Best Brand Stories of 2021

At the end of the year, we like to regroup and look back at the big brand stories that caught our attention throughout the year. And this year was a particularly strange one. The pandemic experience has become regionalized and our appetite for doom scrolling has kind of disappeared. Political intrigues have been flying under the radar in spite of the efforts of social media, and the biggest communal problem the planet’s facing aside from the existential threat of climate change, which we appear to be unable to face, is one that most of us have never really thought about before, and that’s supply chain issues.

So, if you feel like 2021 was a little bit vague and unfocused, you’re not alone because when we decided to talk about brand stories of the year, it was really hard for me to jog my memory. But we do have a list and Digital Marketing Strategist, Sebastian Maynard, and I are going to take you through our favorites.


Melinda: Hi, I’m Melinda, and you’re listening to Think Retail.

At the end of the year, we like to regroup and look back at the big brand stories that caught our attention throughout the year. And this year was a particularly strange one. The pandemic experience has become regionalized and our appetite for doom scrolling has kind of disappeared. Political intrigues have been flying under the radar in spite of the efforts of social media, and the biggest communal problem the planet’s facing aside from the existential threat of climate change, which we appear to be unable to face, is one that most of us have never really thought about before, and that’s supply chain issues.

So, if you feel like 2021 was a little bit vague and unfocused, you’re not alone because when we decided to talk about brand stories of the year, it was really hard for me to jog my memory. But we do have a list and Digital Marketing Strategist, Sebastian Maynard, and I are going to take you through our favorites.

Sebastian, hello, again!

Sebastian: Hello!

Melinda: Well, let’s just start off with a bang. What was your favorite brand moment of the year?

Sebastian: There are a few good examples, but the one that I think stuck with me and I’m sure we’ll get into Facebook and Meta a little bit later, but it was actually Travel Iceland’s response to the metaverse. And I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, we’ll have it linked on the transcript on our website, but it was a very tongue-in-cheek fun video that took this idea of a metaverse and showed an alternate reality, which is I guess, a true reality in what Iceland can be like and the picturesque kind of fun component of being able to travel there. It happened within two days maybe of the Meta launch and it was just an opportunity for them to hop on something that the entire world was talking about not just on social media, but elsewhere, and really try and drive home what Iceland stands for as a country, as well as trying to encourage people post-COVID to come out and travel. And if you remember any of their past ads, Iceland has been one of the best countries, I would say, in terms of driving travel since the recession in 2008. And this is just another example of them being ahead of the curve in terms of hopping on a trend, hopping on something that is going viral, and making it their own.

Melinda: Yeah. I did see it and talk about being responsive. It was so immediate, and it poked just enough fun at Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook Meta launch. But it also had a message of its own that I thought…I agree, it was an amazing video and I noted that it has nearly 2 million views. So, it obviously resonated with people.

Sebastian: And, you know, we’ve seen that a few times, like even more recently with Peloton, just the brands that are able to pivot so quickly and take something that’s happening in the larger scheme of things and relate it back to their brand within a couple of days, it just allows them to kind of ride that wave and hopefully add their own brand into the conversation.

Melinda: Yeah. So, my favorite brand moment of the year was the Extra Gum ad with the Celine Dion soundtrack, where people are emerging from quarantine and thrilled to be back out in the world. And sadly, that didn’t turn out to be our reality necessarily as we’re ending 2021 on a bit of a grim outlook here, but the exuberance and the relatability of that ad, I think any person who saw it, related to it. It was impossible. Everyone around the planet, we’ve all had this shared experience of being stuck inside our homes, not going to the office, not seeing our friends, not going to school, and to be able to be, you know, tearing down the vines that have overgrown our office building and charging in and hugging and kissing everybody, I thought it was so amazing, captured such a sentiment and was very relatable to the brand as well.

Sebastian: Right. And I mean, the theme right there with both the Travel Iceland and the Extra Gum ads, they were fun and encouraging people to maybe just laugh a bit, which is something that we needed this year.

Melinda: Yeah. Okay. So, now let’s talk about the biggest brand fail of the year.

