A pink cleaning paste that goes viral. Hospital scrubs that become the must-have outfit. And a reboot of a 1990s basketball hit that has brands clamoring for collaborations. This year’s crop of Ad Age’s America’s Hottest Brands includes 20 buzzy products, people and services that are sparking conversations on social media, at the retail checkout line and on the school playground. Our list includes newcomers in niche categories, like health care uniform maker Figs and hair care brand Pattern as well as Dolly Parton, a celebrity who is so beloved she bridges America’s divisions—and sells out of ice cream in the process.
Some of these brands got a leg up because of the coronavirus. NTWRK, the livestreaming app, might not be as successful if consumers haven’t been well-versed in shopping online, and Pfizer wouldn’t be such a household name if it hadn’t been first to market with a COVID vaccine—but they’re taking that boost and running with it. NTWRK just hired its first chief marketing officer. “Space Jam: A New Legacy” has sparked countless brand collabs, and sports gambling site DraftKings just teamed up with Domino’s as it rides a gambling wave. An executive at gaming platform Roblox recently told Ad Age her company is “well-positioned for continued growth in a post-COVID world”—a trait shared by all the brands on the list.
Find out more about what’s cooking at these brands by attending Ad Age In-Depth: America's Hottest Brands, a digital conference on July 13. Register here.
Bad Bunny’s influence can’t be ignored. The Puerto Rican rapper’s latest album, “Último Tour del Mundo,” became the first all-Spanish LP to top the Billboard 200 chart. But beyond being a Latin American star, the rapper known for his eccentric looks found a way to bring his music and image into the American zeitgeist.
After performing at the Super Bowl last year, Bad Bunny teamed up with Crocs in September on a collaboration that sold out in 16 minutes, and he is now a regular star of TV ads for iconic brands including Cheetos and Corona.
Not afraid to be bold, this year the musician also released a video for a song titled “Yo Perreo Sola,” which translates to “I Twerk Alone,” in which he dresses in drag advocating for women’s rights and the LGBTQ community. The move prompted Ricky Martin to call him “An icon for the Latin queer community,” despite not actually being gay.
Clubhouse’s air of exclusivity and ability to connect media bigwigs during pandemic lockdowns made the livestream audio app a must watch in 2020. With in-person networking and live conferences on pause during COVID, the platform allowed people to set up rooms to chat about everything from pop culture to racism. It attracted Silicon Valley execs and media heavy hitters, with Oprah Winfrey, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla founder Elon Musk participating in chats. Then brands started to get involved: IHOP used Clubhouse to stream the sizzle of bacon tied to a new product launch. Clubhouse’s success has attracted imitations from tech giants, like Twitter’s launch of Spaces, and helped usher in a new phase to the podcasting craze. As the company looks to solidify its position at the center of the audio meetup world, earlier this year it hired Maya Watson as its first global marketing head. Its next avenue for growth could be text chat, which would help users deepen connections on the platform; reports recently surfaced about a DM feature quietly popping up for some users before being quickly removed.
A ton of pot retailers are hitting the market, but few are having as much fun as Cookies, a chain of cannabis stores founded by Billboard-topping rapper Berner. The brand, founded in 2012, is named because its first strain tasted like Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies. The fun-loving company sells 150 cannabis varieties under names including Berry Pie and Honey Bun, CBD items and medicinal mushroom caps. As cannabis gets legalized in more states, the brand is gaining notoriety with high-profile partnerships with Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross and Gary Payton. Cookies has expanded its footprint to 33 stores in seven states and three countries with 20 more planned to open by the end of 2021. The brand has also launched Cookies U, a partnership with the WebberWild Foundation, to bring business education to communities impacted by the war on drugs.
First introduced in January 2020 as a Kickstarter campaign, card game #CultureTags blew past its $15,000 fundraising goal by February and was ramping up production by March—just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S. But creator Eunique Jones Gibson, founder of Black excellence-focused platform Because of Them We Can and ad agency Culture Brands, pressed on, delivering the hashtag-based game amid nationwide lockdowns and picking up some major press coverage in the process. And now, a little over a year after launching the concept, Gibson’s product is one of the only Black-owned games of its type stocked at Target and has garnered rave reviews since debuting on Amazon. “A diverse game that your teens can play or your grandma!” wrote one reviewer about the game, which tests players’ knowledge of social media constructs, including those popularized on Black Twitter.
Dick's Sporting Goods
Dick's Sporting Goods
Dick’s Sporting Goods had the serendipity of tapping into two pandemic-related trends—consumers were yearning to relax in leisure apparel and were also keen to pursue athletic activities, whether solitary hikes or distanced golfing. The changes in behavior led to a windfall for the Pennsylvania-based retailer, which saw revenue skyrocket during the pandemic—ecommerce alone doubled in 2020.
