Best Brands of the Decade and their Key Strategies

“I don’t know what you do, but you do it well.”

Duffy, “Mercy”

The appeal of companies that have taken over the zeitgeist can sometimes feel like Duffy’s “Mercy” – you get sucked into their orbit, and suddenly find you *like* them, inexplicably, like a trusty companion. Looking back at a decade of big winners, winning product strategies that turn consumers into tribal advocates have common threads that fall into three categories. All can land a company on the map, but only some of have resilience in the face of change. The three strategies are:

1. Think in an ecosystem
2. Define the category
3. Make it more than the ordinary

Think in an ecosystem: Apple, Tesla, and Amazon

Source: Insider Monkey

Having a good product is, well, good. Having many good products that complement each other with smooth interoperability is even better. That’s ecosystems-thinking: figuring out how to make synergistic products that seamlessly integrate, to drive market domination.

Seamless like Apple

Apple was among the earliest companies to develop a suite of products that talk to each other. From Mac to iPhone to iPad, each could airdrop files to each other and sync your favorite music. Now with Airpods and iWatches, it’s simply a pain for Apple users to add non-Apple devices to the mix. As a consequence, success in one category – the iPhone – begets success in other categories – iPads, Macs, and iWatches. As users become enmeshed, switching costs rise. And as Apple stays cutting-edge in their leading category, there is even less incentive to switch.

Synergistic like Tesla

Tesla takes ecosystems-thinking to the next level, because they are deploying complementary products at massive scale. It started with their electric vehicles (EVs) and Supercharger stations. Next were Powerwalls and solar panels, allowing people to charge their cars at home and also supply their own day-to-day electricity. Most recently Elon Musk broke ground with the Boring Company to start a high-speed underground, EV-only tunnel to circumvent Los Angeles traffic. Tesla’s products are so well integrated and high quality that it will be hard for any competitor to take a piece of Tesla’s pie anytime soon.

Ubiquitous like Amazon

Amazon is not just the “everything store” anymore – they’ve also become the everywhere store. With the acquisition of Whole Foods, Amazon gained 450 stores in 42 states to offer pick-up lockers for Prime Members. Whole Foods has also become an ever-present marketing channel. I am regularly asked at checkout if I’m a Prime Member, and flashed deals for consumer staples as bait. Further, with Prime Video, billboards and subway ads remind me that I can’t watch Season 3 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel without Prime. I have a strange sense of “missing out” without a membership. The reach of Amazon’s ecosystem makes me want to join the club!

Whole Foods is in 42 states. Source: Inverse

Creating a full ecosystem is a highly defensible market strategy if you can pull it off. But most companies just have one thing they do very well. And a single concept can drive a winning strategy, as the following two examples show.

Define the category: Uber and Starbucks

One of the biggest signs of market domination is when a company becomes category-defining, providing standard-setting leadership that make it a reference point for any similar enterprise. Most big winners have done this by creating a new market where none existed before.

Ground-breaking like Uber

Uber has changed the way businesses think by creating a market-clearing platform where none had been conceived before. They achieved network effects that set the standard in their category — so much so that people say “let’s get an Uber” even when they mean Lyft here in NYC. Calling your startup the “Uber of X” is universally considered a selling-point. Startups are invoking Uber’s ability to capture first-mover advantage in a scalable, profitable way.

Benchmark-setting like Starbucks

Nowadays, “Let’s find a Starbucks,” is a common refrain in any airport around the world. Starbucks has defined a new minimum quality expected for a coffee, so much so that people are willing to spend $5 on what used to cost 50 cents. By carving out a masstige segment in a previously commoditized category, Starbucks opened the door for artisinal “hipster coffee,” shops, expanding the culture and experience surrounding coffee. Yet even as boutique cafes have emerged across NYC, many people still go to Starbucks! Because they have defined their category. Their first-mover advantage has allowed them to build a permanent association in consumer’s minds with consistent quality.

Of course very few companies can be a first-mover in their category. A few companies this decade have figured out how to be a great late-mover, as the final examples show.

