Over the past five years, a full-scale revolution has taken place in the consumer products world. Rules are being rewritten. Orthodoxies, busted. And virus be darned, the uprising shows no sign of slowing.
Curious to learn why and how, a research assistant and I carefully selected 12 new brands that best symbolize contemporary innovation. Informed by personal interviews with the leaders of each, we celebrate these brands here, along with the people behind them and their incredible stories.
A bit of background: Over the period of 2017 to 2019, I interviewed the founders of 12 extraordinary new consumer brands changing the game in their respective categories at that time, and recorded their origin stories. Whether I should be a stock picker or just got lucky, the inaugural class ended up being a veritable “who’s who” of radical progress makers; four would later grow into billion-dollar unicorns (Peloton, Beyond Meat, Allbirds, Harry’s), and others achieved spectacular events of their own in the measly “nine figures club” (Olly, Hello, Schmidt’s). Featured brands like Hippeas are still private today, but in all likelihood, not for much longer. (The PDF of that book, A Front Row Seat at the Revolution, is available here.)
Might Brave Robot ice cream, Brightland olive oil and vinegar, Cleveland Kitchen foods, HighKey snacks, Humble Sea brewing, Magic Spoon cereal, Mike’s hot honey, Olipop beverages, Reel paper products, Starface acne care, Sunday lawncare, and Vacation sun care share some DNA? You bet. And now, make away for a new class of mavericks. Wouldn’t you know, they are running playbooks that have more in common than one would intuitively think.
Might you be able to apply inspiration from these brands to your own adventures? Ditto! (A second piece on InnoLead explores some of the lessons that others can apply.)
Without further ado, what follows is the next wave of daring entries, bold plot twists, thrilling science, stunning creative turns, wake-up calls, end arounds, and “oh no you didn’t” unexpected combinations that are turning big established categories upside down.
BRAVE ROBOT Waking up one day, yearning to make a greater impact in his career and life, Paul Kollesoff summoned Joel Goodson and made his move. Now Kollesoff and his partners at The Urgent Company are making hay by making… whey. You read that correctly: they are reimagining dairy by using a non-animal sourced protein that creates up to 97% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional dairy. “Technology is the future of everything,” Kollesoff told me. Their first expression: Brave Robot ice cream. The food is delicious, and the irreverent gonzo brand world is the epitome of productive anomaly. Is the world ready for it? Yes whey: Kollesoff says the brand has sold more than one million pints since its July 2020 launch. Using Perfect Day’s flora-based protein platform, they further plan to enter new categories with new brands in the future.
BRIGHTLAND There are no certain wins in business, but the closest you can get is to enter a visually ugly category with something gorgeous. Aishwarya Iyer did just that. Applying the playbook she learned earlier in her career in the beauty business at Lancôme and in other high-end experiences, Brightland is shaking things up in the monotonous, spiritually dead olive oil and vinegar space. “I wanted to instill some emotion, a feeling,” she told me, further delving into the brand’s promise of “living in a golden state” (a triple entendre, and wonderful). She’s also instituting the highest ethical standards of sourcing, pointing out something I didn’t know: a lot of incumbent oils are cut with junk, and are anything but “virgin.” Iyer said business is booming.
CLEVELAND KITCHEN Hello, Cleveland! Mac Anderson and the team at Cleveland Kitchen Co. are reimagining the fermented foods business (think sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and such). With its fresh story and high culinary approach, they are bringing energy and innovation to a space that hadn’t seen any news since the Roosevelt administration (maybe the first one). Prototyped at farmer markets throughout the Rust Belt, the brand carries forward a homespun feel with authentic charm. Anderson said their kraut is now the top premium offering in the United States, their kimchi is a popular and growing item, and their growth plans are ambitious. Suffice it to say: Cleveland rocks.
HIGHKEY Joe Ens and his team at HighKey are rallying against a very well-defined and formidable villain: sugar. And nothing brings people and teams together like a common enemy. The challenge is to create alternatives that actually taste good. They have done it, and are reaping the rewards: Ens says their “crave-worthy” snacks are fast movers at Amazon and at major brick-and-mortar retailers like Target, Kroger and Costco. Not bad for a company that is barely over two years old. Also playing a role is HighKey investor Ryan Reynolds, the actor and marketeer extraordinaire who seemingly couldn’t miss if he tried. Reynolds hardwired the brand for engagement and disruption in many ways, including creating and voicing over an antihero antagonist that is a sugar-crazed anthropomorphic panda (because, of course). Ens talked about the company’s growth prospects as it matures. “We’re evolving from ‘move fast and break things’ to ‘move fast and break fewer things,'” he quipped.
