched four new retail products during the pandemic, to help consumers make accessible, healthy choices at every meal.

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Bumble

Gentlemen, step aside. Bumble, the “women first” dating and social networking app, continues to go the extra mile in the online relationship space. With a mission to foster safe and equitable connections, Bumble holds its users accountable with industry-first features such as photo verification, a block and report system, and a ban on body shaming. When the pandemic pushed interactions digital, Bumble upheld its commitment to safety, launching a number of campaigns and features including the COVID Preferences Center and the comprehensive guide “Dating 101 in 2021.” In the past year, Bumble contributed nearly $3 million to organizations that share its mission and values, including Black Women’s Health Imperative, Planned Parenthood, and Vital Voices.

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Care.com

With more than 24 million families (as of March 2021) across more than 20 countries, Care.com has become the leading platform for finding care options for children, seniors, and pets. With all the work-from-home and online learning demands during the pandemic, its model was put to a severe test. In the first months of COVID-19 lockdowns, the company saw a triple-digit percentage increase in job posts for childcare and in-home senior care, a 43% increase in tutoring and tutoring-related childcare jobs, and a 45% increase in new clients. It offered free memberships to frontline workers and seniors looking for care, and worked directly with states (Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Texas), cities (Palo Alto and Dallas), and nonprofits (Armed Services YMCA, Agenda for Children in Louisiana) on customized solutions to support their frontline workers needing care. The company was also actively involved in the American Rescue Plan and efforts surrounding care’s inclusion in the proposed infrastructure bill.

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Cariuma

Less than a year before the Tokyo Olympics, Cariuma didn’t have a skateboard team. Ten months later, three of the eight Olympic finalists were wearing Cariuma sneakers, more than giants like Nike and Vans. For a brand that’s less than three years old—and a crowd as notoriously fickle as skateboarders—this is a delightfully impressive feat. It comes from the founding ethos of the brand: to be the coolest, most comfortable, and sustainable sneaker around, and how that’s extended to how it chooses with which athletes to partner. The Cariuma skate team is an eclectic mix of living skate legends, pros, Olympic athletes, and amateurs, picked as much for their commitment to creating a better world as any ability to kickflip. Beyond the podium, Cariuma this year also launched the world’s lowest carbon footprint sneaker, the IBI Slip-on. After two years of development, it has a carbon footprint of 5.48kg CO₂e (ISO 14067 Certified), three times fewer emissions than the average pair of sneakers at approximately 14kg CO₂e. Now that’s pretty rad.

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Cosmopolitan Magazine

In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown revived a moribund magazine title, Cosmopolitan, by focusing on the interests of the young women of the era and promoting independence and bravado at the dawn of the feminist movement. Today, Cosmo has adapted to the moment to serve young women in the spirit of our times. Across print, social media, video, e-commerce, and more, Cosmopolitan delivers entertainment, service, and insight in the subjects they care about, where they are, and in the tone of a peer. Articles and Instagram posts on how to demand justice for Black lives amid the 2020 racial protests and the TikTok-ification of a reported feature relaying the experience of a photojournalist inside the White House on January 6 reflect Cosmo’s ability to create compelling, widely experienced stories, no matter the format. Its June 2020 Distraction Issue, YouTube K-Pop stan videos, and branded sweats and wine show off its fun side.

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C-SPAN

In the last 20 years, cable news has become about as polarized as the politics it covers, largely due to an overemphasis on punditry and ratings. While C-SPAN is often referred to as “boring” with a smirk, what passes as dull to Beltway-addled brains is also consistent, impartial, balanced coverage without commercials or commentary. Underpinning its nonpartisan coverage of Washington and the nation’s politics is the fact that no government money supports it as a nonprofit, independent enterprise. C-SPAN’s audience has grown by 36% since 2017, and a big focus for the organization has been on education. Student-oriented initiatives include its StudentCam documentary competition that asked participants to explore the issue they most want the president and new Congress to address in 2021, with winners’ work broadcast on C-SPAN’s platforms. The network also invited Capitol Hill staffers into its D.C. headquarters for video-resources training focused on how they can use C-SPAN’s digital tools, including the Video Library, as a complement to their work in the political arena. In October, C-SPAN launched a new mobile app called C-SPAN Now that puts the network’s comprehensive coverage in your hands, allowing users to watch complete coverage of U.S. House and Senate proceedings, live or on demand, as well as congressional hearings, White House events, campaign events, and more.

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Descomplica

Descomplica’s founder and CEO Marco Fisbhen has an ambitious goal for the test-prep startup. “We want to create the biggest university in Brazil, quickly reaching 1 million students with a 100% digital model,” he told Reuters in February, after the company raised $83 million in funding. Over the last year, it has launched Brazil’s first 100% online undergrad program, hit more than 8 million monthly unique student visits, and grew 145% year over year from July 2020. The key to its success so far has been its ability to offer millions of students a high-quality, flexible online education that is peer-to-peer, across multiple formats, multiple platforms, multiple occasions, customizable, and data-driven, all at an affordable price point. The company also prides itself as pioneers in how it uses entertainment as a teaching/learning methodology, like the time a physics teacher went skydiving to teach such concepts as vertical release, air resistance, and free-falling, or the biology teacher who tattooed a mitochondria on a livestream class to illustrate cellular respiration.

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Disability:IN

Rebranded from the U.S. Business Leadership Network to Disability:IN in 2019, the organization has teamed with more than 260 corporations to achieve more disability inclusion across their enterprises and in the broader corporate mainstream. In 2020, timed with the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Disability:IN launched the #AreYouIN campaign, asking the country’s CEOs to join “in” publicly and sign its CEO Letter on Disability Inclusion. CEOs from Accenture, Intel, Microsoft, Walmart, Starbucks, and more than 50 others put their names on the letter. Also in 2020, more than 52,000 people with disabilities were hired in corporations through Inclusion Works, Disability:IN’s consulting and recruiting arm. Inclusion Works grew from 45 to 63 companies in 2020, a 40% increase. It now has 70 companies in the program that provides unlimited, customized, virtual, and on-site consulting by a team of inclusion experts. It also helps companies recruit and hire people with disabilities, and has seen nearly 300x growth in new hires since 2014.

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Etsy

Since 2005, Etsy has supported artisans and small businesses looking to sell handmade or vintage items on its e-commerce platform. In 2020, the company took customer loyalty to a new level, pledging $13 million of support to its sellers and advocating on their behalf to the U.S. Congress to ensure the self-employed were included in pandemic-relief bills and legislation. As nearly 10 million U.S. citizens lost work due to the pandemic, Etsy created 2.6 million jobs in 2020, enough to employ the entire city of Houston, and generated roughly $4 billion in income for U.S. households. Etsy had two times as many new buyers in 2020 as the year before, and investors rewarded its performance, ultimately earning it a spot in the S&P 500.

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Feeding America

On one Saturday last November, a Dallas-area food bank distributed more than 600,000 pounds of food for about 25,000 people, including 7,280 turkeys. CNN covered the line of thousands of cars waiting to access the North Texas Food Bank. It was just one day in a long year, where food insecurity was brought to the forefront due to the pandemic creating many more economically vulnerable people, adding to the already 37 million Americans facing hunger before COVID-19. Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, and the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, has been fighting relentlessly to keep it from getting worse. “The pandemic for us has been this perfect storm of circumstances all at once,” Lauren Biedron, Feeding America’s VP of corporate partnerships, told Fast Company in April 2020. ABC’s Good Morning America hosted a Day of Hope broadcast to help support the organization. Meanwhile, big names like Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and Tom Brady pledged support, as did such brands as Panda Express, Starbucks, and American Express. Feeding America seized the opportunity to spread the word on both the surge in need and letting those who may be experiencing food insecurity for the first time that food banks are there to help. The numbers tell the story: Demand grew 55% for people in need pre- and post-pandemic. And Feeding America provided them 6.1 billion meals in 2020.

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Firefox

Ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mozilla had one small request for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey: Please “Unf*ck the Internet.” In a full-page ad in The Washington Post, Firefox’s nonprofit parent company called on Facebook to turn off Groups and for Twitter to shut down trending topics. “This is a critical step in preventing the viral spread of disinformation—such as inaccurate voting procedures or election results—throughout the election process and the certification of the results.” Of course, neither company complied, and we’ve been stuck with “Stop the Steal” and worse ever since, but Firefox continues to do what it can to put itself forward as the browser that seeks to protect against disinformation and take digital responsibility as hallmarks of its brand. Also in 2020, Mozilla launched its RegretsReporter browser extension that lets you take action when you get recommended regrettable videos on YouTube. More than 33,000 people across 171 countries took part, and those results informed Mozilla’s “YouTube Regrets” campaign that was cited as evidence for a new European law aiming to bring transparency to online services. The Unfck campaign and YouTube Regrets work embody its mission perfectly, illustrating Mozilla’s David vs. Goliath relationship with Big Tech, and its work for people over profits and humanity over technology. As these issues become front-page concerns, Firefox’s position and brand has only grown stronger.

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Ford Motor Co.

Over the last year and a half, Ford has managed not only to weather the pandemic but further cement its iconic American status through new products, its pandemic response, and compelling content. When the pandemic broke out last March, Ford was one of the first brands with a COVID-era ad, acknowledging the challenges people faced while also offering customers’ real relief in the form of car-payment flexibility. In 2020, Ford produced more than 140 million masks, 20 million face shields, 50,000 ventilators, and 32,000 powered air-purifying respirators in partnership with technology company 3M. To mark its efforts, and build morale among employees, it created an award-winning eight-minute documentary called On the Line, about how Ford/UAW employees came together to build those ventilators and PPE, attracting 35.5 million media impressions. Ford’s reveal of the all-new Bronco whipped up a preordering frenzy and smashed reservation goals within 45 minutes of the website launch. The brand created a prime-time media event across three Disney networks—ABC, ESPN, and National Geographic—unveiling the new Bronco models in three short films directed by Oscar winner Jimmy Chin. It sparked 89 million visits to Ford.com and more than 300,000 completed Bronco configurations, and 150,000 reservations.

