Breakthrough Brands 2020:

Executive summary

This is Breakthrough Brands, Interbrand’s compilation of companies who are challenging category and cultural norms, pushing sector innovation to new, unexplored areas, and making even the biggest competitors take notice. While they are all at different points of “breaking through” to become mass market brands, what they share is accelerating momentum, growth and industry buzz. They hail from a breadth of industries from entertainment and health, to logistics and food as well as covering both B2B and B2C.

Recognizing that the startup and early-stage landscape was already going through seismic shifts, we set out to identify the next class of wunderkinds. We started this process in earnest at the beginning of 2020, pre-COVID. Now, as we launch this report, we acknowledge that we are in even more turbulent times. Many of these companies are in precarious positions as funding is contracting, demand is decreasing and deep undercurrents in culture and customer behavior are shapeshifting. Whether this is a “Great Reshuffle” or a “Great Reset,” we still believe these companies are poised to survive or pivot into even better positions through their customer-first approach, deep financial backing, and strong internal teams committed to survival. If we were to take the last recession as precedent, this is an exciting time to be a challenger brand.

With times rapidly changing, what is required for brands to succeed is changing too. The focal point of innovation is no longer concentrated in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the tech startup world. Rather, there seems to be an expanding range of cities birthing these new brands not just the West Coast set of usual suspects. With rising costs of living, shortages of low-cost talent, and financial incentives to go elsewhere are surely factors, such decentralization may be due to the changing nature of startups themselves. We’re moving away from the massive software and marketplace enterprises that simply connect buyers to sellers via a digital platform. Instead, we’re seeing companies that are tackling sector-specific challenges—ones that require both tech savvy AND deep industry knowledge (but not necessarily a Bay Area address). These brands, propelling full-system innovations in fields like holistic healthcare, law, and sustainability, are spreading that industry knowledge further than ever before. They’re boldly branching out into new pockets of the US and using their powers of digital transformation to connect more people to more specialized expertise. 

Together, the de-throning of Silicon Valley and the propagation of industry intelligence signal a new era of democratizing knowledge—fitting when we remember the internet’s great promise of becoming “the ultimate democratizer.” But enough background—let’s not forget the foreground. A number of branding trends have set the stage for 2020, adding a distinctive character to our list of players. First, we’ve seen a change in brand essences, from earnest and minimalist at the beginning of the decade, to colorful and personality-full in the last two years of the decade.

As larger corporations have risen up to meet public demands for greater sustainability, a new class of challengers has also emerged to help them solve for those needs. We’ve seen status markers change, the healthcare revolution take hold, and brands as community-builders take shape. As a note, 50 percent of the brands featured in this report have a CEO that is a person of color and/or a woman, compared to only 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies whose CEOs are people of color and/or women, signaling that minorities are taking their newly found early stage investment and proving they are very strong candidates to lead and grow breakthrough brands. Looking forward, we’re eager to see how rising brands will adapt to both the challenging conditions of today and the emerging trends of tomorrow—turning “just surviving” into “wildly thriving.”

Download the Breakthrough Brands 2020 report here.