Make it more than the ordinary: Allbirds and Away

Even a commoditized product can be a huge hit — by being more than just a product. Powerful brands can make everyday items feel extraordinary, as Allbirds and Away figured out how to do.

Sustainability with Allbirds

Allbirds came on the market with a message of sustainability at a time when the Paris Climate Agreement had been junked by the U.S. “Buy our comfy sneakers, and you can help save the planet,” was the implicit message. And it seemed to work! A quarter of my office had a pair at one point, and their brick-and-mortar store in the West Village is brimming with shoppers.

Wonder-lust with Away

Source: Away

Away quickly carpeted the NYC subways with images of chic travelers and a simple anecdote that many could identify with: arriving after a long journey with a dead cell phone. Their image of the tech-forward, boundless traveler struck a cord that has left them ahead of many “me-too” suitcases with battery slots.

Winning Big vs. Staying Big

When looking at the decade-defining brands above, they each represent something quintessential about the modern consumer economy and what works. Ecosystems of products are convenient to the point of become part of a lifestyle. Single products can also be powerful by carving out brand-new categories, or by digging down to a purpose beyond the product. My prediction is that the order of the categories above will reflect their. Making an ecosystem creates the stickiest customer relationship. Defining a category also guarantees a long company life, though with low switching-costs. And being more than ordinary will certainly give you a grand entrance to the consumer market, but perhaps not sustainably.

The blurring lines between consumer retail and healthcare: the case of Mt. Siani

This winter, while perusing the subway marketing — which offers the longest impression a marketer can hope to achieve with New Yorkers these days — I noticed something new on the train walls. It wasn’t an ad for a one-year-old startup offering suitcases for your wanderlust or bed linens for the affordable luxury metropolitan market. It was something else positioned as cutting edge and innovative — the kind of place you’d want to work for or buy from. It wasn’t an ad from a snazzy millennial-run company, but from a hundred-and-seventy-year-old, massive hospital. As large companies are being disrupted by innovative start-ups, large hospitals are finding themselves in the same boat, fighting for market share as their primary path to growth. Now even the old hospital guard has decided to try out some new tricks.

Healthcare companies, primarily in the startup space, have been behaving more and more like CPG start-ups over the past few years. If tracked by subway ads alone*, one could say it started with Capsule, the prescription delivery service. Capsule has helped lead the direct-to-consumer movement in healthcare products. Followers in their footsteps include Hims, Inc. a “health and preventative self-care” company providing an erectile dysfunction product, and Hers, Inc., a birth control provider which advertises “without accessibility, there are no solutions.” Their ads are now plastered on the walls of West 4th St. station and the turnstiles of Times Square.

It appears that large hospitals like Mt. Sinai are feeling just as exposed to and inspired by competing startups as large CPG companies have been over the last decade. Taking a page from the consumer marketing playbook, Mt. Sinai is working to capture mindshare with subway ads. Notably, their ad featured services for the blind — in black-and-white print. You could guess a pragmatic motive, marketing to caretakers of the visually impaired. But with their other patient attraction efforts, it’s more likely they are trying to tap a new market – the millennial. Mt. Sinai is also partnering with a strong brand to win in another market segment: the male market. Through its recent partnership with Man Cave Health, Mt. Sinai is leveraging their unique market positioning – a sports theme – to attract men to it’s healthcare services – in this case prostate health education and care.

There’s another market local practitioners have noted Mt. Sinai’s active sales and marketing efforts in – the elderly poor, with Medicare and Medicaid benefits. And according to independent doctor’s, rather than posters and upgraded, sports-themed waiting rooms, they have used their own nurses and doctors to drive patient conversion. Several private specialists in Harlem have noticed a number of patients leaving for Mt. Sinai, sometimes at their front door. “St. Jude’s, a Mt. Sinai affiliate, used to park its van in front of our entrance,” one doctor noted, “and offered services to my patients.” Another doctor commented, “My patient was surprised when I was no longer covered by their insurance. It turned out on her last hospital visit, her doctor recommended switching from one Healthfirst insurance to the Mt. Sinai Healthfirst insurance. Now only Mt. Sinai services are in-network for her. She didn’t realize that was happening.” Mt. Sinai, it seems, is behaving like any large, mature company. To grow, it must reduce costs and take on new markets. Unfortunately, that means healthcare continues to become more of a business, where hospitals may focus on bringing in patients more than quality of care.