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General Motors

In January 2021, General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced that the company aimed to be carbon neutral by 2040. Along the way, it will introduce 30 new electric vehicles by 2025 and spend $27 billion as part of a commitment to put everybody in an EV with its Ultium platform, the world’s first hyperscale, electric-vehicle platform capable of making any vehicle into an EV. (The company’s recall of its Bolt EVs, built on older technology, only further necessitates the need to move to Ultium.) GM was the first global, legacy automaker to set a date (2035) for phasing out gas and diesel engines from light-duty vehicles, while also announcing its intention to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Notably, the company also had a sense of humor about these lofty plugged-in ambitions. The brand’s Super Bowl ad used Will Ferrell and Norway’s EV progress so far to help boost awareness of both GM’s electric goals and America lagging behind its European counterparts. With more than 90 million views, “No Way Norway” got the message across loud and clear.

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GT’s Living Foods

Science is catching up with the company mainstreaming kombucha and the benefits of fermented foods. In August, the journal Cell published a report, “Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status,” which concluded, “Fermented foods may be valuable in countering the decreased microbiome diversity and increased inflammation pervasive in industrialized society.” GT’s started more than 25 years ago as the first commercial kombucha on the market; before that you had to rely on your girlfriend’s mom maintaining a scoby in her refrigerator to try the fermented beverage. Today, GT’s has grown to a reported $781 million in 2020 kombucha sales and a dominant 47% market share, and is available in more than 55,000 locations.

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HackerOne

What do you picture when you hear the word “hacker”? A dark-hooded figure, huddled in a basement somewhere? Maybe Angelina Jolie and Jonny Lee Miller? Or Rihanna in Ocean’s 8? HackerOne has forged its brand in a new image of creative and skillful people who want to keep the internet safe from cybercriminals. And it’s got the skills to back that up. It’s the first hacker-powered marketplace to be used by the federal government, European Commission, and United Kingdom. The company’s hacker community has now grown to over 1 million registered hackers, with more than 50,000 valid vulnerabilities reported to organizations and major corporations such as Google, General Motors, and PayPal, a 63% increase in the past year. Hyatt’s chief information security officer Benjamin Vaughn describes HackerOne’s value as tremendous, “because the vulnerabilities that are reported shed light on where we can strengthen security measures in our most critical assets.” To help change the clichéd image of hackers into one that’s more positive and aspirational, HackerOne launched its “Hack for Good” campaign, showcasing real hackers and illustrating the value of their work in business and culture.

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Hulu

The name may mean “gourd,” or “holder of precious things” in Mandarin, but to most people, Hulu simply translates to one of the best, most affordable streaming platforms among an ever-expanding list of options. It’s also one of the only ones without the dreaded “plus” tacked on the end. Hulu has both familiar network shows from ABC, Fox, and NBC as well as an expanding stable of its own critically acclaimed originals like The Handmaid’s Tale, Normal People, Solar Opposites, and PEN15. The brand added a new element to the streaming content arms race by launching Watch Party as a way for viewers to connect with their loved ones virtually during the pandemic. Hulu was one of the first major streamers to launch a co-viewing feature integrated within the platform, allowing users to remotely watch Hulu shows and movies while chatting with their friends and family through synced streams. Within just 24 hours of the December 2020 launch, it had more than 10,000 unique Watch Party sessions, with 60% of viewers coming from its ad-supported plan—binge-worthy brand results.

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IBM

As public faith in some of the world’s biggest companies ebbs and flows, particularly with privacy concerns, IBM has managed to maintain high levels of trust across business, government, academia, clients, and employees. IBM built on its reputation over the past year through concrete moves in difficult times. In April 2020, the brand was a founding partner of the Open COVID Pledge, giving free access to IBM’s portfolio of 80,000 patents to any person or institution developing technologies to help diagnose, prevent, contain, or treat coronaviruses through 2023. It’s also a part of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, a collaboration—cochaired by IBM’s senior VP and director of IBM research Dario Gil—between the U.S. federal government, industry, and academic leaders to provide access to the world’s most powerful high-performance computing resources in support of COVID-19 research. A more public move came in June 2020 when the brand announced the withdrawal of its facial recognition and analysis products, accompanied by a public letter to prominent members of the U.S. Congress working to advance racial justice and police reform. The move generated nearly 2 billion impressions across earned and social channels and, tellingly, within three days of the decision, Amazon and Microsoft placed moratoriums on marketing and sales of their own facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies.

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Ikea

More than 3 million pieces of Ikea furniture are thrown away every year in Norway alone. So Ikea Norway created an ad called “Trash Collection,” in which it gives the catalog treatment to pieces of its furniture tossed in dumpsters and abandoned in garbage piles but then highlighting how they could be fixed and put back together. The ad is representative of how the company has made moves big and small over the last year toward reaching its People & Planet-positive strategy, unveiled in 2018. The company has committed to becoming fully circular by 2030, which involves designing products with reuse, repair, repurposing, and recycling in mind from the beginning; using only renewable, recycled, and recyclable materials; and eliminating waste. Ikea stopped making print copies of its iconic catalog, launched a furniture buy-back program in 27 countries, opened its first-ever used furniture store in Sweden, and created both disassembly instructions as well as “repurposeful” guides to transform used Ikea items for other uses. The Swedish retail giant is an iconic symbol of simple, affordable design, typically marketed with a clever sense of whimsy. Now it’s strengthening its brand by effectively adding sustainability and responsible consumption to that list.

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Impossible Foods

According to Bank of America Securities, chicken commodity prices have doubled this year. Which explains in part why Burger King in October became the first fast-food chain to feature Impossible Foods’ plant-based chicken nuggets on the menu. The meat-alternative brand has also launched new, plant-based pork products in select U.S. markets, as well as in Hong Kong and Singapore. These are just the latest expansions for the company over the past year. Pre-pandemic, the Impossible Burger was available in fewer than 150 grocery stores nationwide. Now it’s about 20,000. In September 2020, 72 cents of every $1 spent on Impossible Burger came at the direct expense of animal-derived products—a “displacement rate” of 72%. By March 2021, Impossible Burger’s displacement rate was 82%. The brand has managed to combine broadening the tent of those who would consider eating plant-based meat through its R&D, but also via partnering with Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp and Feeding America. It also launched Impossible: The Cookbook, with recipes by notable chefs. Three dollars of every Amazon sale benefits No Kid Hungry, a nonprofit providing essential meals to children.

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Indeed

A single mom is getting some much-needed rest. A middle-aged man sifts through résumés. A young woman celebrates graduation. Indeed’s Super Bowl ad, to the tune of “Rise Up,” purposely put the focus on the people who use the job site—and their lives outside of work—rather than the jobs and work itself. The message reiterates that the brand prioritizes job seekers over employers. Over the course of the pandemic, the brand launched a Virtual Hiring Tour, featuring 2,600 employers that resulted in 20,000 hires. The brand also conducted the world’s largest evaluation of workplace well-being of its kind, with more than 5 million happiness surveys completed (and counting). The Work Happiness Score was utilized in this year’s United Nations World Happiness Report. Indeed acted on its results by creating a tool on its platform that measures companies on such attributes as inclusion, trust, management, support, energy, flexibility, purpose, learning, and compensation.

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King Arthur Baking Co.

Did you hear enough about the sourdough baking adventures of friends and family during the pandemic? King Arthur sure did. Sourdough recipe views on the brand’s website increased by 460%, its “No-Knead Sourdough Bread” recipe saw a 2,370% increase, and its sourdough starter was the number one recipe on the website in 2020 with over 4 million unique views. As a brand, King Arthur doesn’t rely simply on outward communications, but the 100% employee-owned B Corp actively takes its customers’ calls. Its Baker’s Hotline offers people professional baking advice, and it experienced a 43% increase in customer calls, emails, and chats over the past year, as well as a 226% increase in customers contacting the brand through digital and social platforms. King Arthur has also made baking education more accessible with live Instagram and Facebook tutorials to follow along and bake with King Arthur pros. Amid a hectic year of business, the 230-year-old company also rebranded its name and logo, going from King Arthur Flour to King Arthur Baking Company, and launched a campaign centered on its commitment to sharing the love and joy of baking, and welcoming all bakers, from lifers to beginners.

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LetsGetChecked

When COVID-19 shone a spotlight on our healthcare system, LetsGetChecked emerged as a leader in the movement toward accessible health, with its reliable at-home testing options. Guided by its mission of empowering people to take an active role in their health, LetsGetChecked offers more than 30 convenient and affordable at-home tests. During the pandemic, LetsGetChecked introduced a home collection coronavirus test that has since shipped to over a million individuals. In March 2021, LetsGetChecked further cemented its commitment, donating $1 million worth of colon cancer tests and an additional $100,000 to those in need during the Colorectal Cancer Alliance Screening During COVID-19 Initiative.

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Mailchimp

Supporting small businesses isn’t just a COVID-19 catchphrase for the online marketing platform Mailchimp. From its days as a scrappy startup to the thriving business it is today, Mailchimp has made it its mission to empower the underdog. During the pandemic, the company provided $10 million worth of services to help small businesses quickly move their operations online. In January 2021, Mailchimp launched the Big Change Starts Small program, one of the company’s many initiatives to support communities by empowering local organizations and nonprofits. Mailchimp has financially supported 60,000 small businesses to date.

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MAM Baby

Two of the most important words in premium baby products have to be stylish and safe, and MAM has been delivering both for the past 45 years. All MAM products are developed in cooperation with medical experts, including pediatricians, pediatric dentists, and midwives. Each pacifier it makes is subjected to 40 different safety tests before leaving its factories, and its bottles each pass 28 tests before hitting the market. The brand has never had a product recall in its history. In 2020, 90% of its products were made in its home country of Austria, and all of them were manufactured with no BPA, BPS, PVC, lead, or phthalates. The company owns its manufacturing facilities in Europe and Thailand, ensuring 100% control over the quality and safety of its products. Last year, MAM collaborated with more than 30 medical experts and was involved in more than 10,000 medical studies on infant health to create medically sound products that support the healthy development of babies from birth through toddlerhood. This is a brand that sits where function and innovation meets trend, as it uses science, research, technology, and fashion to make safe and trustworthy products.

