Joe Smith’s Brands to Watch 2021

After the year that was, we found ourselves among the many prognosticators who had to throw most of our 2020 predictions out the window. Crises emerged, discussions evolved, and markets shifted. While the impact of 2020 continues to unfold into 2021 (and beyond), we again asked ourselves the question: which brands should have our attention in 2021? Who is responding to changing consumer and employee behaviors? Who has massive opportunity this year to create value, and who is defending their position against major threats? Here are our top picks for the new year – brands whose actions have the chance to make meaning, transform categories, and signal broader cultural or economic movements.

CVS Health

As the United States’ largest pharmacy chain, CVS Health finds itself in an important position as a major distributor of the COVID-19 vaccine. The company will not only be responsible for delivering the vaccine but also encouraging public adoption – in the face of misinformation and wavering public trust. CVS has staked its growth on an ability to “simplify a confusing and inconvenient consumer health system,” so the pandemic serves as a major test to prove that strategy. How CVS uses its position to both convince consumers of its credibility and engineer a simple vaccination experience will either reinforce its leadership or create openings for competitors – especially critical with Amazon’s recent entry into the category.


As one of the pioneers of the digital consignment category, the second-hand clothing retailer has grown steadily over the last decade and plans an IPO later this year. With a growing market for used clothing boosted by at-home spending due to the pandemic, ThredUp has positioned itself as a category leader with a simple buyer and seller experience – can it keep the momentum as some customers return to brick and mortar retail later this year?


The short-form video app appears to have found its footing after a year in which it was nearly removed from the US market. Having found a home with Oracle, the brand is gaining some swagger, owning its role in culture with a new campaign that proclaims “It starts on TikTok.” But with growing competition from apps like Triller, we’ll be watching TikTok as it matures from upstart to industry leader.


At the intersection of the sharing economy and the hospitality industry, Airbnb may be one of the brands most threatened by the pandemic. In Airbnb’s core business, its challenges are twofold – how will the brand build trust and ensure the safety of both hosts and guests? The need for trust extends past the pandemic, evidenced by the brand’s new Project Lighthouse, a research study aimed at learning more about the experience of users to combat racial discrimination on the platform. And in a clear effort to find revenue elsewhere during a pandemic, the brand has ventured into new channels for growth that stray pretty far from its core business, like new online experiences. How Airbnb continues to respond to the needs of its audiences and simultaneously attempt to create sustainable value will be closely watched, either as a model for the future or as a cautionary tale.


Parts of the tech titan’s business have flourished during the pandemic, in particular its Teams application – with daily active users nearly quadrupling in a six-month period, to over 115 million in late 2020. With near-constant experience improvements and adjustments, Microsoft knows it can’t count on the pandemic alone to drive growth, and its rapid evolution to take on Zoom and Slack appears to be working. And not only have Microsoft solutions supported much of the newly distributed workforce, but as one of the industry’s largest employers itself (more than Google, Apple, and Sony) its approach to return-to-work, employee safety and improving the workplace experience this year will set the tone for countless other employers, in tech and far beyond.

Perry Lowder and Bryn Snyder are senior brand strategists at Joe Smith, the growth and innovation consultancy of Padilla.

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