Zoom was hardly a household name a few months ago. But now it is dominating virtual offices everywhere. Clorox has long enjoyed high awareness, but now the brand can’t make enough of its disinfectant wipes as they fly off store shelves. The coronavirus has brought new attention to typically boring, decades-old consumer staples, while hastening the rise of digital newcomers that were only just beginning to gain traction pre-pandemic.
In America’s Hottest Brands, Ad Age chronicles 20 brands that are having a moment. Our list includes Chewy, which is taking advantage of the rise in pet adoptions, and Michael Jordan, who is newly relevant 17 years after he stepped off the court, thanks in part to ESPN’s documentary that arrived while all pro sports were on hiatus. Bored consumers stuck at home turned to games including Nintendo’s Animal Crossing and hungered for wacky entertainment like “Tiger King.” Services including Tock and Instacart pivoted to address new demand and remain relevant when the dust settles.
Without the onslaught of the virus, this list would look very different, but the fact that these brands are rising to the occasion—many have seen sales increase or market share grow since March—speaks to their long-term potential in a post-COVID world.
Find out more about what makes these brands tick by attending Inside America’s Hottest Brands, an Ad Age virtual event on July 28. Register here.
If there’s one game that has dominated the coronavirus pandemic, it’s Nintendo’s “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” With leisurely, simple and repetitive gameplay, the carton life simulator, exclusively on Nintendo’s Switch, has been a cure for stressed-out people looking to fill lockdown hours. “New Horizons,” the fourth installment in the “Animal Crossing” franchise, sold more than 13 million copies in its first six weeks since debuting on March 20, according to Nintendo’s May 7 earnings.
Left to control their own tropical islands, players buy and trade items including wood and bugs to transform them into virtual paradises as they befriend anthropomorphic animals. With the ability to visit friends’ islands by simply connecting to the internet, players have been recreating graduations, protests and even weddings in-game.
Animal Crossing’s popularity and customizable features give it potential as a marketing platform. Clothing brands like Marc Jacobs and Valentino have created clothes for players’ characters, while KFC and Sunkist are building branded islands to host virtual events.
One silver lining spurred by the coronavirus pandemic was the uptick in pet adoptions. As homebound consumers invested in animal companions, Chewy, the online retailer of pet food and products, saw interest grow and sales rise. A recent marketing campaign that focused on how pets can prevent lockdown-related loneliness helped propel first-quarter net sales to $1.6 billion, up 46 percent from the year-earlier period. Chewy, which was founded in 2011 and went public last year, added 1.6 million customers in the three months ending May 3, more than doubling its quarterly rate. Buoyed by the surge, CEO Sumit Singh said online pet product shopping is “here to stay.” Experts agree the digital shopping trend will outlive COVID-19.
How do you market when your products are flying off shelves as fast as you make them? It’s a seemingly nice problem to have, but not easy for Clorox Wipes.
Ads for Clorox Wipes and the flagship Clorox brand these days are more about long-term relationship-building than encouraging short-term sales, says Clorox Co. Chief Marketing Officer Stacey Grier. It seems to work. Americans ranked Clorox No. 2, just behind the U.S. Postal Service, in a recent Harris Poll about most essential brands, and No. 1 on integrity.
Clorox halted ads on Amazon in March when products went out of stock and worked with retailers to halt price gouging by third-party sellers.
Then the company reduced SKUs and changed packaging to streamline production. It’s making 40 percent more wipes than a year ago and upped production of hospital-grade bleach by 400 percent. But demand for Clorox Wipes has spiked as much as 500 percent.
If anyone “won the quarantine,” it is Sarah Cooper. The comedian and author did not waste her time under lockdown and has sprung into the spotlight with a niche she perfected—lip-syncing the ramblings of President Donald Trump.
Cooper has mastered social media, uploading self-shot clips of her miming Trump. Her creations are lighting up Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. It is not just her ability to follow along with the president’s often tortured speech, it is her use of props and play-acting that have people rolling in laughter. Cooper has been featured in The New York Times and Hollywood Reporter. She has been on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and “Ellen,” and she was signed by William Morris Endeavor talent agency in June.
Cooper offers the most refreshing spin on a presidential act that has grown all-too stale for many Americans. And she boasts “blocked by Trump” in her Twitter bio.
