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3 Valuable Lessons From Brands That Crushed 2020

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

By Susan Federspiel & Kari Blanchard

In a year of unprecedented challenges, 2020's most successful brands taught us some crucial lessons on how to create brand resiliency for long-term success.

Image by NoraVector

On a rare outing to get some last minute holiday gifts, I came across a display that read, “The dumbest thing I ever bought was a 2020 planner.”

Facts. There was no way to plan for 2020.

But even though many brands scrapped their plans and missed their goals this year, not everyone came out of 2020 on their back foot. In fact, a number of brands defied expectations and crushed 2020.

What made it possible for them to succeed while others were left wandering through the wilderness?

Turns out these brands–AirBnB, Peloton, Talkspace, Etsy, and Roblox–who operate in very different sectors and have a range of business models, all have one thing in common–each has smartly invested in gaining clarity around key brand strategy fundamentals. This brand clarity allowed them to pivot quickly, stand out in their sectors, and build sustained relevance for long-term growth.

Here are 3 valuable lessons in brand strategy gleaned from some of 2020’s most successful brands that can set your brand up for success in 2021 and beyond.

1. Inspire devotion: Define your (real) brand purpose

Before you roll your eyes (or throw up a little in your mouth), hear me out.

The term “brand purpose” has always been a little pretentious (IMHO) and it’s lost some of its mojo since it burst on to the scene with Simon Sinek’s swoon-worthy “Start With Why” Ted Talk (let’s be honest, for many companies today brand purpose is little more than an organizing principle for their CSR efforts). But the fact remains, when companies invest in defining a brand purpose that’s grounded in an experienced truth, it pays off. As Jim Stengel points out in his book, Grow, “purpose-driven companies witness higher market share gains and grow three times faster on average than their competitors, all while achieving higher workforce and customer satisfaction.”

Turns out having a giant ambition is the sexiest thing a company can offer customers, top notch talent, AND investors.

And, when calamity strikes–you’re going to need all of the above.

Still not convinced? Take a look at Airbnb, the crushiest of brands to crush 2020.

AirBnB: Community insights yield experienced truths

It’s doubtful any hotel owner’s 2020 plans modeled a scenario where occupancy dropped to 0%. But when Covid hit, the ensuing lockdowns, coupled with people’s fear of contracting a deadly virus, kept travelers at home and decimated the hospitality sector. Whatever 2020 plans had been made were out the window.

These are the moments brand purpose was made for. As Douglas John Atkin (who helped Airbnb define their purpose) says, “It’s the rudder that guides the ship.”

So how did having a clearly defined brand purpose help Airbnb not just weather 2020, but come out strong enough to launch the biggest U.S. IPO of 2020?

The answer lies in both the brand purpose itself and the process Airbnb went through to define their brand purpose. For Airbnb, with its global community of hosts, guests and employees, the process involved connecting with them to understand what role Airbnb plays in their lives and why they’re committed to it. By drilling down on the emotions that drive their loyalty and identifying their reasons for using Airbnb that went beyond the transactional, Airbnb was able to home in on a giant ambition that was grounded in an every-day experienced truth, while capturing a transformative idea that could inspire teams when times got tough.

Airbnb and its community wants to create a world where Anyone can Belong Anywhere

Not only was Airbnb able to define its (real) brand purpose, along the way it learned what mattered most to its guests, hosts and employees. And, it used that knowledge to make the business decisions that would lead them through a catastrophic crisis to a $100 billion valuation.

Airbnb took on 2020 by re-focusing on their core business–lodging–and creating innovative ways to offer travel-wary consumers a safer way to get away, while also supporting their community of hosts:

  • Aligning offerings to the way people are living and traveling during Covid–working/learning from home (untethered from offices and schools), maintaining family/friend pods, and seeking out less populated areas

  • Initiating new cleaning guidelines and awarding hosts “Enhanced Clean” certifications

  • Launching Project Lighthouse to address racial bias in the rental home marketplace

  • Taking Airbnb Experiences virtual, which generated > $2 million in bookings the last 6 months of 2020 and left the door open to re-imagine Experiences in a post-pandemic world

Guided by its brand purpose, Airbnb outmaneuvered every obstacle 2020 threw its way and is now the lead dog in the hospitality sector, leaving a pack of century-old brands scrambling to catch up.

2. Claim your space: Identify what makes your brand meaningfully different

Unlike Airbnb who crushed 2020 despite the pandemic, there are a number of brands who crushed 2020 because the massive upheaval to daily life accelerated trends that were already taking shape in their industries–most notably (and not surprisingly) in the health and wellness sector.

Now just because life hands you lemons and you know how to make lemonade, there’s still the challenge of getting folks to buy YOUR lemonade. When supply and demand are both high–you’ve got to stand out as meaningfully different or risk a race to the bottom on pricing.

Meaningful brand differentiation connects your brand’s value to what your customers value. It requires a deep understanding of what’s needed or desired by customers that isn’t being filled by anyone else and can only be provided by your brand.

Two brands in the health and wellness space crushed 2020 and both stand out for what makes them meaningfully different.

