In a tumultuous 2020, ravaged by a pandemic and witness to a surging demand for equality, six brands occupied the spotlight.

The Best Brands Are Forged In The Crucible Of Crisis

As I spent 2020 researching, writing about, and working with brands, it was clear that branding as usual wasn’t cutting it. I had to toss out my carefully designed research plan early in the year to write about how brands ought to respond to the pandemic. A few months later, I wrote about how a tidal wave for racial equity forced a comprehensive brand strategy rethink. In the helter-skelter of the aftermath, brands have been desperately trying to make sense of the shifting sands of market and social change. This is a report about six brands, forged in the crucible of crisis, that have stood head and shoulders above the pack this year.

We Partnered With Experts To Pick The Top Brands

As I write about brand strategy throughout the year, I keep a running list of brands that catch my eye. As we near the final quarter of the year, we revisit the list, pressure-test our choices, inject new ones, and then come up with a long list of brand candidates. We then turn to a panel of experts we assemble each year (this year includes leaders at BrandZ, Interbrand, and McKinsey, among others) to inform and challenge our thinking. Once we’ve run our choices through a highly esteemed and extremely picky gauntlet of brand gurus, we emerge with a select few. These are the brands that make our spotlight report.

Themes For 2020 And Beyond

Before we get to our list, let’s touch on a few common themes that emerged from our assessment:

  • Strong brands, when nurtured, will endure. Investing in brand builds resilience — strong brands were hit less hard by the pandemic and recovered faster than market indices. The success of several brands on our list is attributable to a steady, deliberate commitment to brand-building before and during the pandemic.
  • Strong brands need to be comfortable with weak control. The age of governance-led, hyper-managed branding is over. Instead, brand managers need to empower, not obstruct, the locus of control flowing to the consumer. 
  • Strong brands will build from the community up. The power that shifts away from the brand does not dissipate. It is harnessed by communities to drive organic growth. 

Four “Traditional” Brands Made The List

  1. TikTok, for its explosive growth (despite being thrown into political turmoil) and for creating a differentiated, relatable, and authentic offering with the power to transform culture.
  2. Walmart, for doggedly mastering digital transformation and omnichannel while reinventing itself to be brilliantly positioned to address the pandemic.
  3. White Claw, for creating a whole new category that was always in plain sight but eluded the big brands and for breaking cultural boundaries.
  4. Lululemon, for reaffirming its commitment to brand experiences as the engine of growth for its loyalist community and for thinking beyond apparel and retail to entangle itself with its community’s well-being.

Two “Nontraditional” Brands Took Center Stage

  1. Women leaders, of countries such as New Zealand, Germany, Taiwan, Finland, and others, who guided their nations through adversity, saved lives, and elevated their national brands.
  2. Black Lives Matter, for epitomizing the virality of decentralized brand growth and for forcing the proverbial smoke-filled boardrooms of power and privilege to pay heed to fairness and equality.

The full report, discussing each of these brands in detail, is available to Forrester clients.

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