Sebastian: Well, I’ll continue the theme and I’ll just continue with Facebook and Meta because at the end of the day, I don’t think they were really fooling a lot of people with this whole rebrand. There’s still a lot of concerns, a lot of issues with privacy, security. It just seemed a little bit head in the sand in terms of thinking that we can change the perspective, change the conversation without actually making any meaningful change. And it’s a very flashy, sexy press release and video that goes out, but at the end of the day, there are still some major concerns around the brand, and changing the name and talking about the future doesn’t necessarily cover up what’s been happening and what’s happened in the past.

Melinda: Yeah, I have to agree. I watched the entire 11-minute video and it just left me feeling like, okay, this all looks very cool, but I would never trust Facebook with my data because it’s not just about what you’re offering. And I think there’s a really big disconnect that Facebook is struggling with. That they kind of have their heads in the sand a little bit about their perception in terms of brand trust. It’s really low, Zuckerberg is really not well-liked as a spokesperson. It’s probably a big mistake to have him leading the video. So, I was just kind of left a little bewildered after watching it and thinking they’re spending billions of dollars, hiring 10,000 people, and they are not addressing this fundamental trust issue that is very relevant when you’re putting on a headset that’s measuring brain waves and facial expressions and stuff like that. That’s data that much more sensitive than having my phone number and my email address. So, am I going to trust Facebook with that if this trust issue isn’t ever addressed? Probably not.

Sebastian: Exactly. Read the room. And I mean, it felt like an episode of Black Mirror, and it felt like a spoof. And that’s why the Iceland thing was so hilarious was because this Iceland thing was a spoof, but the Facebook Meta video felt like a spoof in itself and it was all ridiculous.

Melinda: Yeah. I agree with you on that one. My brand fail of the year was similar in terms of not reading the room, at least not early enough, and that’s Victoria’s Secret. So Victoria’s Secret launched this, what they’re calling VS Collective, which features all kinds of different women with different body types, different gender identities, all that kind of stuff, and saying, you know, “We’re going to change our brand and we’re going to be inclusive.” And while that’s all very nice, they are about 20 years late.

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, which really kind of was the trigger for mainstreaming of more inclusive beauty and challenging traditional beauty standards for women, that was in 2004. And Victoria’s Secret has been quite straightforward about saying, “We’re not about that, we’re about a fantasy,” and really defended their position against not having transgender models and not having plus-size models and has kind of dug their heels in about this.

So to suddenly do this about-face and say, oh, now we’re going to be doing all of this activism, and we’re going to be championing all these causes. I mean, even one of their spokespeople, Megan Rapinoe, said that the Victoria’s Secret brand was patriarchal, sexist, and really harmful in an interview with New York Times. So, I mean, obviously, she’s part of the VS Collective, so she’s part of this brand change, but I just don’t know whether it is too little too late. There’s all these other brands that have stepped into this hole in the market. And I don’t know whether Victoria’s Secret is ever going to capture the imagination of women again.

Sebastian: Yeah. And I mean, at least they are acknowledging and they’re trying to kind of change their trajectory, but to your point, there are so many other options for women now that Victoria’s Secret has to be on the lower level of desire as a brand. And you hope that the changes that they’re implementing do have a lasting effect and do show that brands can change even after decades of not, but hopefully, you know, there’s a happy ending to this, but I think there is still some skepticism and they’re going to have to walk the walk a little bit more before customers come back.

Melinda: Yeah. And I think, you know, it’s one of those things where you almost want them to start from scratch. And so we’ll see what happens. And I just think it was really unfortunate that they took so long to get to this decision and that’s definitely hurt them quite significantly.

So, let’s think about partnerships because there have been some really interesting partnerships in 2021, whether that’s between several brands partnering together or celebrity partnerships, do you have a favorite?

Sebastian: I’m going to let you go first, actually.

Melinda: Okay. So, I do have a favorite and it’s one that I absolutely love. When I found out about it, I just adored it. It’s so much fun, and that’s Megan Thee Stallion and Popeyes. And if you just Google this, you’ll see there’s a whole microsite on the Popeyes website devoted to all the swag. It’s all built kind of around the hotty sauce and that sort of theme. And so it’s all the spicy hot sauce, but there’s all this swag, including a fiery bikini in the Popeyes’ cult brand colors. It’s just so fun. And it really feels like something like you would actually want to buy a t-shirt. Like, how often do you really want to buy the t-shirt from a brand partnership, like a fast-food restaurant? But this, I can see my…actually, like it’s so much fun. You just want to buy it because it just feels so right. Such a great partnership. She’s been a big fan of Popeyes for a long time and so it was really a good fit. And just the way it was done, it felt really on-brand for both the partner and for the brand itself.