Peloton and Talkspace: Profiles in Meaningful Differentiation

The first brand is Peloton (and no, it’s not because of their cringey Christmas ads). What makes Peloton meaningfully different is their understanding that in a world where time is the most valuable commodity, people want a premium workout experience that they can control and fits seamlessly into their busy lives.

Peloton took this insight and built a D2C model that no one has been able to match. Since 2012, Peloton has been creating a beautifully-designed brand experience that delivers the two key elements of digital fitness: connected equipment and celebrity instructors.

When the pandemic hit and gyms closed down, Peloton was able to quickly meet demand for an at-home fitness experience that didn’t feel like a compromise. With their bike, treadmill, and Peloton app that streams workouts (no bike required) to 1 million + subscribers, Peloton now has the muscle to branch out into apparel, events, and even physical locations.

It’s this kind of meaningful differentiation that’s helped Peloton exceed analyst’s expectations by doubling their stock price in 2020.

The second brand is Talkspace, which offers on-demand virtual-therapy via video, audio, and text.

What makes Talkspace meaningfully different is their understanding that more people would choose to live happier, healthier lives if the three main barriers to getting mental health care were removed: cost, access, and stigma.

Talkspace was created to address all three of these barriers. Talkspace acts as a marketplace (similar to Uber) facilitating “matches” between people and their therapist of choice while providing a secure platform for patients to interact with their therapists in whatever way is most appealing or convenient for them.

Teletherapy isn’t new, but the number of people needing these services grew exponentially in 2020. Between anxiety over the pandemic, social isolation and its impact on individuals and relationships, rising unemployment, growing societal unrest, and parents dealing with teenagers who can’t leave the house–the need for some type of therapy has never been greater for more people.

To meet that need and continue to offer a meaningfully different experience, Talkspace rolled out three subscription tiers, offering more video sessions as demand increased. It worked with regulators to loosen restrictions, penned deals with insurers like Cigna, UnitedHealth Group, and Humana to help patients defray costs, and explored using AI to support the therapeutic experience for better outcomes. In March, it set up a number of Facebook groups moderated by Talkspace therapists to provide access to a broader group of people. And it’s partnered with high profile individuals like Michael Phelps to destigmatize mental health issues.

By addressing what matters most to consumers, Talkspace leaves 2020 as the largest player in the virtual-therapy space. While challenges still lie ahead, Talkspace has raised $106.7 million in funding and says it has more than 1 million users and thousands of therapists on board.

3. Sustain relevancy: Build a brand community

If 2020 revealed anything, it’s how much we need other people to be happy and fulfilled. As we collectively went through the 5 stages of quarantining, it became abundantly clear that it’s one thing to choose to isolate from time to time, but quite another to be forced into indefinite solitary confinement.

Smart brands recognized early on that tapping into their consumer’s need to belong to a community was fundamental to staying relevant, securing brand loyalty, and building a sustainable brand.

Etsy and Roblox: All together now…

Etsy and Roblox are two brands that crushed 2020 and proved just how valuable building a brand community can be. As platforms, Etsy and Roblox bring creators and consumers together, forming a community that fosters a sense of belonging for both parties. It’s a balancing act that requires an ability to facilitate the right conversations and then get out of the way when those conversations lead to creation and revenues.

Etsy is an online marketplace that connects artisan sellers with buyers who are shopping for everything from bespoke bathtub toys to vintage wedding dresses. If you visit Etsy today, you’ll find over three million sellers and over 75 million items. According to Josh Silverman, Etsy's chief executive officer, there have been over $7.5 billion of goods bought and sold on Etsy over the past 12 months. One of the keys to keeping this engine going is building a brand community that supports the personal connection between sellers and buyers. Sellers can answer questions, field requests, and write personal notes to their clients through the Etsy conversations interface.

Roblox is a global gaming platform that’s captured the hearts and attention spans of over 31 million active daily users–54% of whom are under the age of 13 and spend an average of 2.6 hours per day playing, creating, and socializing on the platform. Per their S1 filing, 7 million of their active daily users are also creators, having made at least one game of their own. The Roblox chat feature allows creators access to real-time conversations and insight into what gamers like or want to see more of.

The genius of the communities these two brands have built lies in the way they create momentum and long-term growth for the companies. Each brand allows creators and users to share their experiences organically, creating a “flywheel” where users inspire creators, leading to a steady stream of new, highly relevant products and content.

Building a symbiotic brand community paid off for both brands in 2020. Etsy’s stock is one of the top performers this year, surging 260 percent. Roblox had prepaid revenues of $1.2 billion in the first nine months and are growing 171% year over year. (The company filed an S1 in November but has since put its IPO on hold until 2021 due to market conditions.)

Make Plans to Clarify Your Brand Strategy Fundamentals in 2021

If you’re planning for 2021 now or are looking for ways to make your brand more resilient, be sure you’re investing time and resources into gaining clarity on the 3 key brand strategy fundamentals that helped these brands crush 2020: defining your (real) brand purpose, identifying your meaningful brand differentiation, and building your brand community.

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