And Dick’s is running with it. The company just reported a record second quarter that included a 115% rise in same-store sales. Though ecommerce is still on a hot streak, Dick’s is also investing in physical retail with the recent openings of two new House of Sport experiential stores that each include a turf field, track and rock-climbing wall. Dick’s CEO Lauren Hobart credited the pandemic with altering consumers’ attitudes about exercise. “There’s been a permanent shift toward outdoor living and active living and also athletic apparel,” she said at an event last month.
In a country as bitterly divided as this one, it’s rare to find someone truly beloved by all comers. But for decades, Dolly Parton has been emblematic of our cultural dichotomy: country singer and pop star, working woman and exemplar of mid-century femininity, old-fashioned Christian and gay icon. Through it all, her philanthropy has been single-minded and legendary. She gives where it counts—to children who need books, animal welfare and HIV/AIDS charities.
And perhaps no gift is more timely or impactful than the $1 million Parton donated to coronavirus research, money that went in part to the development of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. When the news broke, it was met not with surprise but knowing nods. That was just Dolly being Dolly, doing the right thing at the right time. As a celebrity who’s never needed to make a comeback or reinvent herself, her unforced authenticity also makes her an ideal brand partner for companies that align with her interests and values. She updated her classic song “9 to 5” for Squarespace’s Super Bowl spot earlier this year, and orders for her Southern strawberry pretzel pie collab with Jeni’s ice cream crashed the website quickly enough to prompt a second batch so fans would not go disappointed.
Of the many brands trying to ride the sports gambling wave, DraftKings is one of the surest bets. The company started as a daily fantasy sports outlet in 2012, while some competitors are only now seizing on the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn a federal ban on sports betting in 2018. Sports wagering is now legal in more than two dozen states, and DraftKings has retail or online operations in 14 of them.
The company is engaged in a long-running battle with rival FanDuel that has led to a marketing arms race. In measured media, DraftKings outspent its competitor by $147 million to $95 million last year, according to Kantar. It’s betting big on partnerships, inking deals with the National Football League, PGA Tour and UFC. In March, DraftKings acquired betting news content provider Vegas Sports Information Network, adding yet another way to reach potential new bettors. DraftKings even partnered with Domino's on a promotion with a $200,000 prize pool for people who properly predict the speed of the pizza chain's carside delivery.
When Heather Hasson, a former med student with a fashion background, recruited investment banker and friend Trina Spear to create Figs in 2013, they wanted to fuse fashion and performance by making medical scrubs flattering yet functional. But they never could have predicted how far the brand would catapult into mainstream popularity, when a pandemic resulted in not only doctors and nurses wearing Figs, but consumers, eager for comfort at home under lockdown, donning the brand too.
Figs’ revenue leapt 138% last year, and the brand gained awareness with ads featuring real nurses telling their stories, including on billboards and in subways in major cities.
“What really matters is that our messaging, and the way we connect with our community, is authentic and 100% about celebrating, empowering and serving health care professionals,” says Hasson. Figs stock went public in May of this year, and its share price has already nearly doubled.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
The hottest new brand in entertainment and media this year? Arguably Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who have swapped U.K. royalty for U.S. royalties. Their empire so far spans both Hollywood and Silicon Valley, including an estimated $100 million deal with Netflix, an estimated $35 million podcast agreement with Spotify and Harry’s Apple TV+ series “The Me You Can’t See.” Markle also has a Disney voiceover deal, is an investor in oat milk latte brand Clevr Blends and published a bestselling kids’ picture book, “The Bench,” while Harry has a role at mental health startup BetterUp.
And of course, there was that interview in March with Oprah, which was watched by more than 17 million in the U.S. alone. While back in the U.K., the press continues to berate the couple’s brand, Americans’ appetite for all things Sussex seems to know no bounds. Will there be more to come? You can Lilibet on it.
The Home Edit
The Home Edit
If your books and clothes are organized in rainbow order, thank The Home Edit. If you give yourself a gold star for overhauling a closet or drawer, thank The Home Edit. If your pantry features labeled zones of food decanted into clear containers, thank The Home Edit. If you know what backstock is and have a place for it, thank The Home Edit. Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin started their Nashville-based organization brand in 2015, soon after meeting through a mutual friend. It grew steadily thanks in part to its aspirational Instagram stories and a storage line at The Container Store.
But the brand truly exploded in 2020 as people decluttered during the pandemic. The first season of “Getting Organized with The Home Edit,” its Netflix series featuring celebrity clients such as Khloe Kardashian and Reese Witherspoon along with non-stars looking for some organization expertise, debuted in September. Filming of season 2 is currently underway.