It took one Instagram post from a fashion editor stranded in Austin with limited footwear choices during the coronavirus lockdowns to birth this season’s “it” shoe: the strawberry-printed clog from Crocs. While the 18-year-old brand is known more for comfort than fashion, consumers have lately been craving a combination of both. The strawberry clog sold out within days. Crocs has had similar success with recent collaborations with KFC and Post Malone.
“The essence of the brand is come as you are,” says Heidi Cooley, global head of marketing, noting that such a message is resonating now especially. While the brand saw revenue fall 5 percent during the first quarter to $281 million amid consumer spending pullback and store closures, Crocs’ e-commerce sales grew 16 percent. Crocs can be polarizing, says Cooley, and that’s working to the brand’s advantage. While strawberry’s season might have ended, Crocs’ design team is already working on its next hot bet—cherries.
Drizly got a boost during the pandemic when stuck-at-home drinkers decided to stock up on booze from the online alcohol seller. And while bars are slowly reopening, the online booze-buying trend is here to stay, say experts. “The COVID-19 crisis is likely to mark an inflection point for e-commerce in the alcohol industry,” investment advisory firm Evercore ISI noted in a recent report. Founded eight years ago, Boston-based Drizly now partners with more than 2,600 retailers across North America to deliver beer, wine and liquor to consumers’ doors. In May, Drizly’s sales were 400 percent above what it had projected pre-pandemic, according to the company. Brands are noticing as they increasingly include Drizly in their marketing plans, with programs including advertising special codes buyers can use on the platform to get discounts. Now Drizly is also eyeing pot sales. It recently debuted a new brand called Lantern that specializes in cannabis delivery.
Dr. Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony Fauci
In a year defined by sickness and death, Americans looked for leadership in a crisis and found it lacking. Now, with infections surging and more than 125,000 dead, the warnings of scientists take on new weight. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stepped out from behind the podium as a steady source of reliable information that keeps people safe. “The world is looking for reassurance,” says Matt Eastwood, global chief creative officer at McCann Health. “His empathetic, authentic leadership paired with data and evidence-based information is what has led to Dr. Fauci becoming a ‘rockstar of care’ and a trusted voice for Americans looking for security in an uncertain world.” In a true sign of celebrity, the doctor even has his own bobblehead doll, from the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At first reticent to contradict political leaders, Fauci has been recently breaking ranks to correct misinformation and present a potential road map to combating the coronavirus. Whether the public and the government listen is another matter.
And … breathe. Since the world headed into coronavirus lockdown in March, downloads of meditation and mindfulness app Headspace have doubled. As anxious and panicked people are turning to new coping techniques, the numbers of users starting stress meditation have increased tenfold and sleep music usage has risen by a third, according to the company. In May, Headspace cemented its popularity by offering free subscriptions to those in the U.S. who have lost their jobs, promoting the move with its first-ever TV ad via agency Gut. Decade-old Headspace started life as an events company before evolving into a mindfulness-focused brand. Heightened awareness of mental health issues will likely fuel the appetite for its offerings, even when the pandemic is over.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a boon to Instacart’s business. The digital grocer said in April that orders were up more than 500 percent in the past 12 months and that the average user spent 35 percent more per order compared with last year.
The company’s founder and CEO, Apoorva Mehta, said in June that the “pandemic has fundamentally reshaped the way people think about grocery and e-commerce,” adding that coronavirus made Instacart an essential service “overnight.”
The upswing in demand for Instacart’s services has also strengthened its relationships with its partners. The company is now working with more than 30,000 retail stores in the U.S. It also said it wants to hire 250,000 additional “shoppers” to offer one-hour and same-day deliveries—taking direct aim at Amazon-owned Whole Foods.
Meanwhile, Instacart said in June that it wants to grow its business beyond fruits and vegetables: The company debuted a new advertising platform that allows brands to run display ads or offer coupons to online shoppers.