HUMBLE SEA “Maximum creative output” is how Santa Cruz, California-based Humble Sea brewing cofounder Frank Scott Krueger describes the operating philosophy at one of the hottest breweries in America. Humble Sea is not just another craft brewer: their extraordinary liquid is garnering attention coast to coast, they have a wildly inspired design world, and their pace of new product introductions is downright dizzying… even without that high ABV stout. They produce nearly 200 unique brands per year (that is not a typo; the only people who like Humble Sea more than beer drinkers must be their trademark attorneys). Humble Sea is rapidly opening new locations, with a contrarian site selection strategy that Krueger described as “creating experiences that are as inconsistent and as unique as possible.” I’ve talked about the power of productive oddity before, and Humble Sea leans into this literally by referring to their fans—and the fans to themselves—as “kooks.” (It’s a compliment.) Also part of the Humble Sea story: opportunism. The team set up its first brewing operation at the cofounder’s grandmother’s house in a remote mountainous area, leveraging a “glass is half full” interpretation of state alcoholic beverage regulations. Cheers.
MAGIC SPOON Enter breakfast cereal, a declining category on which three behemoths have a chokehold, and in which a large box front size makes shelf space even harder to win than normal? And you’re priced three times higher than baseline? “You have to be completely and totally out of your (expletive deleted) mind,” an inquisitor said to Magic Spoon co-founder Gabi Lewis. That inquisitor was I and Lewis’ explanation made perfect sense upon further review. “We were talking to people about why there was no innovation in cereal,” Lewis said, “and the answers were completely unsatisfactory. Nobody was talking to the modern consumer.” Lewis and partners developed a “grain free” alternative and a breakthrough orthodoxy-busting design aesthetic that Lewis said exploited the “false choice between old kiddie characters on one end, and stalks of wheat on the other.” As for the pricing? “People will happily pay more for something that is truly new, and better,” Lewis said. The direct-to-consumer brand is growing so fast, they can barely keep up with demand, Lewis said. Magic.
MIKE’S HOT HONEY Steve Jobs famously said that innovation is not about “new ideas”: there aren’t any. Only new combinations of existing ones. Is Mike Kurtz the Steve Jobs of food? The stunning success and growth of his Mike’s Hot Honey brand suggests that maybe he is. Combining honey with chili peppers makes zero sense intuitively, but boy does it score when you taste it. Kurtz said his creation was the classic “long hunch” first seeded when traveling through Brazil as a younger person, and observing how they mixed various foods down there. Later as a pizza master at the famous Paulie’s slice shop in Brooklyn (no relation to yours truly), Kurtz began experimenting with drizzling hot honey on his pies as a kicker. “People loved it instantly,” he said. Kurtz used his home and anywhere else he could find to scale the operation completely on his own at first. When did he know he had a winner? “When we were moving so much volume, I became worried about my UPS driver,” Kurtz quipped. Mike’s Hot Honey is now in over 15,000 stores and over 2,000 restaurants. On behalf of all who love invigorating and unique new taste experiences: obrigado!
OLIPOP Good golly, a brand new line of beverages that do much more than taste great and quench thirst. Olipop, only a few years old, is on a mission to promote gut health for all. “We have an unwavering belief that what we are doing is important,” said co-founder Ben Goodwin, talking about a “life mission” to leverage the microbiome to drive wellness. Goodwin said Olipop was inspired by his own not-so-healthy past, and a drive to improve matters for himself and others. Goodwin and cofounder David Lester said their direct-to-consumer business has grown by over 1,000% last year, and Olipop is now in over 7,000 stores nationally. One key, beyond its unique product and artistically delightful design world: shelving near old line drinks, providing consumers with a recognizable point of comparison. Pop goes the volume.