The name Liquid Death could easily apply to a punk band or high-proof liquor, but it’s actually the moniker of a rising star in the sustainable water category. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company sells mountain H20 in “infinitely recyclable” tallboys marked with the mantra “#DeathtoPlastic.” Founder Mike Cessario, a former creative at agencies including CPB, VaynerMedia and TBWA, saw an opportunity when he looked at his own habits as a health-conscious dude who also happened to love metal and punk. Products that were marketed to his demo fell largely into categories such as junk food, action sports and soda—so why not turn up the volume on something more good for you? He created Liquid Death four years ago.
Campaigns have included a microsite that spits out heavy metal-inspired names for your unborn, morbid plushies bearing marks of ocean pollution mutilation and a zombie infomercial for brain-protecting headgear— a cross-promotion with the Netflix film “Army of the Dead.” Last September, the brand secured $23 million in series B funding, and in May, it became the exclusive water partner for Live Nation Entertainment venues and festivals across the U.S. This month, the brand debuted its own horror flick, “Dead Till Death,” which will stream on Amazon Prime in August.
The world needs superheroes now more than ever, and Marvel hasn't failed to deliver. From the successful rollout of series on Disney+ such as “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” to drumming up anticipation for its post-pandemic theatrical releases, Marvel and its studios have kept the brand fresh and relevant in a way that few others have managed amid COVID-19. The accelerated shift to streaming during the early lockdowns brought drew eyeballs, but it’s not just original titles that have kept the billion-dollar superhero factory running; branded crossovers and ad campaigns have also done their part. In the past few months alone, Marvel’s out-of-this-world characters have done everything from getting behind the wheel of a mortal Hyundai Tucson SUV to collaborating with ESPN for an “Arena of Heroes” NBA game.
The markets took a weird turn this year as so-called meme stocks such as GameStop and AMC took investors on a wild ride and Dogecoin crypto enthusiasm grabbed headlines. But there is little that competes with the rise of NFTs—Non-Fungible Tokens. Crypto-backed digital goods, NFTs retain value because they are unique and can’t be reproduced without some heavy manipulation. And they’ve introduced speculation almost comparable to Tulip mania, the infamous Dutch market bubble from the 17th century that drove up prices for the springtime flowers before collapsing.
In February, a National Basketball Association Top Shot NFT of LeBron James sold for $200,000. In March, artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69.4 million in a Christie’s auction. Since then, brands have been all-in, including Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Pringles, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Charmin. The frothy market won’t last forever. Crypto has cratered in recent weeks, but the technology that underpins NFTs is sure to change how marketers create ad campaigns, engage with their communities and transact online. VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk is among the industry execs diving in headfirst.
It’s all about shopping the drop at NTWRK, the three-year-old trendy livestreaming shopping platform that started its rise when the pandemic forced shopping, and drop culture, online. The platform, only accessible through an app, streams shows featuring exclusive merchandise from brands including Nike, Oakley and collectible toy line Be@rbrick available for purchase for a short time only—known as “drops,” a sort of Home Shopping Network for the new generation.
Aaron Levant, CEO of NTWRK, says the brand’s appeal, and much of its revenue, is about street culture, collectibles and home goods. “The magic of what NTWRK is doing is bringing in world-class brands and creatives,” he says.
NTWRK's focus on drop culture, curation and editorialization keeps the company from worrying about heavyweights like Amazon and Walmart that are setting up their own livestreaming shopping platforms, Levant says. “Theirs is commoditized,” he says. “There could be millions of sellers selling a hammer—that’s not interesting to the consumer.” NTWRK plans to lean more into what it calls "festivalization," or events that will feature exclusives, surprise drops and giveaways, to distinguish itself further from rivals. As part of that effort, the company recently hired Foot Locker alum Jason Brown as its first chief marketing officer.
Tracee Ellis Ross may be an accomplished actor and director, but hair care and retail executives weren’t buying her as a brand builder when she started pitching the idea for Pattern in 2009.
After a decade of hearing she wasn’t “credible,” she launched the specialized hair care brand anyway. It turns out Ross, and her line of products for curly, coily and tight-textured hair, were right after all.
Launched in late 2019, Pattern thrived despite the disruption caused by the pandemic and social unrest; it won awards from Allure, Essence, Marie Claire and New Beauty.
In June 2020, after George Floyd’s murder, Ross scrapped her original marketing plans for a second phase of styling products to focus on social justice. Shooting all her content at home, she scored hits that included $1 million in sales from a single ad for the brand’s Jumbette collection. Phase 2 doubled Pattern’s item count and increased its Ulta Beauty display space from 3 feet to 7 feet.