Sebastian: Exactly. It did feel authentic. And, you know, I’m thinking Saweetie did something with McDonald’s, BTS has done something with McDonald’s, Justin Bieber just did something with Tim Hortons. There’s something about these fast-food chains and celebrities, musicians, artists, that you can’t get enough of them right now, but they’re so successful.

And so to build on that…I think it was a few years ago now, but the Travis Scott McDonald’s campaign and partnership was hugely successful. And over the past few years, I would say Travis Scott has been one of the biggest celebrities that has been partnering with various brands to huge success. But the reason I got you to go first as a positive was to talk about some of the flip side of partnerships and when they can go sour. And obviously, this year a big story was the Astroworld catastrophe where a crowd surge led to 10 people dying.

Astroworld is Travis Scott’s annual music festival, and he’s facing numerous lawsuits along with Live Nation. He’s tried to shift the blame to others, but he’s still being held accountable. And obviously, he’s not the only person responsible, but his name being front and center does play a role. And since then, we’ve seen Coachella has dropped him, Anheuser-Busch has discontinued his CACTI hard seltzer, the Houston Rockets have postponed a night in celebration of him, his character has been removed from Fortnite, and this is all just over the past couple of months. So, it kind of just goes to show and serves as a reminder that aligning yourself to a person as a brand can down the road, even if they seem popular, even if it seems like a slam dunk, you have to be aware that sometimes they can go sour.

Melinda: Yeah. Definitely. And I think sometimes that’s why a short-term, like a little quick special, it’s a little safer than investing in a really long-term relationship. But, you know, that’s the risk that you take when you partner because you never know what’s going to happen.

Sebastian: For sure. And, you know, a lot of the times the positives outweigh the bad.

Melinda: So this year, we didn’t have any big Nike moment, but there’s definitely been, I would say sort of an overall shift towards social justice and cause marketing. Were there any notable CSR initiatives or moments that felt especially authentic to you this year?

Sebastian: So we just published an article, our year-end article looking at some of the best pivots over COVID. And one that we highlighted was Verizon, and they kind of at the start of COVID, they implemented a lot of touchless retail components to their store experience so that they were able to stay open and keep employees and customers safe. So that was a great story and a great example of a brand kind of embracing COVID and some of the challenges that they face. But further to that, they’ve also been helping to bridge the gap for lower-income children that may not have access to internet or tech devices. And that was especially important when a lot of kids are being sent home or having to attend school remotely. And so, the brand has been providing under-resourced school children with built-in technology devices, free data plans, so that they can engage and attend class comfortably, safely in these socially distanced learning situations.

And hopefully, the goal of theirs was to kind of combat that digital divide that has often left lower-income children relying on shoddy Wi-Fi, or maybe not even any Wi-Fi. And for Verizon, obviously, this is right in their wheelhouse, this is what they’re known for and what they do, but kind of realizing that there was this gap and something that needed to be done and taking it into their own hands, not waiting for governments or initiatives that were forced upon them, they took it upon themselves. So it’s a nice story and hopefully, one that inspires others to do similar things.

Melinda: Yeah. And it’s a natural fit. It just makes perfect sense. It’s like the world needs this, this is what we do. We can step in. We can offer it. Whenever there’s an opportunity like that, brands should take it because if you really want to be seen as being a responsible corporation that cares about the community, that’s the perfect moment to step in and do it instead of just talking about it.

So, I have one that people may not be familiar with. So, I’ll tell you the story. Chapman’s Ice Cream is a Canadian ice cream brand, and they decided this year to give all of their employees who have been vaccinated a $1 an hour raise in an effort to try and encourage, a very gentle effort to try and encourage any who were unvaccinated to take that step. So, they had anti-vaxers coming after them on social media, in emails, using really aggressive language, and being quite abusive.

