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#164: Brands to Watch 2021

#164: Brands to Watch 2021
By Ernest Wilkins • Issue #175 • View online

The future of culture, it’s clear, will be defined by innovators who aren’t afraid to think differently.
The Brands to Watch list for 2021 is a mix of ambitious startups, young companies, and a marketing gamble that not only paid off, but should be studied by every D2C brand.
All have strong brand identities that make the whole company look more human, achievable and relevant to the moment. Together, they represent an early glimpse into the brands you’ll be watching in the decades to come.
This list is different from most other “people/brands to watch” articles you’ve come across in the past. My readers have some of the highest BS-sniffing abilities i’ve ever seen, y’all know some hype when you see it. This won’t be a list of people with the best PR team, or the ones who paid for inclusion or consideration. On the contrary, this list exists to make all those other lists obsolete.*
See, around the world, in every industry, there are a handful of companies that are inventing the future. The advancements within technology and manufacturing have changed what consumers want from their cultural industries, expecting maximum quality and efficiency at lower prices. As the cultural industries change shape, with new technologies and social media fueling that change, I feel it’s time to shine a light on brands poised for breakout success in 2021. 
Listen, I’ll be honest and say that neither I, you or anyone else has no idea who is going to be relevant in 3 years. My prior work in music and culture writing has taught me this. In this line of work, we’re all making an estimated guess, at best. Often, you come across names you’ve never heard of, and you end up following them to see where they go. Next thing you know, everyone is talking about them. 
To get ahead of the curve, brands in cultural industries have been making moves to capture emerging talent: getting in early on young designers, musicians, filmmakers and artists who haven’t yet hit it big but are showing real potential to redefine the cultural landscape.
No matter the time of year, the public expects marketers and brands to have a cohesive and compelling message that aligns with each brand’s identity. That means for the modern brand marketer in the cultural industries, every day feels like the Super Bowl, without the lead-up or the media coverage.
In spite of this sobering reality, I still believe 2021 will be a year of change and opportunity. There is always progressive movement in the creative industries and that will not stop any time soon. 
It may seem early to be looking ahead, but I’ve seen enough trends come and go to know that now is the time to start placing your bets. Some things are changing faster than ever before. New products need new marketing. New customers are coming online - and on the lamb - every day. The brands of 2021 will not look like those of 2011.
There is no doubt that the brands on this list are headed somewhere. They are doing things differently, and I am pegging them as the next generation of leaders in their respective cultural industries. What these categories have in common is that they’re growing in cultural importance and influence. If I had the capital, I’d invest fully into all of these brands. My loss is your gain. 
*How do I calculate what makes a Brand to Watch? 
If you’re a business type, you’ve seen a SWOT analysis. I adapted and innovated upon that concept for cultural industries. As far as I know, it’s the only measurement of a cultural brand’s qualitative and quantitative value AND share of culture. If you’d like more information about the analysis tool, reach out. 
The brands are not new to those who know, but they’re poised to have a breakthrough mainstream moment in the next 3 years:
Cultural Industry: Fashion
Founded: 2017
Employees: 10
Why are they a Brand to Watch?  Rowing Blazers might be the only real contender to usurp Ralph Lauren’s decades-long reign on preppy-but-chill style. 
Cultural Industry: Sports
Founded: 1900
Employees: 455
Why are they a Brand to Watch? With a strong focus on serving the diverse audience that makes up their fanbase, I’m calling my shot now: By leveraging their cultural influence and putting together a solid on-diamond performance, the Chicago White Sox will overtake the Chicago Cubs to become the #1 team in Chicago in the future for the kids. I’m of the opinion that last season was the beginning of a cultural shift in how Chicago views the team, and that shift will culminate in a few things this decade, a few of which are already starting to happen:
1. More kids are going to start becoming White Sox fans.
2. The work that the team has done over the last few seasons to partner with creatives will pay off with renewed support and a bigger fanbase nationally.
3. The Sox will be looked at nationally as one of, if not the, coolest team in baseball.
4. Hopefully, another World Series (this one is just a personal wish, haha!)
Niche brands that have the opportunity to become major players:
Cultural Industry: Media/D2C
Founded: 2015
Employees: 37 (editorial masthead)
Why are they a Brand to Watch? Originally launched as a newsletter (wow, what an idea!), the men’s-focused lifestyle and culture publication might be the first (and only?) media outlet owned by an insanely large global brand that doesn’t suck.
Cultural Industry: Music
Founded: 2015
Employees: 45+
Why are they a Brand to Watch? How do you make being an audiophile cool? Make a product that’s not only high-quality, but easy-to-use, even for the tech-illiterate. Combine that with a savvy partnership strategy, and it won’t be long until they’re the system of choice for the discerning music listener.
These picks are me calling my shot early. We believe these two brands have the ability to become a brand that could shift how we look at the niche they currently dominate.
Cultural Industry: Media/Sports
Founded: 2016
Employees: 2
Why are they a Brand to Watch? Life in the panchero has rendered some of us with less options to connect socially while getting a sweat in. As such, tennis and golf have roared back into cultural context. This Kickstarter-funded magazine is the tennis magazine for people who don’t read tennis magazines. As the game veers back into mainstream popularity in the years to come, they’re positioned to make some real noise.
Cultural Industry: Fashion/Sports
Founded: ????
Employees: 1
Why are they a Brand to Watch? It’s hard to be able to understand how difficult it is to build something by yourself, unless you’ve done it before. A former Israeli factory worker, Donny has taken the skateboarding and fashion world by the neck by doubling down on the one thing money can’t buy: Integrity. His custom flips of skate classics turn regular Air Force 1’s into surreal concept art. He recently launched his first signature sneaker, the Lucky 7. The shoe is so popular, even the usual cast of cool people can’t get their hands on a pair.
  • We’re just getting started with Brands to Watch 2021. Starting with this Thursday’s podcast episode, I’ll be doing interviews with some of the folks behind these brands over the next few weeks. Up first? The Chicago White Sox.
  • I HAVE A WEBSITE NOW: Want to work with me? Want to learn more about me, my projects and how I can help you stand out in your cultural industry? Check out my all-new website (and the eventual new home of this newsletter)* 
    *My site was built by Office Hours subscriber Tim T. and the good folks at Covert Nine. Hit them up if you need a new website.
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