L.O.L. Surprise! Ad Age has revived its annual list of America’s Hottest Brands—and yes, it includes the tiny collectible toys whose name borrows from the ubiquitous laugh-out-loud acronym. It takes some serious know-how to break through in today’s cluttered consumer environment, but the brands on our list have found a way to sizzle—and smoke, in the case of cannabis purveyor Sherbinksis.
Ad Age last published this feature in 2011. We’ve revived it to recognize 20 brands that are having a moment—however fleeting that moment might end up being. (Our Marketer A-List, meant to honor more sustainable success at scale, will still publish later this year.)
Some of the companies on 2011’s list offered a glimpse of larger trends to come. Warby Parker, for example, was then known as an e-commerce start-up; today, it’s a direct-to-consumer brand and has been so successful that many newer companies often describe themselves as “the Warby Parker of ____.” The d-to-c phenomenon dominates this year’s list with the likes of clothier Everlane, shoe seller Rothy’s and women’s shaving brand Billie.
This year’s list also highlights the food industry’s direction toward plant-based alternatives to traditional meat and dairy products. Good luck finding a hip coffee shop that doesn’t stock Oatly, the vegan milk substitute made from gluten-free oats. Meanwhile, after going public last month, Beyond Meat is piling on the restaurant partnerships.
Of course, just because a brand is hot now doesn’t mean that heat will last beyond this year—or even this summer. Eight years ago, we honored General Motors’ Chevy Cruz for its small car marketing tactics. But GM is discontinuing the model this year in the U.S., as buyers pivot from small vehicles to SUVs. The Chevy Cruz might be on its way out, but the Honey Badger, that badass weasel also featured on our 2011 list, still lives on as one of digital marketing’s earliest influencers.
“Baby Shark,” the uber-popular song that originated on YouTube in 2015, might make parents want to plug their ears. But for kids, it’s all they want to listen to ... and watch. A video of the song, where children dance and sing along with brightly hued animated sharks underwater to an upbeat, repetitive tune, has shown it has staying power. It has generated nearly 3 billion views on YouTube, landing it among the top 10 most-viewed videos in the platform’s existence. Beginning in January of this year, the song enjoyed a record 20-week streak on the Billboard Hot 100, has birthed a series of one-off videos and “Baby Shark dance battles” and famous parents including Cardi B, Tyra Banks and Kylie Jenner have posted about the song on social media. A 100-date tour will begin this fall.
“Baby Sark” has become such a sensation that Nickelodeon is working with SmartStudy, the parent company of Korean entertainment brand Pinkfong, creator of the song, to turn it into an animated series for preschoolers. But why stop there? Nickelodeon said there will be more “Baby Shark” products coming to stores. Toy company WowWee began selling singing “Baby Shark” plushies on Amazon in 2018. They sold out in two days, taking that “doo doo doo doo doo doo” all the way to the bank.
Bang Energy Drink
Bang Energy Drink
Bang is threatening to clip Red Bull’s wings and is putting a scare into Monster by disrupting the energy drink market with a gym-friendly positioning. Although the brand launched in 2012, Bang has surged of late, gaining market share at the expense of those category stalwarts. Bang’s U.S. sales soared 610 percent to $581 million for the 12 months ended April 21 of this year, according to IRI.
The brand, owned by Weston, Florida-based sports supplements maker Vital Pharmaceuticals, is made using creatine, which has lured in bodybuilders and other fitness fans for its purported muscle-building benefits, Beverage Digest recently reported. Bang’s rise, recently described by trade publication Bevnet as a “seven-year overnight success,” has not come without controversy.
Monster late last year filed a lawsuit against Bang, calling it “modern day snake oil” and blasting Bang’s claims that it can treat chronic diseases. Bang, with its marketing tagline “fuel your destiny,” shot back by calling Monster’s filing a “frivolous lawsuit” that “has no chance to prevent the inevitability of Bang’s meteoric rise to the top.”