Amid the handful of COVID-19 vaccine choices, one brand emerged as the inoculator of choice. Early U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, coupled with a three-week time frame and few side effects helped propel Pfizer beyond its pharmaceutical roots and into mainstream conversation, earning distinction as “the hot person vaccine,” and the go-to-shot for celebs including Bette Midler, Tyler Perry and Marc Jacobs.
The 172-year-old drug maker is just getting started. Pfizer is currently testing its vaccine on children younger than 12, with results expected this fall, and executives anticipate continued booster shots for its coronavirus adult vaccines. “I’m thinking the pandemic has been the ultimate test for Pfizer’s, and, in truth, the entire pharmaceutical industry’s capabilities and credibility. And in my view, we have, thus far, passed with flying colors,” Pfizer Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla said on a recent earnings call before hinting at what’s to come: “If we could do this for COVID-19, why not for other diseases?”
The Pink Stuff was a 20-year-old cleaning brand from the U.K. with very little name recognition in the U.S.—one of a myriad number of abrasive cleaners for tough kitchen grime. Then TikTok’s cleaning craze swept it into internet fame this year and it became the poster child for viral commerce.
With little encouragement from any marketers at brand owner Stardrops in the U.K. (if they exist, they didn’t respond to email queries for comment), the brand exploded in 2021 on the social platform. Videos showing people using the pink all-purpose cleaning paste, claiming to contain only natural ingredients, now number more than 250 million, with billions of views.
Sal Pesce, president and chief operating officer of Pink Stuff USA, which distributes the brand in the U.S. under an agreement with Stardrops, told Ad Age he hasn’t spent a dime on marketing or hired any influencers. Still, monthly sales of “The Miracle Cleaning Paste” have exploded sevenfold and found a prominent place in Amazon’s “Internet Famous” section.
Most Super Bowl advertisers spend $5.5 million for a national 30-second commercial, but not Reddit. The company took a 5-second regional spot in select major cities for a fraction of the price, and got as much attention, if not more, than national advertisers. “Wow, this actually worked,” the ad said. It did: Reddit and its creative agency R/GA won a Cannes Lions award for the Super Bowl “hack.”
Reddit might not be the biggest platform like Facebook, mainstream like Twitter, or carefree like TikTok, but it has influence. The site has 100,000-plus communities around forums that cover almost every interest. This year, its Wall Street Bets subreddit is one community that sticks out for sticking it to institutional investors by toying with struggling stocks like GameStop. The group showed that the power of the internet will not be ignored.
Now, Reddit says it’s found the right formula to reach $1 billion in ad revenue by 2023. The company raised $250 million in funding in February, giving it a $6 billion valuation.
Gaming platform Roblox, now with a $50 billion market cap, has become one of the success stories coming out of the pandemic, when gaming boomed. Roblox’s daily active users, who play an average of 2.6 hours a day, grew by 28% to 43 million for the 12 months ended in May. Creators building their own worlds in the metaverse earned $329 million on the platform in 2020.
Since Roblox’s gamers are young—half are younger than age 13—brands are recognizing the opportunity to attract loyalists early on by selling digital goods that players can collect within the game or use to outfit their avatars.
Over the past year, Roblox has worked with Warner Bros., Gucci and Columbia Records to bring experiences, concerts and launch parties to the platform—all have attracted millions of visitors. Warner Media’s “Wonder Woman” experience has been visited 28 million times since debuting in June 2020. The latest effort is Netflix’s recreation of the ’80s Starcourt mall from season 3 of “Stranger Things.” Barbara Messing, chief marketing and employee experience officer at Roblox, says the platform is investing in expanding its age demographics, geographic reach and increasing monetization. “We believe that Roblox is well positioned for continued growth in a post-COVID world,” she says.
Fans of LeBron James and Lola Bunny can celebrate in style when “Space Jam: A New Legacy” hits theaters and homes—via HBO Max—on July 16. The release date was set in early 2019, giving brands plenty of time to prep their merch. And they’ve responded accordingly. More than 200 partners lined up to tie into the Warner Bros. Pictures animated/live-action follow-up to 1996’s “Space Jam” starring Michael Jordan. Looney Tunes apparel, Nike and Converse shoes, Spalding basketballs and Funko Pop collectibles feel fitting. BarkBox dog toys, Vilebrequin swimwear and a $1,500 silkscreened print by Mr. Brainwash at Bloomingdale’s show the out-of-this-world reach for the expected summer hit. Food partners include a “Space Jam Sweet Slam” of Ferrara candy such as Trolli Sour Sneaks. There’s even a digital candy tie-in via the biggest takeover in Candy Crush history. That’s all, folks.