At Future Commerce, we've interviewed a host of executives and entrepreneurs working to build brands they passionately believe will change the world for the better. Through our hundreds of hours of discussion, a clear trend has emerged: How we define a meaningful brand is in flux. Iconic American brands have generally promised good prices as well as quality and interesting products. But that’s changing. What we — as a nation and as a consumer base — value today is far more nuanced and demanding.
Our perceptions of what constitutes brand value are evolving and highly fractured, and this should come as no surprise. The coronavirus and systemic racism have brought our society’s deep inequalities into stark relief. It’s hard to believe in a brand that promises to deliver traditional values if you’re just entering the adult world, burdened with crushing college debt and few employment opportunities on the horizon.
Entrepreneurialism has always been an agent of change, though one that, admittedly, doesn’t really equal access to things like funding. Despite the odds, we’ve seen admirable brands carving out a niche for themselves — 81 of which we celebrate in our report, Nine by Nine. What makes them worthy of praise? Here are some key takeaways from the report:
It’s hard not to look for an alternative to a company — the richest in the world — that asks its essential employees to donate sick time to one another if they get COVID rather than offer paid sick leave. But with one-hour or two-day free shipping, a huge selection, and a host of killer perks, its hard to break one’s Amazon.com habit.
While no brand can compete feature-to-feature with Amazon, there are plenty that are giving the behemoth a run for its money. Target, through its wholly-owned delivery service, Shipt, comes pretty close to Amazon. Plus, it's way better at nailing the millennial aesthetic with in-house brands. Others in this category include Instacart, Shopify, and Arfa.
Have you met CARLY? She Can’t Afford Real Life Yet, but “real life” — aka the kind of stability that comes with, say, homeownership — isn’t entirely her thing. She “thrives on impermanence — cool things come and go much quicker.” All the memes, trends and stuff that gain global status or appeal never manage to penetrate her consciousness.
CARLY prefers brands such as Entireworld, Starface, thredUP, which get her way of thinking: embracing diversity and taking a much broader definition of who and what's beautiful. Brands take note: In the years to come, CARLY will join her Gen Z cohort in the largest purchasing power generation ever known to mankind
Purpose-driven brands, as we write in the report, “inspire us to aspire to an ideal. When we buy from them we feel that we're taking part in the things that matter most.” Patronizing these brands allows us to live a life that’s consistent with our values.
Purpose-driven brands are noteworthy because consumer behavior is quickly aligning with a worldview. We seek eco-friendly, fair-wage paying, diversity-embracing brands like REI, Seventh Generation, and Allbirds because we want to vote with our dollars, and these brands provide us a venue to do just that.
Late Stage Retail
Late stage retail recognizes the extreme inequalities in our retail system. Wealthy people have no shortages of malls and retailers catering to their whims, while working-class people may need to travel substantial distances to pick up a quart of milk or diapers. In e-commerce, late stage retail is all dark patterns, subversive techniques, and hyperpersonalization that coerce people to buy, even if that’s the wrong choice for them.
Brands in the late stage retail category buck this trend. Rather than exploit, they seek to uplift underserved communities, create sustainable products, pay their employees a living wage, and treat their suppliers ethically and fairly. Patagonia, King Arthur Flour, and Pattern are prime examples.
There’s So Much More
To understand the full breadth and depth of how the brand landscape is changing, download Nine by Nine: 81 Brands Changing Our World. Our other themes are New Luxury, Audience First, Community Driven, 100 Club, and Local Heroes. What’s interesting about many of the brands we highlight is their focus beyond just profit. They believe that their customers are unique human beings who deserve to be treated as more than a number. This makes Nine by Nine brands worthy of our admiration and recognition.
Brian Lange is the co-founder of Future Commerce, a retail media research startup focused on helping e-commerce businesses create strategic vision.