Monster and Red Bull still dominate the energy drink category with a combined market share of nearly 80 percent, but Bang parent Vital is already up to a 5 percent share, according to IRI, after gaining 4 points in the year ended April 21.
Beyond Meat’s initial public offering proved that diners—along with celebrity investors including Jessica Chastain and Kyrie Irving—have a hearty appetite for plant-based products that mimic meat. The brand’s vegan products are now sold at big-name restaurant chains like Carl’s Jr. and Del Taco, plus a growing number of grocery stores.
But Beyond Meat still isn’t profitable, and the brand faces mounting competition. Nestlé and Tyson are cooking up their own protein-packed vegan products. And there’s Impossible Foods, the rival that sells at Burger King, among others.
But Beyond Meat founder and CEO Ethan Brown says competition validates the premise: On its first day of trading in May, Beyond Meat’s shares opened at $25 and closed at $65.75. Beyond Meat said on June 6 that sales more than tripled in the first quarter and should exceed $210 million this year. The next day, the shares soared above $138. “With all this activity, we’re still in the very early innings of growth,” Brown said on an investor call in June.
With the “pink tax,” women pay an average of 7 percent more than men on retail items, especially with personal care products like razors, according to a 2015 study by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. Billie’s mission is to close this gap. The brand is modeled after Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, but aimed at women.
In 2017, the direct-to-consumer subscription service began selling razors that did not weigh on women’s wallets. Starter kits and refills each go for $9. Refills are delivered every one, two or three months. Billie also sells products including body wash and shaving cream.
But Billie’s big difference: Unlike most companies that shy away from portraying women’s body hair in ads, Billie embraces it. Consumers and investors have embraced the young start-up with its refreshing attitude. Thanks to financial backers including Serena Williams, the company has raised $35 million and is now experimenting with selling in stores. In early June, Billie’s announced a partnership with Madewell to market $27 shaving sets.
The K-pop craze has been with us for several years, but the musical genre officially went global with the recent ascendance of BTS, a seven-member boy band with flashy moves, multihued hairstyles and polite, nonthreatening personalities.
The group writes most of their own lyrics—on topics ranging from mental health and individual expression to school troubles—which has helped them win devotion far beyond the insular world of South Korean celebrity culture. In 2017, BTS became the first Korean group to win a Billboard Music Award, and this year they were named Top Duo/Group, as well as Top Social Artist for the third year running.
Last year, BTS’ album “Love Yourself: Answer” was certified gold, and the song “Mic Drop” went platinum. The group also holds seven Guinness World Records, including for Most Twitter Engagements, eclipsing the previous record-holder, One Direction’s Harry Styles, by three-and-a-half times.
In the spring, The New York Times’ flagship podcast, “The Daily,” hit a new audience milestone: 2 million daily listeners. The legacy publisher took a quick victory lap, sharing the news at the Digital Content NewFronts, and revealing that “The Daily” staff, supported by strong advertising demand, had bulked up to a production team of 16 in addition to host Michael Barbaro.
But the success of “The Daily” isn’t just great for the Times. Since its launch in February 2017, the 20-minute-plus podcast, with its in-depth, explanatory take on the news, has shown the publishing industry at large a new way forward—one that focuses on an intimate, analytical approach that demands sustained attention.
Earlier this month, “The Daily” spawned a new FX/Hulu documentary series, “The Weekly,” that also takes a deeply thoughtful approach. In a media age that’s largely been defined by an eyeball- chasing, page-view-humping race to the bottom, this has been no small revolution.
Everlane teased a new line of jeans via Instagram and email earlier this year. “It’s coming. But we won’t say when,” the brand wrote, as it encouraged consumers to sign on to the waiting list for the denim drop. The limited-edition collection, which debuted in April, quickly sold out. “If I don’t get these, I will CRY,” one Instagram user wrote.
It’s an example of the cult-like following the San Francisco-based brand has earned for its clothing basics that are reminiscent of Gap’s early ’90s heyday. Except now Gap and other established retailers such as J. Crew are losing market share to Everlane. The brand’s direct-to-consumer model allows it to offer lower prices, while its sustainable product sourcing boosts loyalty.