King Arthur Flour
King Arthur Flour
Consumers stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic quickly turned to comfort foods to bring some joy into their new routines. Suddenly, everyone had seemingly abandoned a gluten-free, Keto, Paleo or other restrictive diet and was going crazy for sourdough starter, homemade cinnamon rolls and banana bread. As a result, yeast and flour were nearly as tough to find in some parts of the country as Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. Flour sales rose 97 percent in the 14 weeks ended June 6, according to data from Nielsen. The standout flour brand has been King Arthur Flour. It costs a bit more than conventional names and store-branded bags, but its fans sing its praises. It’s U.S.-grown, non-GMO and employee-owned. Plus, along with a hotline for those who run into baking trouble, King Arthur now posts episodes of its Isolation Baking Show, in which master bakers teach viewers how to create everything from challah dough to fresh pasta.
Online education has gone from convenient to necessary in the age of COVID-19 and MasterClass is at the forefront. Founded by David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen in 2014—way back when students could still attend school in person—MasterClass is a platform through which people can gain access to tutorials and lectures, all prerecorded, from experts in various disciplines. Unsurprisingly, Co-Founder and CEO Rogier says that MasterClass has “seen a surge of demand this year.” He adds that “people are craving to learn.” As has been well reported, sheltering-in-place folks are adopting new skills and hobbies during the pandemic to keep occupied. “We’ve seen weeks of demand 10 times over the prior years,” Rogier says. MasterClass is also gaining global traction with one third of new subscribers coming from outside the U.S., according to Rogier, who notes that last year, the company doubled its sales.
Michael Jordan is no stranger to comebacks, having come out of retirement twice before finally exiting the court for good in 2003. But from a marketing perspective, Air Jordan in 2020 pulled off his best return yet. ESPN’s “Last Dance” documentary—which profiled Jordan’s illustrious career in a 10-episode run concluding in late May—set ratings records as the network’s most-watched documentary. With the NBA sidelined due to the coronavirus, Jordan managed to steal the spotlight from LeBron James and other stars still in their prime. Jordan gear at online retailer Fanatics surged 900 percent in the wake of the documentary, according to CNBC. The Nike-owned Jordan Brand surged 50 percent in China in the year ending May 31, approaching $1 billion in annual revenue, and the brand is getting a boost from its women’s apparel, Nike execs reported in late June. The Jordan brand is now “relevant to an entirely new generation of sports fans and consumers,” says sports industry consultant David Carter.
Jordan himself gained more positive PR in early June when along with the Jordan Brand he pledged to donate $100 million to organizations fighting for racial equality. It was significant not only for its size but for its symbolism, because Jordan had a reputation for avoiding social causes during his playing days.
Few brands can attest to not needing marketing during a global epidemic, and Peloton is one of them. The fitness company saw sales skyrocket so much during coronavirus lockdowns—as exercise-craving consumers invested in the brand’s stationary bikes and home fitness materials—that it pulled back on advertising and plans to be more efficient with media spend, as word-of-mouth and existing brand awareness propel the company forward. For the third quarter, Peloton reported a revenue increase of 66 percent to $524.6 million, as subscribers grew 94 percent over the year-earlier period. In May, the brand hosted a live ride with pro athletes on ESPN where viewers tuned in to see their favorite sports stars pedaling stationary bikes. As lockdowns lift, Peloton will continue to push its treadmill product as it expands into new product areas, which include family fitness offerings.
The 152-year-old Scotts Miracle-Gro is still in its growth stage. The home-and-garden company is acting more like an innovative tech company than a stodgy manufacturer of fertilizer products.
With more people taking up gardening while under lockdown orders, the Ohio-based company saw sales spike. Consumers were also smoking pot, which is Scotts’ fastest-growing segment, under its subsidiary Hawthorne Gardening Co. Scotts makes hydroponics systems for people growing marijuana at home, and sales were up 51 percent year-over-year in the second quarter ending in March. Scotts also reported its biggest week in sales in May, at the height of the quarantines in the U.S., when it generated $190 million at its largest retail partners.
Scotts stock price was up about 20 percent in the first half of the year. Now, the company is getting into venture capitalism, setting up a $50 million fund called 1868 Ventures, to invest in startups.