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MasterClass

Are you an aspiring DJ? Why not learn from Questlove? An essayist looking for writing tips? Take a class with Roxane Gay. On the edutainment platform MasterClass, Martin Scorsese can even teach you how to make a film (though the company doesn’t guarantee your work will be as good as Goodfellas). This past year, as many in-person classes remained shut down, the company, which offers online classes in a variety of fields (“Gangster Gardener” Ron Finley can teach you how to tend to yours) at a price of $15 a month, became the only school available for some. MasterClass swiftly worked to offer classes for those confined at home, including interior design with Kelly Wearstler and dog-training classes for pandemic pet adopters. The company’s ubiquitous social media marketing and rising popularity during the pandemic—membership spiked by more than 1,000% for some time during the pandemic—even spawned a Saturday Night Live spoof.

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McDonald’s

When it comes to global ubiquity as a brand, there are very few with the same history, scale, and popularity as McDonald’s. Though for all its sheer cultural presence, the Golden Arches hadn’t resonated as a cult brand for a very, very long time. So in 2020, McDonald’s laid out a broad, new brand strategy internally called “Accelerating the Arches,” and one of its main pillars was to turn more customers into fans by “investing in new, culturally relevant approaches.” It was through this new approach that its Famous Orders was born, and over the past year, as such pop stars as Travis Scott, J Balvin, and BTS revealed their go-to McDonald’s meals, the brand has quickly created a truly global phenomenon. Scott’s meal prompted customers to blast his music in the drive-through, posting pics and video of their orders to social media. It was so popular that the company’s supply chain experienced ingredient shortages. Brand collaboration merchandise from these partnerships has been selling out and becoming hot items on the streetwear secondary market. Needless to say, Famous Orders is not going away anytime soon. “The insight of, even the most famous people have their favorite order, is so wide open,” global CMO Morgan Flatley told Fast Company in May. “This has shown us this rabid fandom that exists if we can find the right ways to unlock it.”

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Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Treating cancer is hard enough, but in a freaking pandemic? Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) answered the call by adapting the way it works and the impact it could have in the last 18 months, cementing its reputation as one of the nation’s elite cancer hospitals. Amid surging COVID-19 cases, MSK created and received approval to use a digital pathology system so work could continue outside of a physical lab. More important, the center helped at-capacity hospitals in New York City by admitting their cancer patients, freeing up beds and resources for them to devote to caring for those afflicted by the virus. As the nation simultaneously started to wrestle with issues of racial equity, MSK introduced several initiatives to mitigate the ways in which cancer has a more deleterious effect on people of color. It furthered research into understanding the ways in which breast cancer treatments can have more toxic side effects in Black women, just one of MSK’s efforts to address the racial disparities in who gets cancer and who gets the best treatment.

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Mudita

“It sometimes feels like we’re trying to define parental controls for adults,” is how Kasia Bocheńska, product lead at the Poland-based Mudita, once described the give-and-take in creating a minimalist smartphone. Still, it’s a growing market that sees the need for more control. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, 44% of teens check their devices for messages or notifications as soon as they wake up, 54% spend too much time on their mobile phone, and 42% feel anxiety when they do not have it. After a delay caused by COVID-19, the brand is launching its Mudita Pure phone in November 2021, a minimalist offering manufactured in Europe with features developed to pare back our device use, not expand it. No internet access, a unique, custom-developed, privacy-friendly open-source operating system, and a high-resolution E Ink screen has won the new device multiple international design awards this year. In March 2021, the brand invited the outside world to participate in creating its next products with the Mudita Innovation Lab, as the company looks for technological solutions that will help us overcome progressive addiction to technology, provide freedom, and reduce stress.

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National Basketball Association

In 2019, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Fast Company that having players openly talk about their views on everything from fashion to social issues and politics, only makes the league stronger. “The more the players can express themselves,” says Silver, “the more touch points there are with fans.” Over the last 18 months, Silver and the league have stood by this commitment, helping the NBA become both a cultural lightning rod and inspiration. Many NBA players took part in protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, so when the league was set to begin its pandemic-altered bubble season in Orlando, things were different from the start. The Toronto Raptors’ team bus arrived with “Black Lives Matter” printed on the side. Players wore T-shirts and masks with “Black Lives Matter,” and the league painted “Black Lives Matter” on the courts. Players also wore custom messages on their jerseys, with phrases like “Say Their Names” and “I Can’t Breathe.” As unprecedented as it was to play an entire season in one location, and all the other limitations of the pandemic, the NBA still managed to further cement itself as the sports league most willing to push its own boundaries to better reflect and be a part of the culture around it.

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Nike

In today’s society, where seemingly anything, from the profound to the innocuous, can trigger a flare up in our ongoing culture war, there is no escape from brands speaking out on social and political issues. Amid the chaos of woke-washed ads and marketing, Nike stands out for its ability to stylishly speak out and remain a leader. As one of the world’s best and most prolific marketers, it was no surprise when Nike was one of the first brands to reflect the reality of the pandemic in its ads. The real power was in how it did it: Addressing racial injustice with “Don’t Do It,” and then asking people during the pandemic to “Play for the World” by social distancing and isolating to minimize the spread of the virus. By May 2020, it had a LeBron-narrated ad that focused on the comeback spirit of sports, using an epic montage of 53 athletes across 24 sports. In October 2020, a spot starring LeBron, Naomi Osaka, Odell Beckham Jr., Sue Bird, and other pros, was a call to action for fans and athletes to vote in the impending election. Collectively, it illustrated both Nike’s unique place in culture and its ability to articulate its brand voice and inspire from there.

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No Kid Hungry

In 2019, the number of children living with hunger dropped to 11 million, an all-time low. But as the pandemic unfolded and schools rapidly closed across the country, within months child hunger rates skyrocketed from 1 in 7 kids to as many as 1 in 4. Food insecurity among Black and Latino families is nearly triple that of white households. Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry program, which has been working since 2010 to end child hunger by working with schools and community groups to provide meals to young people in need, has leveled up over the pandemic, living up to and beyond its mission. In June 2020, it released a new report, The Longest Summer: Childhood Hunger in the Wake of the Coronavirus, championed by national spokesperson Viola Davis. It chronicled the struggles of real families across the country through data and video diaries, bringing attention to the challenges they face feeding their children. It also created a “Hunger History” content series, highlighting organizations and people of color who have contributed to its mission to fight childhood hunger through history, such as the Black Panther Party and its Free Breakfast for Children program. Another No Kid Hungry project, Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of 10 Initiative, rehired laid-off restaurant workers in Washington, D.C, to keep local restaurants open while providing meals to essential workers and families facing hunger. It resulted in food insecurity among participating families dropping from 75% to 21% over the 10-week period.

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Old Navy

Since Old Navy was launched in 1994 by Gap Inc., the brand has upheld its mission to deliver “Democracy of Style,” giving families affordable access to great clothing. Rooted in the belief that Old Navy is for everyone, in the last three years the chain has expanded its apparel to include 74 sizes in women’s clothing and a gender-neutral collection for young adults. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Old Navy donated more than $30 million worth of clothing to American families in need. In addition to merchandise, Old Navy has worked to ensure that its brand represents the values it stands for, upping the representation of people of color in marketing materials to 50% in 2021.

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Patagonia Provisions

The outdoor retailer has long been known for its commitment to grassroots environmental organizations and sustainable supply chains, but with Provisions—founded in 2012—Patagonia has put its money where its agricultural mouth is. Beyond doubling sales of its own products in 2020, the B Corp-certified brand worked with the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) to set its certification standards for food, fiber, and personal care products. Like its apparel-based parent company, Provisions has led by example to use Patagonia’s reach to educate and popularize regenerative agricultural practices, helping to push consumer demand and experimentation from such major companies as General Mills, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch to expand their own regenerative ag investments. Now the company is putting the same energy and effort in leading the way on sustainable seafood and hoping others will follow its lead. It picks a smaller fish species like mackerel to take pressure off larger, less abundant species. Then it partners with fishermen who belong to traditional guilds, which share profits and guarantee worker safety. Those fishermen use hook and line, resulting in little to no bycatch, and the hooks are baited with red yarn that entices the mackerel into biting, so no live bait is required. Finally, it processes and cans the fish at a B Corp-certified family business in northern Spain that employs mainly women.

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PayPal

The digital payments network has been part of your life since probably your first eBay purchase, but it elevated into a new realm of relevancy amid the pandemic. PayPal facilitated contactless payments via the release of its QR Code Checkout product while also making it easier to pay via its Venmo service by launching a Venmo credit card. It acquired the startup Happy Returns to give users easier options to return items purchased via e-commerce. While extending its place within the real world, it’s also built a bridge to the next-generation virtual one, creating a more user-friendly gateway into cryptocurrency. In April, Venmo added the ability to buy, hold, and sell Bitcoin and Ethereum, and PayPal U.K. followed suit in August. Perhaps most important, PayPal is a financial network with a soul: It committed $535 million to promote racial equity and then pledged more than $100 million to financial inclusion and empowerment of women and girls.

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Perkins&Will

One outgrowth of the current overlapping crises we’re facing as a society—from climate change to inequality—is the recognition of the role that urban planning and architecture has played in routinizing or systemically embedding bad practices into our built environment. The global architecture firm Perkins&Will has taken a leadership role in promulgating solutions to these industry and societal problems. On Earth Day in 2020, it unveiled its Living Design framework to bake such considerations as sustainability and social equity into all of its work. It followed up six months later, in November 2020, with “A New Formula for Neighborhood Livability,” establishing a framework and parameters for urban design to take into account racial inequity within a community and solve for those problems. To support these kinds of big-picture efforts, the firm created in-house software, dubbed Simulation Platform for Energy-Efficient Design (SPEED), so designers could model energy use and solar energy, for example, when assessing a project’s environmental footprint. In its London studio, it rolled out a net-zero carbon plan, and by year’s end, it anticipates that half of its interior design assignments will live up to circular economy standards.