And in response, customers decided to get online and respond to this and show pictures of themselves in grocery stores purchasing Chapman’s ice cream. Suddenly all over the place, Canadians across the country went to the grocery store. And if they’d never bought Chapman’s before, bought it for the first time, or if they were already Chapman’s customers, bought extra Chapman’s and there were pictures all over the internet of this. And so, it turned into this really wonderful story where Chapman’s did not anticipate the backlash that they received, and suddenly, they’re being rewarded by their customers and by customers who maybe were not their customers before by suddenly having this huge surge in sales. So, it’s not really a CSR initiative, but it is a moment that I thought felt really nice, customers saying, “You know what? You did the right thing, and so we’re going to reward you for it.”

Sebastian: Right. And, you know, it wasn’t a marketing campaign. It wasn’t something to try and drive sales. They were trying to do the right thing and it worked out for them. People recognized that and embraced their commitment and their desire to try and keep people safe and keep our country moving. And so, yeah, it’s been hilarious to see on social media and everyone just embracing Chapman’s, and hopefully, they can keep it going for a little longer.

Melinda: So, we already talked about Facebook’s rebrand as Meta. And I think that’s sort of universally, we didn’t think that was a good one, but what about a rebrand the year that you did like?

Sebastian: So, I’m going to keep it close to home as well and talk about MEC, formerly known as Mountain Equipment Co-op, now Mountain Equipment Company, but I thought they were a great example. These days you see so many brands getting rid of their logos going for very simple wordmarks thinking only about the digital screen and things like that. So for MEC to go back to their roots, bring back the mountain, and really reaffirm their commitment to sustainability, their customers, and delivering good products, it was a little bit refreshing.

And, you know, I think that was a kind of a theme this year. You look at Burger King going back to their roots with their design. And it’s just, for me, allowed these brands to become a little bit more differentiated and stand out when so many feel like they have gone for this minimalist, almost cookie-cutter design for their logos. And so for me the MEC one, yes, it’s nostalgic, it’s going back to their roots, but it also is just a bit of a disruptor by being that way.

Source: Traversing

Melinda: Yeah. I think there were, there were some interesting rebrands, you mentioned Burger King, where people have kind of gone back to this nostalgic feel, which I think is interesting. And another brand that’s doing the same thing quite quietly is Banana Republic. And Banana Republic has really been suffering over the years. It’s a similar brand to J. Crew in terms of the sort of aesthetic style, which kind of became really ubiquitous. It was like the same white shirt and black pants that you could find in, you know, 5 or 10 different stores and it just felt very same. And so, Banana Republic has done a rebrand really focusing on the idea that they originally grew from, which was that it was this fantasy oasis away from the world. It felt very carefree. It felt very uplifting. And it feels like a very appropriate moment to kind of go back to where the brand was born from.

And the look and feel of the brand, it’s not a dramatic difference, but what caught my eye was some of the print ads. And I noticed they were so different. It’s like Banana Republic before was a place that I maybe wouldn’t have even considered shopping because I thought it was just kind of the same old thing. But looking at the ads, it looks much more eclectic and refreshing. And it does have an uplifting feeling that I think is really needed right now and was a right moment to hit on that. They didn’t do it with a lot of fanfare. I don’t even know how much publicity they’ve got for it, but certainly, if you’re scrolling through, you know, your Instagram feed and you see one of these ads, it’s definitely going to catch your eye.

Sebastian: Yeah. Sometimes a refresh is enough. And just subtly reconfiguring how people see you, even if you’re not overtly saying it, I think it goes a long way. And yeah, hopefully, it appeals to a wider audience, maybe a different demographic, and kind of modernizes them a little bit, once again, without falling into a category where they’re playing in a big pond and everyone is looking the same, same aesthetics, same Instagram photos, and things like that.

Melinda: Yeah. I think that there’s quite a number of brands that kind of all started to look and feel the same. And so they’ve definitely taken a strong step in a very specific direction away from that. And so we’ll see if that pays off for them.

Sebastian: Sure.

Melinda: So, I think a lot of marketers probably would argue against the idea that no publicity is bad publicity. But let’s talk about the winners and losers of PR fiascos this year. Were there any PR moments that you thought a brand either handled really, really well, or really mishandled this year?