An early pioneer of Instagram, Everlane has made a science out of using the social media platform to build its base and generate suspense for new product launches. Everlane seems less like a marketer pushing you to buy goods and more like a friend doling out fashion advice. With nearly 740,000 Instagram followers, two brick-and-mortar stores and celebrity enthusiasts including Meghan Markle and Angelina Jolie, the nine-year-old brand shows no signs of slowing down.
Chip and Joanna Gaines
Chip and Joanna Gaines
The fact that “Fixer Upper” co-starring couple Chip and Joanna Gaines are getting their own cable network in 2020 doesn’t surprise anyone who has ever thought about updating a room with some shiplap.
Magnolia, the Waco, Texas-based home-and- lifestyle brand the pair founded in 2003 as a small shop focused on home déco, has blossomed to include the quarterly Magnolia Journal magazine, shopping destination Magnolia Market at the Silos, and so on. There’s also Hearth & Hand with Magnolia, a housewares line exclusive to Target, as well as “Joanna Gaines for Anthropologie,” a line of pillows and rugs. And Joanna’s latest cookbook, “Magnolia Table,” was the No. 2 bestseller of 2018, just behind Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.”
Magnolia now has about 750 employees helping to keep up with it all. Thousands of Gaines fans head to Waco weekly, many hoping to catch a glimpse of cable’s power couple and their five kids. The number of tourists to the central Texas city has tripled since “Fixer Upper” aired its first season in 2014, according to figures from Waco city officials.
Glossier was built on the shiny, glowing faces of millennials. Formed in 2014, the skincare and beauty products company preaches a “skin first, makeup second” philosophy, highlighted in marketing with dewy visages that appear to be barely touched by an applicator.
The seeds of Glossier were formed in 2010 when founder and CEO Emily Weiss started a blog while working as an assistant at Vogue. Called “Into the Gloss,” it documented the primping rituals of celebrities and fashion elite and served as a springboard into direct-to-consumer retail. Since its founding, Glossier has nurtured a customer-first strategy via social media—it now boasts about 2 million Instagram followers, whose feedback helps to shape the product line.
Such an m.o. decidedly flies in the face of how the beauty industry traditionally centered “on experts telling you, the customer, what you should or shouldn’t be using on your face,” Weiss says on the Glossier site. But it’s resonating: The company achieved unicorn status in March after receiving $100 million in funding from Sequoia Capital, bringing its valuation up to $1.2 billion
Melissa Jefferson, more commonly known by her stage name, Lizzo, is an incredibly talented flutist and trailblazing female rapper—and has been for several years. But though she was signed to Atlantic Records and had two studio albums to her name, it was 2019’s critically acclaimed LP “Cuz I Love You” that put the emerging artist on the charts.
In April, Lizzo lit up social media for her performance at Coachella and over the last year, she’s been on the cover of multiple magazines including The Cut, Essence and V. Lizzo has made late-night TV appearances that have gone viral on more than one occasion.
Beyond that, she’s become a prominent advocate for body positivity, diversity and inclusivity. Walmart-owned e-commerce brand ModCloth featured Lizzo last year in its “Say It Louder” campaign, which focused on self-love. In the spot, the rapper proclaimed, “No matter how big or small you are, you can be sexy and wear whatever the f--k you want.”
The biggest surprise from toy blockbuster L.O.L. Surprise! is that kids don’t care what they get. The MGA Entertainment-owned brand debuted its “blind” packs of small dolls three years ago with the promise that children would be enticed by the unknown and clamor to collect each one.
Retailers were initially a tough sell, according to an L.O.L. spokeswoman, but the joke was on them. By tapping into the popular unboxing trend of showing off the toys in YouTube videos, the collectibles became hot sellers, prompting an expansion into new toys shaped like pets and babies. In 2018, L.O.L. items, including Lil’ Sister and Eye Spy Bigger Surprise, accounted for eight of the top 10 toy items of the year, ranked by dollars, according to NPD Group. A subscription box offering is planned for later this year, as are PEZ candy dispensers, and the brand’s YouTube Channel just passed the 1-million- subscriber mark.