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Philips

While more and more companies nod to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics in how they run their businesses, Philips—the Dutch health conglomerate—has been living these values well before they got trendy. The company fulfilled its 2020 ESG goals, established for the five year-period starting in 2016, achieving such milestones as generating 15% of its sales from circular products and 100% of its operations being powered by renewable electricity. Notably, it relies on independent third-party verification of the metric that matters most: the number of lives it meaningfully improves in a given year. It achieves this goal via such myriad programs as deploying its BioIntelliSense BioSticker to monitor COVID-19 patients remotely and paying its taxes in the communities in which it operates. In 2020, it estimates that it impacted the lives of 1.75 billion people, as it works toward its 2030 goal of doing so for 2.5 billion.

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PlayStation

“From the beginning . . . we wanted to present our customers with a new form of entertainment.” Sony executive (and eventual CEO) Kaz Hirai shared this vision for the PlayStation gaming console with Fast Company in 1997. Ever since, PlayStation has defined and redefined modern gaming as an entertainment medium that surpasses movies in their breathtaking scope, technological wizardry, and financial success. With its latest iteration, released in November 2020, PlayStation 5 continued to push further, with its attention-demanding industrial design and its DualSense controller that lets users feel every in-game action. Sales exceeded 10 million units worldwide by July, faster than its predecessors, despite constrained supply. In as sure a sign of the kind of lust PlayStation generated, Google searches for “where to buy PS5” was 2020’s most popular shopping-related query—even beating out “where to buy toilet paper.”

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Popeyes

The brand that amped up America’s chicken sandwich obsession to new levels has continually and consistently found ways to make itself a delightfully fun part of culture. Case in point: Megan Thee Stallion’s Hottie Sauce. This was no McDonald’s x Travis Scott knockoff. The brand created a new hot sauce with the Grammy-winning artist, and coordinated a merch drop called Thee Heat that includes bikinis, shirts, hats, and chicken-tender-shaped plush dog toys. It also made Megan its newest franchise owner. This built on the brand’s already stellar merch reputation from 2020. After Beyoncé unveiled her new Ivy Park collaboration with Adidas, fans began pointing out a distinct similarity to a certain chicken chain’s employee uniform. Popeyes quickly launched its own clothing line and e-commerce site so fans could buy the uniforms that employees wear. In true streetwear style, the drop caught fire, selling out six separate times, each time just as quickly as the original collection. Along the way, it garnered major media coverage, generating over 703 million media impressions, the equivalent to $6.3 million in ad value. As the Robinhood, GameStop, and wallstreetbets retail investing sensation was taking off, Popeyes noticed that the slang being used for money was “tendies,” also a nickname for chicken tenders. So of course it offered free “Tendies” to anyone who ordered through the Popeyes app or online, and entered the stock symbol of one of the popular meme stocks of the moment. As much as Popeyes enjoys delighting its own fans, it also digs taking fun-loving swipes at competitors. Like the time it responded to Taco Bell’s new chicken sandwich by launching its own “Taco Twosday” that simply instructed customers to buy a Popeyes Chicken Sandwich, remove the top bun, and fold over the bottom bun to create the Popeyes Chicken Taco. In February 2021, when McDonald’s dropped an exclusive link for people to try their new fried chicken sandwich (www.ChknDrop.com), Popeyes seized on how that web address could easily be misspelled and bought up 50 variations of that URL to redirect any consumers who spelled it wrong to the Popeyes website, where consumers could get a free chicken sandwich by using the promo code MSIPEL.

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Primary

The kids clothing retailer Primary understood from the outset that girls don’t need to wear pink and boys don’t need to wear blue. The company reached its millionth customer this past year, selling genderless clothing to kids of all sizes (some matching apparel is available to adults). During the pandemic, Primary looked to kill two birds with one stone when it was unable to photograph ad campaigns featuring child models. Turning to its customers for content, Primary searched for parents who were photographers to shoot and star in its ad campaigns. The company also listened to its customers: When parents complained that they couldn’t find masks for their kids, Primary set about making them and sold them at cost. Staying ahead of the curve through initiatives like this, as well developing 100% compostable packaging, has gained the brand customer loyalty and good publicity on social media where it counts 150,000 Instagram followers and more than 350,000 Facebook followers.

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Purdue University

Sit down and make yourself a boilermaker, because the engineering school in West Lafayette, Indiana, is one of the most innovative, progressive higher-education institutions in the country. While Purdue University has frozen its tuition for a decade—so students today are paying the same as they would have in 2012—everything else about Purdue has raced into the future. Its Fast Start program not only guarantees in-state students admission but also lets them earn their first year’s credits if they successfully complete free online classes and their corresponding exams. It’s opened three polytechnic high schools in Indiana to create a pathway for underrepresented minority students to begin their journey to an engineering career. Purdue offers more than 55 degrees that can be finished a year early—its Degree-in-Three program—which is one reason why 60% of students graduate debt-free, trouncing the national average of 39%. All the while, Purdue gives students a top-notch education. We’ll drink to that.

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Research Square

Peer-reviewed research is a cornerstone of scientific inquiry, but it is typically a long process. Peer review can necessitate up to 100 days for the review process and another 25 to 70 days for production—if the papers are accepted. Research Square’s preprint platform allows researchers to upload their research papers and communicate their findings rapidly, nearly 5,000% faster than the average submission-to-publication time for an article. This has proved crucial over the past two years, when some of the most important pharmaceutical research papers related to the SARS-COV-2 virus were first published as preprints on Research Square, including research by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and many other public and private labs around the world that played a major role in the rapid communication of science and, in turn, the development of effective vaccines, public health guidelines, and regulations. By the end of March 2021, unique papers shared on Research Square had increased by 130%. Page views had grown 4x. However, all this rapid growth isn’t about abandoning the traditional peer-review system. Research Square’s In Review service has integrated about 500 journals, which allows for seamless peer-review integration with participating journals and allows authors to submit their manuscripts to its platform for publication and participating journals for peer review simultaneously.

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Rotten Tomatoes

The venerable critical review aggregator is more than a number. In December 2020, Rotten Tomatoes began the process of expanding whom it designated a Top Critic, accounting not only for greater diversity but also for the realities of who’s a TV and movie critic in 2021, anyway. Not only did the service freshen up its Top Critic cadre to now be comprised of 60% women and 25% people of color, but 24% of its most highly valued voices publish their reviews via video or podcasts, reflecting the changing nature of criticism. This project expands upon Rotten Tomatoes’ effort since 2018 to reimagine which critics’s opinions make up its Tomatometer score. It’s added almost 1,000 new voices, over half of which are women. Again, in a reflection of the realities of media today, almost three-fifths are freelancers. With a broader array of perspectives further solidifying Rotten Tomatoes as the definitive destination to determine what to watch, the service launched an original content initiative in May 2021 to build upon its authority, with series devoted to ranking an actor’s body of work and compiling decades of old trailers.

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Sesame Workshop

In the first pandemic episode of Sesame Street, friends including Cookie Monster and Grover, along with celebrity guests Anne Hathaway and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Zoomed with Elmo, just like viewers at home were doing with their friends. With kids unable to go to school, the beloved 50-year-old show became even more important to families, teaching kids how to count and spell in addition to prescribing important values, like compassion and kindness. In 2020, in response to the pandemic, the organization introduced Caring for Each Other, a hub for research-based educational tools, resources, and activities for the whole family—disseminated through TV specials, YouTube videos, and a dedicated microsite, all featuring beloved characters like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. In the aftermath of the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, the company responded by creating new content specifically addressing racism and racial justice for the first time in Sesame’s history.

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Shopify

One of Shopify’s biggest points of brand pride is how it actively positions itself in the background, choosing instead to highlight the creativity and success of the merchants using its platform. In 2020, an entrepreneur made their first sale on Shopify every 28 seconds on average, compared to nearly every minute in 2019. Over the last year, new store creations increased by 79% in the U.S. compared with 2019. The company has also pledged $130 million over 10 years to help Operation HOPE’s mission to advance one million Black-owned businesses. Beyond that, Shopify also launched ‘Shop Local,’ ‘Women-owned,’ ‘Asian-owned,’ and ‘Black-owned’ business directories, as well as a sustainable business collection in its mobile shopping assistant app. These efforts allow a more diverse range of business owners reach new audiences and for consumers to discover and support these brands. As the second-largest online retailer in the U.S., Shopify also uses its brand to spotlight just how different it is from Amazon, not only celebrating its merchants in its content and advertising, but also not competing with them through its own products.

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Slice

“Why don’t we order pizza?” That simple suggestion is music to team meetings and family dinners alike, and Slice, the technology platform for more than 17,000 independent pizzerias, is increasingly the piper allowing your local faves to compete with the big chains. Slice offers pizza shops a flat per-order fee, a consumer app for orders (alleviating the problem that an estimated 22% of phone calls go unanswered), a rewards program, and an increasingly sophisticated set of behind-the-scenes business services to make their businesses’ growth curves look like the curled edge of a pepperoni cup. During the pandemic, Slice introduced its Accelerate program to invest $15,000 in technology and services to restaurants, helping them increase online sales more than threefold. CEO Ilir Sela, who comes from three generations of pizzeria owners, says that there’s more to come as his platform expects to facilitate more than $1 billion in gross merchandise volume in 2021. “We want to empower local commerce to remain colorful and authentic,” he says. “But these independent businesses are operating alone in a big industry.”

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Sonos

In a world of walled gardens and tech near-monopolies, Sonos represents the power of an independent, open platform. The brand launched four new products last year, including its new smart soundbar Arc and an ultra-portable smart speaker called Roam. It also debuted Sonos Radio, a music-streaming service, and it quickly became the third-most popular one on its platform. But even as it offers its own products, a Sonos hallmark is how it provides access to more than 100 partner services, including the major music streamers, global radio, podcasts, audiobooks, and more. In that spirit, it fought to keep its independence strong by taking Google to court—and winning—for intellectual property infringement, and participated in both the House Subcommittee and FTC investigations against big tech practices that threaten innovation.

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Square

The company that put the tech in fintech was there for its merchant customers amid quarantine, rapidly accelerating product development to help them adapt to the new ways of doing business. Square added curbside pickup, local delivery, and the ability to patch into third-party delivery apps so businesses could offer their customers the contactless commerce that became the expected standard as COVID-19 raged. It also introduced online checkout so merchants could add checkout links to social posts or emails, enabling customers to pay instantly and obviating the need for them even to have a dedicated ecommerce website. Square worked with the government to be part of the second tranche of PPP loans even though at the time it was not a bank, facilitating funds to its merchant customers more quickly than traditional financial services companies. But by March of this year, Square took the novel step for a fintech leader and launched business banking capabilities, which will allow it to offer more business loans and create new products.