Sebastian: I feel like there are a few, but one that kind of came to mind and it’s still ongoing is, I’m a sports fan and, you know, I think a lot of professional sports league have issues right now, but here in North America, the National Hockey League has definitely been grappling with some controversies and I think dropped the ball in how they’ve handled them quite a bit. So the big one is the Chicago Blackhawks, and this team alone is worth over $1 billion. But earlier in the year, news came out that a former player had been sexually assaulted back in 2010 by a team coach. He had gone to the team to bring this information forward and hope that something could be done. It was essentially ignored, and the organization went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. And this player, Kyle Beach, is no longer in the league. His career was kind of cut off after that. He was cut by the team a few years later and he’s playing in Europe now.

So now fast forward 10, 11 years, a private investigation has come out. There have been multiple resignations, both within the Chicago Blackhawks organization, as well as around the league. And essentially, it’s really called into question what the players knew, what the league knew, and how things could have been done differently because there were so many checkpoints across the way where people turned a blind eye or thought about the larger league, as opposed to the individual that was being affected. And since then, it’s all been a lot of lawyer talk. It’s been a lot of, we don’t want to say anything publicly. We don’t want to admit fault. We don’t want to rock the boat any further. And I think it really has been detrimental to the league, where a lot of organizations and people are stepping up and trying to be proactive and progressive in the way that they handle situations like these. The National Hockey League still feels very archaic and there’s a reason why a league like the NBA has become so popular here in North America because they are at the forefront of a lot of movements, whereas the NHL, this was just the latest example of them being a bit behind the times and putting their brand over a social or individual cause.

Melinda: Yeah. It’s interesting too that younger generations are less actively engaged in major league sports compared to previous generations. So, as the NHL or other sports organizations look at handling things like these and positioning themselves, I think they felt maybe a little bit immune to some of the imperatives that other companies have been feeling around corporate social responsibility and being a values-based organization. And I mean, this trickles all the way down to like little league and the number of kids who are engaged and want to go. So it’s not just the NHL, it’s an entire industry that is built on what this organization stands for. And so it’s really important for them to take a stand and to be seen as leaders, not just of a sport, but all these communities that are built around that hockey rink.

Sebastian: Yeah, to your point, it is a huge community that I think has been forced to look in the mirror, even the media, like how have they covering these stories? There was one journalist that really pushed this story out. A lot of media and journalists have been called out because maybe they didn’t want to burn bridges. They wanted to keep their connections with the coaches and the general managers. And so they didn’t push as much as they should have when these stories started to come out. So, it was definitely a moment of reflection. I would hope for not only the NHL, but any big league or corporation in terms of trying to protect your image sometimes is very detrimental if it means that you’re sweeping things under the rug, because it’s going to come out in the end. And whether it’s 10 years later or 50 years later, it will come out and history does not look kindly on those types of things.

Melinda: Right. Well, my PR fiasco is a little more lighthearted, to a degree anyways. So, I was going with Peloton and Mr. Big. And so if you haven’t watched the new version of Sex and the City and you plan to, please plug your ears because I’m going to spoil it for you.

So, Peloton features in the first episode of the new version of Sex and the City, which is called “And Just Like That.” And in the episode, Mr. Big gets on his Peloton and he’s having this really intense workout with one of Peloton’s actual coaches, and he’s working up a sweat and he’s really getting into it. And then he has a heart attack and dies. It’s unclear whether Peloton was fully aware of exactly how their brand was going to be featured in this first episode, but a lot of people were quite shocked that they would’ve allowed it.

However, within a day of the episode airing, they came out with this ad called “He’s Alive,” featuring Chris Noth who plays Mr. Big, and the coach who was featured in the episode, talking about heart health and talking about, you know, why it’s really important to stay active. And it was a really fun pivot.

Now, fast forward a week and a half later, I don’t know if you’ve heard the updates on this, but Chris Noth has now been accused of sexual assault by several women. And again, this is going back, I don’t know how many years, but, you know, at least 10 years ago. And so now Peloton has pulled the ad. So, it’s been a little bit of a rollercoaster ride for that brand. I was giving them kudos for having had this “He’s Alive” video, and now, they’ve had to retract, unfortunately, with these accusations coming out. So, little bit of a rollercoaster ride there for them.