‘The Masked Singer’
‘The Masked Singer’
At this year’s Fox upfront, an otherworldly deer with outrageous antlers and a snout reminiscent of a World War II gas mask crooned “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Even by upfront standards this was bizarre, except that the stunt hyped the network’s runaway hit, “The Masked Singer.”
The show’s format: Celebrities in elaborate costumes (think Gladys Knight as a bumblebee, Margaret Cho as a poodle and Donny Osmond as a peacock) sing to a panel of judges—Jenny McCarthy, Robin Thicke, Nicole Sherzinger and Ken Jeong—who try and guess their identities.
Inspired by a Korean TV show, “The Masked Singer” is a smash hit. The program, which debuted here in January and ran through February, averaged 7.7 million live same-day viewers, according to Nielsen, and was the highest-rated series in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic, besting the outgoing “Big Bang Theory” and “This Is Us.”
The this-is-so-wacky-I-can’t-look-away series will return this fall; a third season has already been greenlit. And the deer at the upfront? It was Joe Namath, who sadly did not live up to his Broadway Joe nickname.
Amid the seemingly constant, um, churn of vegan alternatives to dairy milk—would you like your latte handcrafted with liquid made from almonds, cashews, or soy?—oat-based Oatly is gaining steam. In a little more than two years in the U.S., Oatly has gotten its cartons of dairy-free, nut-free and gluten-free oat beverages into several thousand U.S. coffee shops and about 3,000 grocery stores.
After suffering through some product shortages in the U.S., the Swedish company now has one U.S. factory, in New Jersey, and plans to open a second, in Utah, in 2020. For now, the brand is ramping up its advertising with nearly 400 out-of-home ads in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.
This summer, Oatly plans to promote its new line of non-dairy desserts starting with a truck tour in Southern California before the frozen pints hit select U.S. stores in July. The company handles its ads in-house and works with Omnicom’s PHD on media planning on buying.
Jordan Peele has been on a rapid rise to superstardom since his 2017 directorial debut with “Get Out,” the horror film that generated more than $255 million worldwide. The movie reached many milestones in addition to garnering widespread fanfare for Peele.
“Get Out” was the first horror flick featuring black lead protagonists to gain mainstream success, winning the Oscar for best original screenplay—Peele is also the first African-American to receive the award. He again broke box-office records with the 2019 release of “Us,” the second horror film he wrote and directed. Last year, Peele also co-produced Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” and he is currently hosting and producing a revival of “The Twilight Zone” and voicing a new character in “Toy Story 4.” And he’s also working on an HBO series with J.J. Abrams.
Following the release of “Us,” Peele told a crowd at East Hollywood’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre that he’s “fortunate” to be able to cast black actors in his movies, which have paved the way for diverse stories to be told. “I don’t see myself casting a white dude as the lead in my movie,” he said. “Not that I don’t like white dudes. But I’ve seen that movie.”
Many brands are trying to tap into the trend of sustainable fashion, but Rothy’s already has a shoe in the door. The San Francisco-based brand, which sells a variety of pointy-toed and ballet flats made from recycled plastic water bottles, is building buzz with women who don’t mind the price tag—at around $125 a pair, these shoes don’t come cheap—if it means staying green. Like other direct-to-consumer retailers eager to keep advertising costs low, Rothy’s makes marketers out of its fans. The three-year-old brand recently debuted the Collective, a community of shoppers turned brand ambassadors. “Our No. 1 growth driver continues to be word-of-mouth,” says Elie Donahue, VP of marketing.
According to a spokeswoman, Rothy’s sold more than 1 million shoes last year and has recycled over 31 million plastic bottles thus far. Up next? A summertime slide set to debut next spring.
Sherbinskis wants to become the Gucci of pot. The premium marijuana brand is well on its way, with vape pens available in high-end retailers including Barneys Beverly Hills. The brand even collaborated with Nike on a line of Air Force 1 shoes that are highly sought-after by sneakerheads, fetching upwards of $1,000 on reseller sites.