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Steady

The explosion of the gig economy has radically expanded workers’ ability to earn income in new ways. Steady’s platform goes beyond the traditional job-finding service to help hourly workers manage their income, specifically tracking which jobs generate the most return. This kind of earnings transparency using community data allowed Steady to increase its members’ income by an average of $5,500 in 2020. That’s about a 12.5% annual increase across Steady’s 3 million members. The average Steady Member is making $44,000 per year, from 2.1 income sources per month. The brand is also working through partnerships to find more solutions to provide stability for this vulnerable workforce. With the non-profit Workers Lab, it helped design a secure tool to help workers and states instantaneously verify income for unemployment insurance, which includes a income passport feature, enabling users to verify earnings for a full range of safety net programs. It also teamed with Andrew Yang and Humanity Forward to fund Universal Basic Income pilots for 55 individuals in Los Angeles, Austin, and northern Tennessee.

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Sweetgreen

The fast-casual salad chain has managed to make its impact by striking a balance between brand style and substance. In May, it announced Naomi Osaka as its first-ever national athlete ambassador and their youngest investor to date. It worked with Osaka to create a custom, permanent menu item, and on May 26 donated a percentage of sales from every Naomi Osaka Bowl to support AAPI-led organizations increasing food access in AAPI communities. Another celebrity-led move was the Sweetgreen x Momofuku bowl, created with chef, restaurateur, and media mogul David Chang, using carbon-neutral, domestically grown kelp from Atlantic Sea Farms. This was just one initiative to highlight the company’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2027.

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#TeamTrees

Like a lot of things that explode into the zeitgeist, it all started with a Reddit post. As the popular YouTuber Jimmy “MrBeast” Donaldson hit 20 million followers, to celebrate National Arbor Day his fans challenged him to plant a tree for every follower. Yep, 20 million trees. Soon, cheered on by Twitter posts and other MrBeast content, thousands of people started planting. And planting. And planting. The drive hit $20 million in just 56 days. Celebrities and CEOs even got in on it, with top tree donors like Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki. In 2020, #TeamTrees began planting across every continent, not including Antarctica. Overall, #TeamTrees has raised more than $22,733,293, and the Arbor Day Foundation’s aim is to have all 22.6 million trees in the ground by December 2022. The social internet is often (deservedly) discussed in terms of the harm causes and rage it induces, but #TeamTrees has emerged as a significant and inspiring counterpoint.

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ThredUp

With its new “Thrift Loudly” tagline, online resale powerhouse ThredUp is empowering a new generation of thrifters by making secondhand clothing visible in the fashion industry. With the first-ever universal logo for recycled clothing, ThredUp consumers can make a statement in support of sustainable fashion. This year, ThredUp propelled its brand to the front of public attention, making a splash at New York Fashion Week with thrifted dresses on the runway and filling the digital space with the #FashionMindfulness challenge promoted by celebrities like Paris Hilton. The more attention it receives, the more ThredUp helps fight fashion waste. The company has processed more than 100 million secondhand products and saved one billion pounds of carbon emissions to date.

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Tracksmith

Former American track star Mary Cain made headlines in 2019 for sharing her story of abuse and intimidation as a member of Nike’s Oregon Project. Her revelation brought to light a flawed athlete sponsorship system that treats runners as commodities and links their contracts solely to performance, inhibiting their development and opportunities for advocacy outside the confines of the track. In early 2020, Tracksmith, the upstart running apparel brand, hired Cain not just as a runner, but as a full-time community manager. “The harsh reality is you could be curing cancer, but the brands that have paid athletes forever wouldn’t care,” says Cain. “In non-league sports like track, we need opportunities to build careers, to use our voice, and to train and compete to reach the highest levels of our sport.” Cain calls this approach to sponsorship a “paradigm shift,” and the Boston-based brand has built upon it by speaking to running’s creative community in 2020 by launching the $50,000 Tracksmith Fellowship, to fund and support projects across film, music, podcast, art, design, and photography that will elevate the sport, drive conversation, and empower new perspectives. Its new way of doing things is resonating: Tracksmith supported 138 women and men at the most recent Olympic Marathon Trials, representing 20% of the field, more than any other brand in the race.

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Tupperware

Much like Kleenex, Tupperware has come to refer colloquially to food containers in general, a testament to the company’s impressive legacy in the food storage industry. (Sincere apologies to the company’s trademark attorneys, who are likely busier than most as a result.) This year, to celebrate its 75th anniversary, the company revitalized its mission to nurture a better future for people and the planet. To combat global waste, Tupperware pledged $1 million to the National Park Foundation’s Resilience & Sustainability program. To address pandemic challenges, the company donated kits to first responders across the country and 5,000 containers to hospitals to store and transport medical equipment. To fight global hunger, Tupperware India provided ration kits to 5,730 families. The company even earned a patent for PONDS, a technology developed in collaboration with TechShot and NASA that will help grow vegetables in space. And we know what they’ll store those space veggies in.

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Ulta Beauty

In 1989, Ulta cofounders Richard E. George and Terry Hanson sought to build stores that sold beauty products at all price ranges, from Aquaphor to Yves Saint Laurent, and in the process cater to clientele from all kinds of backgrounds. True to their mission, Ulta now stocks 25,000 products from over 600 brands. After its stores temporarily closed due to COVID-19, the company leaned on its GLAMlab virtual try-on platform, launched in 2016, and assigned 80 beauty advisors to support the digital innovation team. This “Swatch Squad” helped add thousands of new products to GLAMlab. The squad in 2020 also helped launch Skin Analysis, which uses Artificial Intelligence and augmented reality to assess skin issues and recommend the best product routines to address specific challenges. The company also reacted quickly to the ways in which 2020’s racial reckoning that touched the beauty industry (see the 15% pledge and #pulluporshutup), committing to stocking and advertising more Black-owned brands in-store and online and naming actor and Pattern Beauty founder Tracee Ellis Ross its first Diversity and Inclusion Advisor. So far, these strategies have worked: E-commerce sales grew by 100% in the first quarter of 2020 and 200% in the second quarter of last year.

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US Foods

A reported 110,000 restaurants and bars across America closed their doors permanently in 2020, due to circumstance caused by the pandemic. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of other restaurants remained open, and as one the largest national foodservice distributors in the country, US Foods put a priority on providing critical support to small, independent restaurant owners. It deployed its national team of seasoned restaurant operations consultants to be available 24-7, at no cost, to advise and support more than 60,000 restaurateurs with 1:1 personalized consultations and helpful webinars to support them as COVID-related restrictions took hold. More than 30,000 people participated in its webinars, and its free Reopening Blueprint—created with both internal and external experts in restaurant, operations, legal, epidemiology, and food safety—was downloaded 53,000 times. According to customer feedback, through its CARES Act support, the brand helped customers access more than $700 million in economic stimulus. The company also developed the first-to-market Ghost Kitchen Playbook, a how-to for setting up a new revenue stream by leveraging kitchen space to create or service a brand that exists to to better take advantage of the surge in delivery demand. The company also helped provide hunger relief to its communities in 2020, donating more than $35 million in food and supplies.

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Vans

Despite Vans’s brand image being born in the Southern California of Dogtown and Ridgemont High, the legendary footwear maker has used content and cultural relevance to stay connected to the bleeding edge of surf, skate, music, and art. It’s less Spicoli and more multimedia artist Noah Humes and surfer Mikey February, while still staying connected to skateboarding legends like Geoff Rowley and Rick McCrank. Beyond the big names, Vans uses the same stoke to tap into its fans. Last year, it launched a new content series called “Bouncing Off the Walls” to help fans manage their pandemic anxiety while stuck at home. It also issued creative calls to action, such as the Vans Shoebox Challenge, to tap into peoples’ creative energy to remain sane, with more than 1,500 entries including dinosaurs, bowling alleys, desk lamps, and more. It also created ‘Foot the Bill,’ asking partner board shops, art galleries, music venues, and restaurants to customize a shoe and t-shirt and retain the net proceeds, at a time when these small businesses were hurting. In 2020, Vans drove 2.15 billion impressions and 28.9 million engagements on Instagram with over 1,123 published posts and stories. Tellingly, 10 of its top 15 posts featured user generated art or photos, illustrating the brand’s strong connection to fans and their creative pursuits.

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Versed

Trends and progressive innovation often start with a privileged few thanks to the sheer price of the products. Smartphone tech, electric vehicles, comfortable shoes—these all began with the wealthy. The same has been true with clean beauty products that boast more sustainable, less toxic ingredients and manufacturing processes. Versed, created by Offspring Beauty, has managed to scale both its popularity and the concept of clean beauty far beyond pricey boutiques and into the fastest-growing beauty brand on Target’s shelves. While each of its 29 products are priced under $22, it’s also been a net-zero carbon emissions company since day one. For 51% of its consumers, Versed’s non-toxic, cruelty-free, and vegan skincare products are the first sustainably-minded skincare they’ve purchased. The brand has also taken its commitment to transparency beyond a marketing buzzword, establishing a community of more than 75,000 “co-creators” that it taps for focus groups, formula testing, and real conversations about skin. It holds Community Board Meetings on Instagram every quarter, hosted by the president of the company, where it reports to fans on its progress on diversity and inclusion, racial justice, sustainability, charitable contributions, professional advancement opportunities, and what’s new and next.

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Vital Farms

Crack open an egg from Vital Farms, and the first thing that pops is the color of the yolk. This isn’t the pale yellow of every other egg you’ve had before, even from some farmers market vendors. A Vital Farms egg yolk boasts the kind of orange that suggests not only a richer taste but also that the chicken which laid it had been soaking in sunshine. While a lot of eggs boast being “cage free,” Vital Farms has long been calling its eggs “bullsh*t free.” The charming, long-running brand campaign goes a long way to distinguish its record of animal welfare compared to factory-farming competitors. Just as its straight-talking spokespeople, Vital has built a brand on its transparency. Its network of more than 200 family farms provides about 2.5 million hens a life outdoors on pasture with the freedom to roam and forage, and includes 6,000 acres of land that rejuvenates naturally without herbicides or pesticides. It’s not just the hens being treated well. The company pays at least 25% above the living wage (and 75% above minimum wage in Springfield, Missouri) and offers paid parental leave, retirement contributions, and health insurance. In January, the brand launched its Traceability Initiative, allowing consumers to trace their carton back to the farm where the eggs were laid. Its 2021 brand campaign “Where Honest Food is Raised,” brought this message to life, and it was the first one featuring newer products like butter, ghee, and Egg Bites.