Some Good News
Some Good News
In less than three months and without formal sets, costumes or cameras, John Krasinski created a YouTube phenomenon that ignited a bidding war before it was scooped up at an undisclosed price by ViacomCBS. “Some Good News” was just the tonic the world needed during lockdown as the homebound searched for ways to escape the terrifying toll of coronavirus cases and death counts. A mix of DIY charm and celebrity guests, “SGN” delighted audiences with surprises, including a pop-up performance of “Hamilton,” and quickly notched 2.6 million subscribers. One video alone—a reunion of “The Office” characters recreating a scene from the show in which Krasinski’s character, Jim Halpert weds Pam Beesley, played by Jenna Fischer—drew 12 million views. Now the bad news: Krasinksi took a bit of social heat for “selling out” and will no longer appear on the show under its new owner, but remains as executive producer.
“Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness” became an unexpected phenomenon when it debuted on Netflix in March, just as much of the nation was put under lockdown due to COVID-19. The seven-episode miniseries explores the bizarre world of big cat owners and offered a level of escapism at a time when fear and anxiety gripped the country. And it connected viewers when other big TV events and live sports were canceled. This helped propel “Tiger King” to be watched by more than 34 million U.S. viewers in its first 10 days on Netflix. It wasn’t long before memes of series stars Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the owners of big cat sanctuaries, flooded social media, leading brands from Crocs to Burger King to get in on the action with their own social jokes.
When COVID-19 hit, reservation software company Tock’s programmers worked nonstop to help restaurants stay afloat. Tock To Go became the go-to way for fine dining establishments and even hot dog joints to manage carryout and delivery. With Tock, restaurants can easily mark tables out of service to stay within new capacity restraints and offer pre-visit diner questionnaires when required. Don’t want to throw away reams of paper menus? Tock lets patrons read the specials on their phones.
“We’re trying to stay a step ahead of the needs of the industry before they even know what they need,” says Founder and CEO Nick Kokonas.
Tock has hired 22 people and secured a $10 million round of funding during the pandemic. What’s next? “A lot of things have become time slotted businesses that were not time-slotted businesses before,” he says. A car dealership is now using Tock to schedule test drives.
Rapper Travis Scott dropped one of the most talked about experiential events during the pandemic when he took his “Astronomical” music fest into Fortnite in April. Featuring a massive hologram of Scott, the in-game concert tour with Epic Games amassed 12.3 million simultaneous views the first day of the event, with a total of more than 27 million unique players attending during the five-day experience. (A political advisor even cited it as a possible example to follow for the Democratic National Convention this year.) It helped propel a newly-released single for The Scotts (Scott’s collaboration with Kid Cudi) to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The effort was also tied to a massive merchandise drop, which included everything from action figures to Nerf guns. Outside of that, Scott has partnered with brands including Nike, General Mills and Mattel Hot Wheels via his own creative agency, Cactus Jack. He recently teamed with LeBron James to release Cactus Jack Class of 2020 T-shirts to celebrate students graduating this year. The proceeds went to the LeBron James Family Foundation and Feeding Texas.
In the spring, Amazon-owned Twitch hit a new milestone: it surpassed more than 3 billion streaming hours during the first quarter of this year. The figure is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is nearly two times greater than the combined audience of YouTube Gaming, Facebook Gaming and Microsoft Mixer, which was shut down in late June in a sign of Twitch’s dominance. Twitch was thrust into the spotlight after social distancing guidelines left empty seats at stadiums, hockey rinks and movie theaters across the country. Twitch was quick to fill those spots virtually, as brands including NASCAR competed in simulated races through the platform. ESPN also began streaming games of NBA2K, a popular video game, on its ESPN2 network.
The growing audience has also resulted in a different flavor of content. Music, chess and news regarding Black Lives Matter protests are growing on the platform, the last of which has unexpectedly positioned Twitch as a town square for social activism.
By late last year, Zoom was already the dominant video conferencing platform. Now, the pandemic has transformed it into a way of life for millions of people working from home on virtual teams.
Zoom went from hosting 10 million daily meeting participants in December to 300 million by April and from 100 billion annualized meeting minutes to 2 trillion. It also became a mainstay of popular culture. A Google search on “Zoom parodies” yields 1.3 million hits, and scores of celebrities have made Zoom even more famous by using the platform.
Marketing had a limited role in recent explosive growth, though radio, outdoor and digital ads did play a role in making Zoom the top conferencing platform beforehand, says Chief Marketing Officer Janine Pelosi. Advertising has been turned off since March. “We’re going through a tough time for humanity,” she says. “It’s not a time to focus in on sales and marketing.”