The business of health today increasingly resembles consumer retail, with a growing focus on consumer appeal and patient attraction and retention. But not all aspects of healthcare delivery benefit from business thinking. Perhaps consumers have come to expect slick marketing campaigns in other realms, but personally, I don’t want to be marketed to; I want quality care delivered.

*The measure of New York famous. Includes Dr. Zizmor, but also fast growth startups like FIGS scrubs.

Has Amazon become eBay? The new normal for e-marketplaces

There’s a market place with real-time bidding, where all the suppliers with identical products vie to sell their goods to a group of buyers, all with varying willingness to pay. Which market am I speaking of? Is it the stylized market place from Econ 101, the modern financial markets, or today’s primary e-commerce model? In fact, it is all three.

We’ve heard of regression to the mean with stock prices. The past decade has witnessed a regression to the mean of economic models. The difference between the market places academics describe and the ones financiers and commercial platforms implement has rapidly evaporated. In sum, the world has become eBay. 

The great irony in this turn of events is that eBay is one of the few markets where the auction model failed. Although eBay was a classical market, with multiple people selling identical or equivalent items, buyers did not want auctions. So why did eBay’s core model fail where so many others have since succeeded? Two words: buyer experience.

The Wharton course selection process followed a similar arc to that of eBay. Selecting your lineup for the semester used to be the stuff of day traders’ dreams. Speculation and back door deals were required to accumulate enough points and make the right trades to get your dream class lineup. But with the time and energy vortex it created for students, professors decided to swap in a simple system of ranked preferences, that students could set and forget until their course schedule was determined. Both the old and the new systems were based on economic theories, but the new one worked for everyone at a dramatically reduced cost. The selection process went from weeks of game theory strategizing to days of just choosing which courses you were most interested in. Similarly, eBay’s Buy it Now option made it so that you could literally buy peace of mind, knowing that your item was on its way. Now that’s exactly what buyers do 80% of the time on eBay.

Where eBay failed to deploy a streamlined buyer experience to auctions, e-commerce giants and financial markets have succeeded. They ensured that just because they make their markets competitive, doesn’t mean they need to be a hassle. And all with one weird trick: making the sellers compete, not the buyers.

Jet.com was the first e-commerce player to dream the dream of emulating financial markets: one price to rule them all. Jet aggregated all sellers of a single item under one listing, hiding the buyer and just showing the best price. The computer does the comparison for the shopper, bringing them one step closer to a two-click purchase. Amazon quickly riffed on this, showing a list of other sellers for a given item alongside that seller’s user rating. And the bandwagon effect was unleashed. Specialized sellers like Newegg, which formerly focused on technology products, have deployed the same tech to sell across categories, aggregating sellers and drop shipping inventory for a seamless user experience. Other markets are not far behind the curve. Technology has made it so easy to adjust prices that the bidding for hotels and airlines on aggregators like Kayak and Priceline is continuous.

All fields of technology-based commerce appear to be converging to an economists dream: a series of real-time auctions. But is the economists’ dream everyone’s dream — do we want the whole world to be a real-time auction market place? No doubt there is a dark side to a system evaluating actors primarily on price competition. Amazon’s opening the floodgates of international vendors to the U.S. has created a whole underground economy of fake reviews for low quality knockoffs, for example. In other areas, considering price alone has resulted in a number of negative externalities, such as the rash of taxi driver suicides in markets Uber has taken over. As eBay has taught us, without keeping an eye on consumer experience, no market model is sustainable. And as Silicon Valley has taught us, forgetting that these systems affect real people can cause social dislocation. Time will tell how consumers vote with their clicks.