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Warby Parker

You know you’re an influential brand when you become shorthand for an entire business category. Direct-to-consumer brands have long been pitching themselves as “The Warby Parker of X,” but few have managed to build a company as successful or consistent to match the name. This year, the company put that strength to the test—and passed–when it went public through a direct listing that was well received by investors. In that process, Warby Parker revealed some of its plans for the future. According to Warby Parker’s S-1 filing, it generated 60% of net 2020 revenue from e-commerce and the remaining 40% from its retail stores. In the first six months of 2021, that split became 50-50, a model not only for its own future but also one that’s likely to influence the future of all digitally born consumer brands.

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World Centric

Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, and our on-the-go consumption of food is one of the biggest culprits of plastic waste. With its certified compostable products made from renewable plant-based materials, World Centric is making significant strides to reduce the environmental impact of the foodservice industry. It offers more than 350 compostable products that break down in two to four months, and in addition, the mission-driven company gives back 25% of its profits to nonprofit organizations which are working to better the planet. In 2020, the company donated nearly $2 million from its giving program to grassroots organizations around the world that have supported projects such as reforesting the Anse Rouge and Terre Neuve regions of Haiti.

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Xbox

In a July earnings call, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that Xbox Series X/S were the company’s “fastest-selling consoles ever, with more consoles sold life-to-date than any previous generation.” It’s also perhaps the most pop culture-drenched console ever created, with special-edition products rolling out at a regular clip. To celebrate Xbox’s 20th anniversary, the brand teamed up with Adidas for its first console-inspired sneaker, featuring green and black details that take inspiration from the original 2001 Xbox model. Then there’s the flurry of co-branded consoles, from a SpongeBob-branded Series X consoles and controllers, to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Marvel’s Shang-Chi, and even one with the gummy candy brand Trolli. For the latter, the brand went a step further and dropped a website with Trolli called the Wormhole that recreated the Xbox site from 2001 to give gamers some serious nostalgia, with fun gummy worm-themed games and bad graphics. Pretty sweet.

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Yeti

There’s an adage somewhere about leaders being forged in crisis, and another that says leaders aren’t made during a crisis, they’re revealed. So where does a livestream of an iconic outdoor stream fit into that? Yeti has long been ruling the outdoors with its brand content, primarily through its Yeti Presents film series. But during the last year-plus, the Austin-based brand stepped things up in unexpected ways. Like, say, eight HD feeds of beautiful streams, from Hawaii to Vancouver, for people to stream (get it?) while stuck at home. In April, the brand also launched a four-part series with surfer John John Florence, as the one of the world’s top wave riders navigated sailing 2,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean. Then in May, it was The Midnight Hour, a three-part series starring Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter Ryan Bingham interviewing fellow artists. Fans reacted quickly, as the brand’s Instagram video views shot up by 500% from mid-February 2020 to mid-March, and in that same time with posts from new content series, impressions jumped by more than 50%.

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Yumi

As the culture of food has shifted in a way that more people are more concerned and aware of what’s in what they eat and where it comes from, it should come as no surprise that this has extended to our smallest humans. Yumi has established itself in a few short years as a leader in pioneering and advocating for higher standards in the baby and kids food market. Over the last 12 months, Yumi served 2% of all babies born in America, and even higher in some markets. Ten percent of San Francisco young’uns eat Yumi. Initially making a name for itself with innovative recipes and ingredients for children of all ages, Yumi has since branched out to curated product collections like its Chef Series, made in collaboration with Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs. But you couldn’t eat one of its most impressive pieces of brand work—a children’s book, telling the story of a young boy named Amos, sheltering at home with his mother during the pandemic. It was as popular with Yumi’s celebrity fans like Charlize Theron and Zoe Saldana as its food, with the video version, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Donald Sutherland, attracting more than 139 million site and social impressions.

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Zoom

Perhaps no brand rocketed to mainstream “verb status”—where its product is routinely used as a verb and not just a noun—faster than Zoom. During lockdowns, Zoom went from a nice-to-have video-conferencing tool to a critical application relied upon to keep in touch, from friends and family to coworkers and colleagues to celebrities determined to entertain live. The platform has even been used to broadcast weddings, births, and funerals at a time when people couldn’t gather in-person. The company made improvements to better the experience, creating Zoom Apps to let people use apps including Slack and Dropbox on the platform, and enhanced its phone and webinar platforms. The proof is in the user numbers: In December 2019, the highest number of daily meeting participants using Zoom was about 10 million. By April 2020, that number reached more than 300 million.

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1-99 Employees
MEA

Started in January 2018 by boutique hotel pioneer Chip Conley as the world’s first “midlife wisdom school” dedicated to helping people navigate their life transitions and reframe their relationship with aging, the Modern Elder Academy (MEA) provides a place and the tools to start reframing a lifetime of experience in order to grow whole, not just old. During the pandemic, MEA launched an eight-week online program of “digital intimacy” focused on life transition. The company became a philanthropic partner of environmentalist-author Paul Hawken, as well as filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell, who are following up their popular regenerative agriculture documentary Kiss the Ground with a film called Groundswell that MEA is executive producing. The company has also established Santa Fe, New Mexico, as the location of its first U.S. Regenerative Community. It will open a tranquil 2,566-acre ranch there in 2023 to bring joie de vivre to modern elders.

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Mursion

Most of our interpersonal and social skills are learned through a lifetime and career of trial and error. Mursion’s virtual-reality platform is a training and development tool that enables executives, health care professionals, teachers, and customer service representatives to practice interpersonal skills in a low-stakes environment with a wide range of personalities. This year the company continued to deepen its existing partnerships with top companies like T-Mobile, LinkedIn, PwC, and Coca-Cola. At Coke, for example, there was a 42% increase in productivity by teams undergoing high-potential training with Mursion, while 91% of all participants reported that they learned skills they could put to use immediately on the job.

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Tracksmith

Former American track star Mary Cain made headlines in 2019 for sharing her story of abuse and intimidation as a member of Nike’s Oregon Project. Her revelation brought to light a flawed athlete sponsorship system that treats runners as commodities and links their contracts solely to performance, inhibiting their development and opportunities for advocacy outside the confines of the track. In early 2020, Tracksmith, the upstart running apparel brand, hired Cain not just as a runner, but as a full-time community manager. “The harsh reality is you could be curing cancer, but the brands that have paid athletes forever wouldn’t care,” says Cain. “In non-league sports like track, we need opportunities to build careers, to use our voice, and to train and compete to reach the highest levels of our sport.” Cain calls this approach to sponsorship a “paradigm shift,” and the Boston-based brand has built upon it by speaking to running’s creative community in 2020 by launching the $50,000 Tracksmith Fellowship, to fund and support projects across film, music, podcast, art, design, and photography that will elevate the sport, drive conversation, and empower new perspectives. Its new way of doing things is resonating: Tracksmith supported 138 women and men at the most recent Olympic Marathon Trials, representing 20% of the field, more than any other brand in the race.

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Yumi

As the culture of food has shifted in a way that more people are more concerned and aware of what’s in what they eat and where it comes from, it should come as no surprise that this has extended to our smallest humans. Yumi has established itself in a few short years as a leader in pioneering and advocating for higher standards in the baby and kids food market. Over the last 12 months, Yumi served 2% of all babies born in America, and even higher in some markets. Ten percent of San Francisco young’uns eat Yumi. Initially making a name for itself with innovative recipes and ingredients for children of all ages, Yumi has since branched out to curated product collections like its Chef Series, made in collaboration with Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs. But you couldn’t eat one of its most impressive pieces of brand work—a children’s book, telling the story of a young boy named Amos, sheltering at home with his mother during the pandemic. It was as popular with Yumi’s celebrity fans like Charlize Theron and Zoe Saldana as its food, with the video version, narrated by Academy Award-winning actor Donald Sutherland, attracting more than 139 million site and social impressions.

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100-999 Employees
23andMe

In the last 12 months, 23andMe, the only direct-to-consumer FDA-authorized DNA kit on the market, reached more than 10 million genotyped customers in over 50 countries around the world. In that time, the company also published the largest DNA study to date of people with African ancestry in the Americas. It recruited more than one million people (including those who were not customers) to conduct ongoing genetic research relating to its relationship to COVID-19. In April 2021, the company published some of its findings about how genetic markers impact susceptibility to and severity of COVID-19 in the prestigious journal Nature.

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ChowNow

If you’ve seen your favorite local eatery share details on Instagram or Twitter of what it pays app-based delivery services, then you know why ChowNow is a refreshing alternative to restaurateurs. ChowNow has differentiated itself by allowing diners to directly connect with and support independent restaurants in their communities while avoiding inflated menu prices and service fees charged by delivery apps. Its subscription model empowers restaurants with online order capabilities and a branded mobile app and straightforward pricing. In 2020, ChowNow processed its 100,000,000th order, and has now saved restaurants an estimated $750 million-plus in commissions.

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Kate Farms

As the leading plant-based, nutritionally-advanced medical nutrition brand, Kate Farms has drastically improved the healthful options for those with chronic conditions such as Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others. It does so via its shakes and feeding-tube formulas created with better-sourced ingredients. Over the last year and a half, Kate Farms delivered more than 45,000 organic meal-replacement shakes across the United States to support voters and election workers, and it committed to donating more than 250,000 plant-based shakes to local organizations across the country working to satiate and fortify those experiencing food insecurity.

