Brands in the News

Looking Back at my 2021 Brands to Watch

30 Dec 2021  

Each year I identify a set of brands to watch – brands facing interesting challenges and opportunities in the coming year. With just a few days left in the year, let’s look back at my 2021 selections and see what happened.


As I projected, one brand dominated all others in 2021: COVID. I feared that the vaccines would develop mixed perceptions, and this has certainly proven to be the case. As the latest variant sweeps through the country, a startling number of people have not yet been fully vaccinated: about 26% of adults in the U.S. haven’t received even one dose, and about 80% haven’t received a booster. This is astonishing, and partly a marketing failure.

What has unfolded in the U.S. this year is a stark reminder than it isn’t enough to develop great products; the marketing has to be just as good, or better.

Tik Tok

I anticipated that Tik Tok would have a break-out year, and this has come to pass. The platform has been growing for quite a few years, but 2021 was really the year when brands started to embrace it. A spin through Tik Tok now is a mix of content and sponsored posts. Many big brands show up regularly in the feeds.

In marketing, you have to reach people where they are. And people today, especially young people, are on Tik Tok. Look for further growth in 2022 as firms and agencies figure out this world, and Tik Tok sorts out the optimal pricing model.

Whole Foods

I worried about Whole Foods, and what Amazon might do with the brand. In 2021, at least, the worries were unfounded; Whole Foods continues to thrive and remains part of the Amazon empire.

Long term, there is reason for concern for fans of Whole Foods. The Amazon delivery network would be optimized if Whole Foods turned into Amazon Fresh and carried a broader mix of products. I suspect it is inevitable that Whole Foods as we know it won’t be around for a long time, but the brand survived 2021.


When a brand proposition doesn’t make sense, it is hard to sustain the momentum. Robinhood was an example of this in 2021.

Robinhood is an investment platform, primarily for individuals. The service is free, with cash generated by tiny payments Robinhood receives from directing trades to certain places for execution.

The problem is that Robinhood doesn’t offer anything particularly unique. Free trading is common; people can trade for at no cost on many different platforms. Robinhood’s interface is fun and festive, but this isn’t a major benefit.

Robinhood went public this year at about $35 a share. After peaking at about $70, the stock is now down to $19 a share.

We Work and Carnival

It is hard to think of two brands hit harder by the pandemic than We Work and Carnival. When there is a virus floating around, people logically don’t want to be stuck on a ship with lots of other people or working in a communal space surrounded by strangers.

I was optimistic that the cruise industry would rebound and concerned about We Work.

My optimism about Carnival was well-placed. Ships are sailing and people filling the cabins. Carnival’s stock jumped from about $20 per share to $30. The recent variant has hurt the stock but fundamentally the cruise industry seems to be bouncing back, with many positive indicators.

My concern for We Work was well-founded, too. The company continues to burn cash as people work from home. It wasn’t all bad news, however. With corporate offices closing We Work is becoming an appealing option for more people. The trends are positive. The company went public this year at about $10 per share, but the stock is down to about $8.

As we head into 2022, the new variant is dominating the news and everything is up in the air again.

Look for my 2022 brands to watch the first week of January.

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