Mario Guzman, founder of the San Francisco- based brand, was a well-known figure in the marijuana community long before pot became legal in the Golden State. Sherbinksis is known for its gorgeous, flavorful marijuana strains, such as Sunset Sherbert.
Sherbinksis’ entry into mainstream culture, meanwhile, can partly be attributed to musicians such as Calvin Harris, Travis Scott and nearly 200 other artists who have referenced the brand in their songs, as highlighted on a “Sherbinksis” Spotify playlist. Its offerings include colorful hats featuring marijuana plants that make it easy for anyone to create an eye-catching Instagram post.
Let Manhattan’s glossy publishing world continue to try to grind through its unending existential crisis. If you want to take in a good old-fashioned, general-interest magazine—one that offers an immersive take on the culture powered by long-form storytelling and gorgeous photojournalism—look south. To Washington, D.C., of all places.
Smithsonian Magazine, edited by New York publishing refugee Michael Caruso (The Village Voice, Details, The Wall Street Journal, etc.), is one of the few reliably brilliant things coming out of our nation’s capital these days. With a mandate as broad as that of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum complex that publishes it, the magazine month after month delivers fascinating, far-reaching features on everything from evolution (“You Are Such a Neanderthal!,” a recent cover story) to political history (“Napoleon’s Last Days”). It’s almost as if we weren’t living in an unquestioning, anti-scientific, ahistorical epoch.
Few innovators have been able to shake-up social media quite like Tik Tok, the frenetic video-sharing app that is the first Chinese internet sensation to catch fire in the U.S. The hashtag-powered video app blends music, filters and comedy into a viral concoction that is challenging the lock Facebook and its sibling app Instagram have on people’s online attention.
Facebook has not faced this kind of threat since Snapchat’s 2011 launch. The Chinese firm’s owner, ByteDance, bought the Musical.ly app in 2017, merging it into Tik Tok, resulting in an entity that now has more than 500 million monthly users. Last year, ByteDance raised $3 billion and was valued at $75 billion.
Tik Tok is now trying to parlay its newfound popularity in the U.S. into ad revenue. It has had some success luring marketers to participate in its hashtag challenges, with brands like Guess and Chipotle creating sponsored campaigns. Tik Tok is also injecting video ads into the platform, wooing Madison Avenue with its young audience.
Topo Chico made its first bottle of sparkling water in 1895. As legend has it, a beautiful Aztec princess bathed in it, curing her from a terrible disease.
The fantastical origin story, told on the brand’s website, is no doubt fiction. But the brand’s recent hot streak is very real. Originally propelled by a cult following, the brand blew up to the point that Coca-Cola bought it in 2017 for a reported $200 million.
Under the beverage giant’s wing, Topo Chico has expanded distribution beyond its footprint of niche stores in Texas and Mexico. Its dollar sales soared 30 percent in the first quarter, Coca-Cola reported.
Why is the drink so special? Beyond its wide popularity among mixologists, Topo Chico is also regarded as being significantly more fizzy than similar seltzers.
The Mouse House has been the ultimate success story in driving people to movie theaters and theme parks. Now it’s reinventing itself for a streaming future by bringing its princesses and superheroes directly to consumers.
Disney’s highly anticipated streaming service, Disney Plus, will bow later this year with original “Star Wars” content and a new film in the “High School Musical” franchise, and it’s promising to reimagine how the next generation of Disney fans interact with the brand. It’s certainly been a big year for Disney following its acquisition of 21st Century Fox assets, which brought cable networks FX and National Geographic, along with characters including Marvel’s Deadpool, into the fold.
Speaking of Marvel, the epic finale to the Avengers saga broke records in April, becoming the fastest film to surpass the $2 billion mark, and the second movie ever to cross the $800 million domestic box-office threshold. Some of this more mature content will certainly help feed Hulu, which Disney gained full operational control of last month in a deal that includes the acquisition of Comcast’s stake in the streaming service.