Sebastian: Yeah, and that’s the flip side we were talking about being able to hop on something as it’s happening in real-time, like the Iceland Travel ad. But that’s an example where it kind of causes backlash hopping on something that’s happening in real-time. And then something else happens in real-time that’s even worse. You know, I’m sure they’re just like, “We can’t win!” but yeah, it is a good example for sure. And I’m curious to see what the next step is because as of right now, their stocks are still plummeting, right, or have they gone back up?

Melinda: I think that they are still struggling. I mean, I feel like everybody in, at least in North America, who wanted a Peloton has probably got one, so I’m not sure what’s happening there, but definitely not seeing…you know, they had such a huge surge. It was probably always going to be difficult to maintain that level of growth.

So if we look ahead to 2022, what do you think, is it going to be a year of big brand stories where people are taking big steps, or are we going to get another year of little bits and bites like this year?

Sebastian: I think it is going to be more bits and bites. I think the examples that we’ve kind of talked about, yes, they’re big, but they feel authentic, and they feel like a natural progression from what brands have already been doing. And so, I do think that that is going to be the case moving forward. There are so many CSR initiatives, there are so many things that brands are expected to now care about and be a part of. And it’s up to them to decide and figure out what that avenue is. But that is the area of opportunity that I think brands are going to kind of try and home in on a little bit more this year in terms of finding a natural way to get their brand name out there without advertising too much about it.

But, you know, we were talking about pivots and one that I was thinking about was this year in Canada, we had our first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. And Deloitte got a lot of attention because they did a lot of great things for their team, their employees to help educate and encourage people to get involved.

So, they gave staff members time off to attend virtual events or to attend a program. They also implemented some in their own offices. They paid for employees to wear orange shirts. They’ve launched their own reconciliation plan, which is the first corporate reconciliation plan in Canada. And they’ve committed to allowing some of their procurement budget to be spent on indigenous suppliers.

So, they’re doing a lot of initiatives in-house and not necessarily publicizing it too much, but it’s kind of a feel-good story and opportunity for them to show that they’re part of a larger community and they want to make a big impact outside of their own brand. And I think that that is kind of a great example of how companies are going to be able to tap into their customers or kind of appeal to their target audiences while also doing good. And if COVID has taught us anything, I think that that is one of the key takeaways is brands are so much more a part of this world than a separate entity that is exempt from all the stuff that is happening.

Melinda: Yeah. I agree. I think as long as COVID is something that is dominating our lives as it still is today, I think that it’s going to be difficult for brands to make a huge splash with a specific initiative. I just don’t think that people are going to be as focused on that kind of thing. And I agree with you entirely that this idea of being out there and talking about what you’re doing and, you know, making it a big marketing initiative is something that consumers are really not interested in right now. What they’re interested in is finding out about something in a roundabout kind of way. And, you know, before I worked in brand strategy a long time ago, I did have a life working in film and television and working as a story editor and a writer. And one of the things that we would always say, it was a mantra that many writers use is “show don’t tell.”

And I really think that that applies right now to marketing is that, you know, rather than getting out there and pumping up what you’re doing, and talking about it, and trying to turn it into some sort of, you know, measuring ROI on how much money we spent on this, see how good we did and how much money we spent on that, and how much are we getting back, and how many likes are we getting, and all that kind of stuff, just doing it. And then if it turns into a story, then great. And if it doesn’t, then you did the right thing. I think that’s really something that, you know, it turns out as in the case of Chapman’s when you do the right thing, quite often, it does turn into a big public relations win for you, but that’s not the reason to do it. And I think consumers are quite tired of being told all the time how wonderful brands are, they want to decide that for themselves.

Sebastian: Exactly. The best marketing is when someone else is talking about your brand. You’re not doing it yourself. And yeah, the “show, don’t tell” saying is a great example of that because as we move forward, that’s definitely going to be the case.

Melinda: Well, that wraps up our first podcast of 2022. Happy new year, stay well, and we look forward to bringing you lots of interesting conversations in the months ahead. Thanks for listening.