As a lifelong student, teacher and practitioner of innovation, I have always been fascinated by the quest to understand how. To find signal through the noise. What does John Lennon have in common with Bach and Banksy? What behaviors do Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and Tim Berners-Lee share? What does Magic Spoon have in common with Peloton and Brightland and Humble Sea? The answer to each question is paradoxical: nothing, and plenty.
“Nothing—no force on earth—can stop an idea whose time has come.”
– Victor Hugo, “The Future of Man”
Here are five revolutionary lessons we can take from my cohort of “Most Compelling New Brands.” (Learn more about the cohort of 12 brands in this piece.)
1. Constraints can be productive. I confess, when the pandemic hit last year, I was deeply worried that it would kneecap entrepreneurs in all corners, especially in the consumer sector. I am thrilled that the innovation doom never materialized. Necessity is the mother of invention, and hardship has forced the incredibly brave and industrious people behind the companies above to find a way forward, no matter what. “What were we supposed to do?” asked Magic Spoon founder Gabi Lewis, reflecting on the onset of a global lockdown. “Quit? No. We actually used the constraints before us to make us better.”
Each one of these companies could become a rampaging bull as the world normalizes. Any team able to propel a concept airborne in a down cycle will reap the benefits later.
Persistence amidst adversity is always a marker of people or companies successful in anything, but it is especially apt here. Forged by crisis, each founder with whom I spoke is now capable of succeeding in any environment. Their stories almost read like those of Marvel superheroes. Or at least MacGyver.
2. “Normal” might not be. Contemporary entrepreneurs are becoming much less accepting of category conventions, if not downright mutinous. Where is it written that a new entrant to compete with Heinz ketchup is “not allowed”? (The answer: antiquated MBA strategy books, which frown on such actions; good thing the team at Sir Kensington never read them). Back to our subjects here: Aishwarya Iyer took a look at the olive oil aisle, the ultimate “sea of sameness,” and then a closer look at the sourcing practices in that business, and decided she would not accept them as normal. Brightland is born. The identical spark led to Coulter Lewis and Sunday lawn care. Joe Ens, Ryan Reynolds, and the team at HighKey chose not to accept the assertion that low/no sugar products must taste awful; enter their “crave-worthy” alternative. Julie Schott and the team at Starface are flipping the bird (with a smile!) to the long-entrenched convention in acne care that a pimple should be a secret you bear in shame.
Stop accepting “normal” as normal. In all likelihood, it isn’t. Here is one exercise, inspired by the entrepreneurs here and plenty of my own experiences. Whatever the category you’re studying, write down all the “rules” (quotes intended). Then suspend any engrained knowledge of the space you may have, and ask critically: are they really “rules”? Can they be broken? We never recommend any rule-breaking on matters of product safety, but most other so-called rules are actually there for the flouting. Flout!
3. God is in the details. One of my creative partners often discusses the Grateful Dead as a design case. It is not just a brand; it’s a brand world, and a vastly rich one at that, full of too many unique elements to count (think bears; lightning bolts; skulls; roses; and so on). There are many reasons why the Grateful Dead, even years after Jerry Garcia passed away, remains one of the most engaging brands of all time; its brand world is certainly one. Hey man, what detail!
In this cohort, Vacation is a great example of a new brand for which no product or design detail is too small, everything matters to them, and it’s working: they have one of the most enthusiastic followings I have ever seen. Part of their commitment to breadth of experience is their origin on the content side of the equation, a component every new brand ought to consider from the outset. Try to confuse people about whether the chicken (product) or egg (content) came first.
Speaking of product, detail counts there too. Mac Anderson and his team at Cleveland Kitchen are bringing the same level of culinary craft to mass-marketed products as they learned from mom (yes, in their kitchen, which happens to be in Cleveland).
4. More Is More. If you want to see me become visibly agitated, pitch me the model of companies going through a lengthy planning process in search of the almighty singular “BIG BET,” a magic pathway to $1 Billion in revenue, mapped out in detail from the outset. Searching for Bigfoot would be a more productive exercise (and certainly much more fun). Modern brands and companies don’t do “big bets”; they do myriad smaller ones. Design thinking becomes design doing. The future resides in a portfolio of experiments.
Magic Spoon launches new ideas almost monthly, providing constant action for their fans. Just as this work was concluding in late October, I received an email from them offering a limited time only “Pumpkin Latte” flavor. Being a direct-to-consumer brand helps: no brick-and-mortar retail planogram to worry about. Humble Sea’s volume of new product releases seems downright impossible (it’s possible: I have verified it). Olipop has an enormous lineup of flavors for such a young brand. “We can’t always know what will work,” co-founder Ben Goodwin said. “So we try them all.”
It is time for companies to fundamentally rethink their innovation strategies. They ought to be running a large group of small experiments instead of holding off for one unicorn that in all likelihood will never materialize. Leave the paranormal to the movies. Only in-market trials can predict future brand success, and it’s a numbers game to find ideas that engage. Sorry, Mr. Van Der Rohe: when it comes to innovation, more is more.
5. Product Is King. The first few shots fired in the revolution unfolding were largely brand and business model-driven. The belief: if you have a great name and fancy approach to go-to-market (DTC! Subscription! Drones! Oh my!), product uniqueness and quality don’t matter much. A lot of brands—Casper, I’m looking at you—rocketed to enormous valuations and sensational headlines based on the premise above. One problem: it turns out that product does matter. Again, Casper, I’m looking at you. And your share price.
Contemporary disruptors understand this and are going to market now with better mousetraps, not just beautiful brands. For one, Generation Z consumers are saying loudly: either your product has to be truly sourced and produced in a better way, or your social mission has to be out of this world, or don’t even talk to me. Brave Robot is an example of a new brand that is truly without peer in terms of how it is made; there is real science behind it. Reel, too, walks the talk when it comes to the ethics of its supply chain and “give back” program; you might say that Reel is real. So is Mike’s Hot Honey, which will show you exactly how its incredible product is made, down to where the bees are. And from a taste experience, it delivers hard on “honey with a kick.”
One impact of the new world order on the innovation community is the raising of the bar. Brands alone aren’t enough. We are in a “yes, and” world where product quality counts too. A lot. Many of the best new consumer brands these days, regardless of age and stage, devote a ton of energy to research and development.
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The great trailblazers above spent time on this project in order to inspire you to be the best you can be, and move the entire community forward. “Community” means all of us: in fact, my own company and partners are launching a number of new brands this year, and we can only hope that they would be deemed worthy of inclusion in this set.
Innovators typically eschew “zero sum” thinking and reside firmly in the camp of abundance theory: share all you can and be a go “giver” more than a go “getter.” We all now have a few plays from today’s successful game plans. See you out there.
Paul W. Earle, Jr. heads Earle & Company Inc., an Evanston, Illinois-based futures lab that advises clients on matters of branding and innovation, in addition to developing its own properties. As a principal and venturer, E&Co. had a major role in creating, from scratch, three new-to-the-world brands launching in 2021: GOODLES macaroni & cheese, Betr over-the-counter remedies, and Big Nose Kate western whiskey.
Earle is also a faculty member at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where he works with both MBA students and executives in areas such as corporate innovation, new ventures, design, and creativity. Earlier in his career, Earle held a variety of roles at global creative agencies Saatchi & Saatchi and Leo Burnett; Kraft Foods, Inc.; and River West Brands, a brand acquisition company he founded.