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Yeti

There’s an adage somewhere about leaders being forged in crisis, and another that says leaders aren’t made during a crisis, they’re revealed. So where does a livestream of an iconic outdoor stream fit into that? Yeti has long been ruling the outdoors with its brand content, primarily through its Yeti Presents film series. But during the last year-plus, the Austin-based brand stepped things up in unexpected ways. Like, say, eight HD feeds of beautiful streams, from Hawaii to Vancouver, for people to stream (get it?) while stuck at home. In April, the brand also launched a four-part series with surfer John John Florence, as the one of the world’s top wave riders navigated sailing 2,500 miles of the Pacific Ocean. Then in May, it was The Midnight Hour, a three-part series starring Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter Ryan Bingham interviewing fellow artists. Fans reacted quickly, as the brand’s Instagram video views shot up by 500% from mid-February 2020 to mid-March, and in that same time with posts from new content series, impressions jumped by more than 50%.

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1000+ Employees
General Motors

In January 2021, General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced that the company aimed to be carbon neutral by 2040. Along the way, it will introduce 30 new electric vehicles by 2025 and spend $27 billion as part of a commitment to put everybody in an EV with its Ultium platform, the world’s first hyperscale, electric-vehicle platform capable of making any vehicle into an EV. (The company’s recall of its Bolt EVs, built on older technology, only further necessitates the need to move to Ultium.) GM was the first global, legacy automaker to set a date (2035) for phasing out gas and diesel engines from light-duty vehicles, while also announcing its intention to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Notably, the company also had a sense of humor about these lofty plugged-in ambitions. The brand’s Super Bowl ad used Will Ferrell and Norway’s EV progress so far to help boost awareness of both GM’s electric goals and America lagging behind its European counterparts. With more than 90 million views, “No Way Norway” got the message across loud and clear.

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LinkedIn
“We are living through a moment of change unlike anything we’ve seen before in the history of work,” wrote LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky in September. He calls it the “Great Reshuffle,” a time when business leaders are rethinking working models, cultures and company values, while employees are rethinking not just how they work, but why, looking for opportunities that best match their needs. It’s into this breach the suit-and-tie social network has stepped, with more products that match the promise as a place of professional growth. In June 2020, it launched a global skills initiative, to bring digital skills to 25 million people worldwide by years’ end. The goal focused primarily on how to best use the platform to immediately equip those who lost jobs due to COVID-19, and they made 10 LinkedIn Learning Paths aligned with the top 10 in-demand jobs available to everyone for free. It also tapped into its team of nearly 150 recruiters to source and screen talent for organizations on the front lines, including more than 700 hospitals globally. Its brand work worked to dispel discrimination in various forms, from the #OpenToWork initiative to reduce the stigma associated with unemployment, to its #ConversationsForChange Black History Month campaign that included filming Black professionals sharing their authentic experiences at work, including subjects that were uncomfortable, or even taboo, working with influencers like Tyler Perry, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Ibtihaj Muhammad to share their career paths to success and encourage others.
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MasterCard

Back in 2019, MasterCard created the True Name card that allowed trans and non-binary customers to use their true names on cards without the requirement of a legal name change. Over the course of the last year, the company has continued its work to invest and support traditionally marginalized and under-supported communities. In June 2020, the company announced the In Solidarity pledge in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which included a $500 million commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities across America over the next five years using its products, services, technology and financial support. The aim is to improve equitable access to city programs, introduce affordable financial services to market that are built with and for the community, and supporting the growth of Black-owned small businesses, starting initially with a focus on seven cities: Atlanta, Birmingham, Dayton, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City and St. Louis. The program was launched with a high-profile, national ad campaign starring Jennifer Hudson. To help reach its goals within the Black community, MasterCard has teamed with Black-owned and founded financial businesses like fintech start-up Greenwood, financial literacy app GoalSetter, and Fearless fund, a venture capital fund by and for women of color.

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Consumer
Beautycounter

Beautycounter has been an incredibly popular and leading clean beauty brand since its launch in 2013, and it continues to push itself as a responsible company, committing to to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030, and 100% recycled, recyclable, refillable, reused or compostable packaging by 2025. The brand also works outside its own walls, and in 2020 helped pass three laws—the Sustainable Chemistry Research and Development Act, and California’s Toxic Free Cosmetics Act and the Safer Fragrance Bill—pushing for safer and more sustainable ingredients within beauty.

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McDonald’s

When it comes to global ubiquity as a brand, there are very few with the same history, scale, and popularity as McDonald’s. Though for all its sheer cultural presence, the Golden Arches hadn’t resonated as a cult brand for a very, very long time. So in 2020, McDonald’s laid out a broad, new brand strategy internally called “Accelerating the Arches,” and one of its main pillars was to turn more customers into fans by “investing in new, culturally relevant approaches.” It was through this new approach that its Famous Orders was born, and over the past year, as such pop stars as Travis Scott, J Balvin, and BTS revealed their go-to McDonald’s meals, the brand has quickly created a truly global phenomenon. Scott’s meal prompted customers to blast his music in the drive-through, posting pics and video of their orders to social media. It was so popular that the company’s supply chain experienced ingredient shortages. Brand collaboration merchandise from these partnerships has been selling out and becoming hot items on the streetwear secondary market. Needless to say, Famous Orders is not going away anytime soon. “The insight of, even the most famous people have their favorite order, is so wide open,” global CMO Morgan Flatley told Fast Company in May. “This has shown us this rabid fandom that exists if we can find the right ways to unlock it.”

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Vans

Despite Vans’s brand image being born in the Southern California of Dogtown and Ridgemont High, the legendary footwear maker has used content and cultural relevance to stay connected to the bleeding edge of surf, skate, music, and art. It’s less Spicoli and more multimedia artist Noah Humes and surfer Mikey February, while still staying connected to skateboarding legends like Geoff Rowley and Rick McCrank. Beyond the big names, Vans uses the same stoke to tap into its fans. Last year, it launched a new content series called “Bouncing Off the Walls” to help fans manage their pandemic anxiety while stuck at home. It also issued creative calls to action, such as the Vans Shoebox Challenge, to tap into peoples’ creative energy to remain sane, with more than 1,500 entries including dinosaurs, bowling alleys, desk lamps, and more. It also created ‘Foot the Bill,’ asking partner board shops, art galleries, music venues, and restaurants to customize a shoe and t-shirt and retain the net proceeds, at a time when these small businesses were hurting. In 2020, Vans drove 2.15 billion impressions and 28.9 million engagements on Instagram with over 1,123 published posts and stories. Tellingly, 10 of its top 15 posts featured user generated art or photos, illustrating the brand’s strong connection to fans and their creative pursuits.

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Current Events
Blavity

With a monthly reach of 100 million people and over 100 corporate partners, the Black media and tech company produced a high volume of high-quality programming, entertainment, and conferences focused on representing today’s engaged and influential audiences of Black millennial and Gen Z readers and listeners. Blavity’s relationship with audiences is built on a foundation of trust and value, that it’s not just out here to serve ads, but to listen and amplify their voices and stories, no matter which part of the Black diaspora they speak from.

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Intuit

Following the first U.S. federal relief program in mid-2020, the financial software company launched Intuit Aid Assist (IAA), a free website with tools to help eligible small business owners and the self-employed assess their eligibility for federal relief and related tax credits from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Through the CARES Act, QuickBooks Capital helped eligible customers access more than $1.2 billion in SBA-approved and Paycheck Protection Program loans last year, helping over 30,000 small businesses keep more than 220,000 employees on the payroll.

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Mount Sinai Health System

Early on during the spread of COVID-19 in the United States, New York City was the epicenter of the crisis, and Mount Sinai Health System successfully treated tens of thousands of people who contracted the virus and saved the lives of more than 12,000 severely-ill patients in its hospitals. While treating and caring for patients, the company’s researchers were busy conducting clinical trials that contributed to COVID-19 vaccine approvals, and partnering with a diagnostic testing company to create Kantaro Biosciences, which scaled production of the antibody test. Aside from the virus, it also developed a humanized antibody that Mount Sinai believes will reduce body fat; made progress towards using retinal cell transplants to treat blindness; and discovered how to boost the efficacy of a vaccine designed to prevent the recurrence of melanoma. All the while communicating to the public through social media and content like its podcast series, The Road to Resilience, that addressed techniques for building resistance in the face of trauma.

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Philips

While more and more companies nod to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics in how they run their businesses, Philips—the Dutch health conglomerate—has been living these values well before they got trendy. The company fulfilled its 2020 ESG goals, established for the five year-period starting in 2016, achieving such milestones as generating 15% of its sales from circular products and 100% of its operations being powered by renewable electricity. Notably, it relies on independent third-party verification of the metric that matters most: the number of lives it meaningfully improves in a given year. It achieves this goal via such myriad programs as deploying its BioIntelliSense BioSticker to monitor COVID-19 patients remotely and paying its taxes in the communities in which it operates. In 2020, it estimates that it impacted the lives of 1.75 billion people, as it works toward its 2030 goal of doing so for 2.5 billion.

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Shopify

One of Shopify’s biggest points of brand pride is how it actively positions itself in the background, choosing instead to highlight the creativity and success of the merchants using its platform. In 2020, an entrepreneur made their first sale on Shopify every 28 seconds on average, compared to nearly every minute in 2019. Over the last year, new store creations increased by 79% in the U.S. compared with 2019. The company has also pledged $130 million over 10 years to help Operation HOPE’s mission to advance one million Black-owned businesses. Beyond that, Shopify also launched ‘Shop Local,’ ‘Women-owned,’ ‘Asian-owned,’ and ‘Black-owned’ business directories, as well as a sustainable business collection in its mobile shopping assistant app. These efforts allow a more diverse range of business owners reach new audiences and for consumers to discover and support these brands. As the second-largest online retailer in the U.S., Shopify also uses its brand to spotlight just how different it is from Amazon, not only celebrating its merchants in its content and advertising, but also not competing with them through its own products.

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Enterprise
Asana

Work is tough enough without all of the work that goes into doing the work. The meetings, the calls, the endless feedback loop . . . and it all didn’t go away during the pandemic. It just pivoted to video. Asana, a web and mobile project management platform founded in 2008 by Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and former Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, has established itself as a leader in helping work teams better sift through the BS and more efficiently organize and track their progress. Its third Anatomy of Work Index, released in 2021, is a proprietary research report surveying more than 13,000 workers to understand how their attitudes and behaviors have evolved in the past year, and what organizations, teams, and individuals can do to thrive in the year ahead. It found that despite organizations’ best efforts to re-create what worked in the office in a remote setting, global workers are losing 60% of their time on work coordination rather than the skilled, strategic jobs they’ve been hired to do. Asana, and its growing arsenal of tools, is a brand aiming to help fix it.