REEL There is no such thing as an uninteresting product category. Only uninteresting brands. Livio Bisterzo and his team are proving it with their introduction of Reel, adding news, purpose and aesthetic zest to… toilet paper. “We’re paper with a heart,” Bisterzo said. The tree-free paper is derived from bamboo plants—an approach that is better for the environment than incumbent sourcing methods— and has a robust social purpose program that helps provide toilets to people in need around the world. A brand on a mission, Reel presents itself as something people can “join,” not simply buy. Curious to discover what bamboo toilet paper feels like beyond balm for the soul, I tried it and can report that physically it works great. (I’ll leave it at that.) Data indicates that Reel is a fast mover at Target and Amazon. Up next? Reel recently extended to paper towels and may grow as aggressively as bamboo itself.
STARFACE One of the impacts of a significant category disruption is a twist in the conversation between people and brands. Hello, featured in volume one of this work, did this in oral care by flipping war bluster (“fight” cavities, “destroy” plaque, “eliminate” germs and so on) to a warm and friendly exchange (starting with the brand name). Starface is doing the same in acne care. Cofounder Julie Schott, who was a writer for ELLE and understands storytelling, wants to remove the stigma from how people talk and feel about pimple management. How? Ditch the shame of what she called the category’s “we will fix you” mindset, and instead, overtly recognize blemishes with decorative stars. Wow! Schott’s objective: “create the most honest brand ever.” Part of the Starface magic is a brand world—featuring a lovable character they call “Big Yellow”—that further brings a smile into what used to be the dark recesses of embarrassment. Schott said the direct-to-consumer business has been strong, and the brand is already a popular mainstay at Target stores. The future of acne care? Look to the stars.
SUNDAY In the pre-revolution environment, it was generally accepted that only a fool would dare enter a category dominated by a shortlist of long-entrenched, well-financed behemoths. Today, the principles of old-school business strategy are being defenestrated (look up that word if you don’t know it). Take Boulder, Colorado-based Sunday lawn and garden care, quite possibly the first-ever viable, feasible, desirable and scalable alternative to incumbents like Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto. Founder Coulter Lewis, an entrepreneur, engineer and formerly a designer at the famous innovation consultancy IDEO, studied the level of pesticides going into residential lawns—which he points out are America’s third-largest crop—and decided to act. “Many things that we learn to accept as ‘normal’ actually are not normal,” he told me. As an example, he pointed out that the lawn care section of home improvement stores stinks, literally! (Upon reflection, he’s right. It’s all the chemicals.) What doesn’t stink: the state of the Sunday business, sprouting up fast via its direct-to-consumer subscription model and elsewhere, and with lots of green following it in the form of investor money. Lewis and I discussed the Sunday name. It is a bit abstract and in fact it did not test well at first, he said. But “Sunday” is highly differentiated, and evokes deep feelings. I love it (and as a naming practitioner myself, my bar is almost impossibly high). The design aesthetic is clean and airy, and as such is a welcome break from the alleged “rules” of the space. Sunday, funday.
VACATION Is it entertainment content? Is it a product? For many great new brands today, the answer is: yes. Enter Vacation, an outlandish new line of sun care products co-founded by Marty Bell, creator of a popular 1980s-themed Internet radio station called Poolside FM (now Poolsuite), and entrepreneurial marketing wizzes Lach Hall and Dakota Green. Every last detail of the brand riffs off of the vibe of the music and a physical world the founders describe as “Miami, 1986.” By every detail, I mean every detail: the website features real footage from low-budget old beach movies on VHS, and even the shipping receipt evokes the dot matrix continuous printer paper of the era. The allure of Vacation resides not in a singular big idea, but as a composite of lots of smaller ones. “Our community loves it,” said Bell. “They crave authenticity and we deliver it to them.” As for the product itself, the founders believe they can win on both fragrance and efficacy. “We obsess about everything,” Bell said. Back to the content-product merger (Prontent? Contduct?). Innovators seek the almighty flywheel for its “rotational energy”: the gears of separate components driving each other. Vacation has this energy in abundance. It’s in the details.
A second piece on InnoLead will explore some of the insights and lessons from these brands that others can apply.
Paul W. Earle, Jr. heads Earle & Company Inc., an Evanston, Illinois-based futures lab that advises clients onmatters 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, he 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.