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Qualtrics

More than 13,500 organizations use the enterprise software company Qualtrics to find and build breakthrough experiences for their customers, patients, constituents, employees, and communities, including Peloton, Los Angeles Unified School District, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Volkswagen, and Under Armour. During the pandemic, Qualtrics rewired its product-development process to create and deploy solutions that, as of April 2021, enabled over 4 million people to safely receive COVID-19 tests and more than 500,000 people to be vaccinated in the United States alone.

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Thrive Global

According to the World Health Organization in 2019, depression and anxiety affected the global economy to the tune of $1 trillion in lost productivity due. Thrive’s employee performance and wellness platform has seen 980% user growth this year—across major clients like Walmart, Salesforce, Unilever, and Mastercard—by focusing on physical, mental, and emotional health. Thrive uses machine learning, AI, assessments, storytelling, and more to provide tailored recommendations and progress updates for individuals, groups, and organizations. Salesforce, for example, introduced the company’s Thriving Mind product to all of its employees as its mental health and resilience solution, and in the first 48 hours of launch, Thrive engaged more than 10,000 employees across 25 different countries.

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US Foods

A reported 110,000 restaurants and bars across America closed their doors permanently in 2020, due to circumstance caused by the pandemic. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of other restaurants remained open, and as one the largest national foodservice distributors in the country, US Foods put a priority on providing critical support to small, independent restaurant owners. It deployed its national team of seasoned restaurant operations consultants to be available 24-7, at no cost, to advise and support more than 60,000 restaurateurs with 1:1 personalized consultations and helpful webinars to support them as COVID-related restrictions took hold. More than 30,000 people participated in its webinars, and its free Reopening Blueprint—created with both internal and external experts in restaurant, operations, legal, epidemiology, and food safety—was downloaded 53,000 times. According to customer feedback, through its CARES Act support, the brand helped customers access more than $700 million in economic stimulus. The company also developed the first-to-market Ghost Kitchen Playbook, a how-to for setting up a new revenue stream by leveraging kitchen space to create or service a brand that exists to to better take advantage of the surge in delivery demand. The company also helped provide hunger relief to its communities in 2020, donating more than $35 million in food and supplies.

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International
Big Red Group

In a little more than four years, BRG has become the largest e-commerce experience marketplace in Australia and New Zealand, thanks to its dedication to its suppliers and its commitment to encouraging people to see the value in giving and participating in experiences rather than buying and acquiring more material goods. Despite ravaging wildfires that devastated Australia’s east coast, as well as pandemic-related lockdowns and closures, the platform still delivered almost 750,000 customers to its experience purveyors, many of which are family-run businesses who credit BRG with their survival.

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Descomplica

Descomplica’s founder and CEO Marco Fisbhen has an ambitious goal for the test-prep startup. “We want to create the biggest university in Brazil, quickly reaching 1 million students with a 100% digital model,” he told Reuters in February, after the company raised $83 million in funding. Over the last year, it has launched Brazil’s first 100% online undergrad program, hit more than 8 million monthly unique student visits, and grew 145% year over year from July 2020. The key to its success so far has been its ability to offer millions of students a high-quality, flexible online education that is peer-to-peer, across multiple formats, multiple platforms, multiple occasions, customizable, and data-driven, all at an affordable price point. The company also prides itself as pioneers in how it uses entertainment as a teaching/learning methodology, like the time a physics teacher went skydiving to teach such concepts as vertical release, air resistance, and free-falling, or the biology teacher who tattooed a mitochondria on a livestream class to illustrate cellular respiration.

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Intuition Robotics

Improving long-term care for seniors has been a persistent societal problem for a long time. Intuition Robotics’ care companion robot, ElliQ, helps older adults lead healthier, more active, connected lives. It reduces feelings of loneliness and social isolation, while also providing clinicians and care-providers with vital data that offers insights into their health and allows for communication with patients. In total, ElliQ has collectively spent over 26,000 days in older adults’ homes across the United States, most users are 80 to 90 years old and have each spent at least 90 consecutive days with ElliQ.

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Not-For-Profit
Ad Council

Within five days of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, 2020, the Ad Council and its partners had launched a campaign about hand-washing, a then-new concept called social distancing, and staying home when possible to help slow the spread. Once vaccines were developed, the organization’s primary project was to educate and encourage as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Over the course of the next year, the Ad Council coordinated with ad agencies, social platforms, and brands to create its biggest, broadest public service announcement (PSA) initiative in its almost 80-year history. “This is our moonshot,” Ad Council CEO Lisa Sherman told Fast Company in March. With $435.5 million in donated media, the Ad Council’s campaign produced more than 400 PSAs and garnered 46.7 billion impressions. Created with the help of ad agencies Pereira O’Dell, Alma DDB, and Joy Collective, the vaccine push lived under the tagline “It’s Up To You.” What made it differ from iconic PSA campaigns—Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk, A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste, and Smokey Bear, to name three—wasn’t just the scale, but how the Ad Council made the work adaptable so that any brand or partner could create their own PSAs, using it as a foundation, and therefore extending its reach even further to specific communities and audiences.

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American Indian College Fund

“We are not ‘merciless Indian savages,’ as the Declaration of Independence calls us.” That’s the opening line of the American Indian College Fund’s 2021 awareness campaign, “This Is Indian Country,” a bold reminder of this country’s history and heritage that is largely ignored or underappreciated. As a piece of brand communication, it’s a bold statement of purpose and identity. Today, about 42% of Native Americans are under the age of 25, and while some live in well-resourced urban centers, many remain (by choice and/or by necessity) on tribal lands. Reservations are powerful incubators for the traditions, community, and belonging that Native Americans are known for. At the same time, life on reservations can be very difficult: Food and housing insecurity, poor technology infrastructure and unreliable transportation, and inadequate health care are unfortunately and persistently common. Every year, the AICF provides more than 4,000 scholarships to Indigenous students. The new campaign illustrates the organization’s new approach of bold creative that doesn’t guilt people into their support, but instead uses positive, assertive messages. This is part of a broader strategic pivot that has increased donations by 15 times, and grown digital revenue by 17 times.

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NYCNext

In March 2021, on the anniversary of Broadway’s pandemic-induced shutdown, singers, dancers, actors, and front-of-house staffers—including Broadway legend Chita Rivera— gathered in Times Square for “We’ll be back,” a pop-up show that was part concert, part rally. The splashy event embodied the various PSA campaigns and charitable efforts of NYCNext as it works with more than 600 volunteers to energize and inspire the recovery of its beloved city.

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Sesame Workshop

In the first pandemic episode of Sesame Street, friends including Cookie Monster and Grover, along with celebrity guests Anne Hathaway and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Zoomed with Elmo, just like viewers at home were doing with their friends. With kids unable to go to school, the beloved 50-year-old show became even more important to families, teaching kids how to count and spell in addition to prescribing important values, like compassion and kindness. In 2020, in response to the pandemic, the organization introduced Caring for Each Other, a hub for research-based educational tools, resources, and activities for the whole family—disseminated through TV specials, YouTube videos, and a dedicated microsite, all featuring beloved characters like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. In the aftermath of the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, the company responded by creating new content specifically addressing racism and racial justice for the first time in Sesame’s history.

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United States
Ntwrk

The mobile-first, video shopping platform has managed to combine a few of pop culture’s favorite things in one place: shopping, exclusive product drops from top brands, livestreams, and TikTok. It created a two-day virtual festival celebrating culture and design, featuring more than 30 exclusive drops and experiential content from world-class creators. It hosted TikTok’s first shoppable livestream, where users scored early access to a special Josh Vides collection, and it tapped contemporary artist Takashi Murakami for a special series of prints that generated $1.3 million in sales, which were donated to various social justice organizations.

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Provalus

Provalus is unique in that it’s one of a handful of companies performing outsourced I.T. services with the goal of revitalizing small, rural towns with new job opportunities. In 2020, revenue grew 34%, and it hired 250 new employees in three small rural towns. Just as important was the impact on those communities. Towns like Brewton, Alabama; Jasper, Texas; and Manning, South Carolina, have seen new restaurants and coffee shops emerge due to the influx of new disposable income to each area.

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Sweetgreen

The fast-casual salad chain has managed to make its impact by striking a balance between brand style and substance. In May, it announced Naomi Osaka as its first-ever national athlete ambassador and their youngest investor to date. It worked with Osaka to create a custom, permanent menu item, and on May 26 donated a percentage of sales from every Naomi Osaka Bowl to support AAPI-led organizations increasing food access in AAPI communities. Another celebrity-led move was the Sweetgreen x Momofuku bowl, created with chef, restaurateur, and media mogul David Chang, using carbon-neutral, domestically grown kelp from Atlantic Sea Farms. This was just one initiative to highlight the company’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2027.

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US Foods

A reported 110,000 restaurants and bars across America closed their doors permanently in 2020, due to circumstance caused by the pandemic. Thankfully, hundreds of thousands of other restaurants remained open, and as one the largest national foodservice distributors in the country, US Foods put a priority on providing critical support to small, independent restaurant owners. It deployed its national team of seasoned restaurant operations consultants to be available 24-7, at no cost, to advise and support more than 60,000 restaurateurs with 1:1 personalized consultations and helpful webinars to support them as COVID-related restrictions took hold. More than 30,000 people participated in its webinars, and its free Reopening Blueprint—created with both internal and external experts in restaurant, operations, legal, epidemiology, and food safety—was downloaded 53,000 times. According to customer feedback, through its CARES Act support, the brand helped customers access more than $700 million in economic stimulus. The company also developed the first-to-market Ghost Kitchen Playbook, a how-to for setting up a new revenue stream by leveraging kitchen space to create or service a brand that exists to to better take advantage of the surge in delivery demand. The company also helped provide hunger relief to its communities in 2020, donating more than $35 million in food and supplies.

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