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5 Inspirational Brands That Won Big Last Year

Growing an e-commerce business is no easy feat. From keeping your inventory on track to examining new markets and maintaining a five-star customer experience, there are endless ways to up your game. And we have just the inspirational brands to spark your creativity!

The good news is, you’re not in this alone. Leading e-commerce brands are learning many of the lessons for you: turning heads, generating buzz, and creating meaningful impact resulting in increased sales. Which brands, you ask?

Liquid Death, NERF, The Farmer’s Dog, Fly by Jing, and Madhappy are just five of hundreds of all-star inspirational brands that hit the e-commerce headlines in a big way last year. 

Today, we’re diving headfirst into their strategies to help you draw inspiration for your own growth journey.

Growth Journeys of 5 Inspirational Brands

  • Liquid Death Kills the Competition
  • NERF Keeps Up with the Kids Online
  • The Farmer’s Dog Grows Up
  • Fly by Jing’s Recipe for Success
  • Madhappy Advocates for Mental Health 

Liquid Death Kills the Competition

Water has been around for 3.8 billion years but has never been as exciting as its rebranding as Liquid Death. The canned water company (tagline “murder your thirst”) hit the scene in 2019, quickly becoming a top seller on Amazon. Today, it can be found in more than 60,000 stores nationwide.

But Liquid Death is also killing the competition on social media. It is surpassing mega legacy competitor Aquafina just a few months after its launch. To date, this inspirational brand has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and 3.3 million followers on TikTok, making it the most-followed beverage brand on the platform.

Due to its rapid success, Liquid Death reached a $700 million valuation in October 2022 after closing an impressive $70 million Series D funding round. The brand was expected to generate $130 million in revenue in 2022, up from $45 million in 2021 and $2.8 million in 2019. 

Though the latest revenue numbers aren’t yet released, Liquid Death is currently valued at $350 billion globally.

Keys to Liquid Death’s Success

Founder Mike Cessario never expected the brand to take off, but in retrospect, we can certainly see why it did.

Let’s take a closer look at the key elements driving its success.

Standout Inspirational Brands and Their Branding Techniques

Liquid Death dared to reinvent something as simple as water with clever branding that gives it an entirely new meaning consumers can connect with. 

Boosted by an edgy Super Bowl commercial in 2022, its ads command your attention, make viewers laugh, and make it clear that this is one brand that isn’t afraid to step outside the box — or in this case, the bottle. 

Whether you love or hate the approach, Liquid Death’s marketing tactics have undeniably captured the hearts of the living.

“We realize that 98% of people actually hate marketing,” Cessario told Marketplace.org.  “If you can make people laugh, they will have a deeper connection with your brand, regardless of the functional differences of your liquid.”

Sustainable Packaging

At a time when 89% of shoppers say sustainability is important to them when purchasing a new product, Liquid Death’s focus on sustainable e-commerce is central to its success.

In the eyes of some 77% of consumers, plastic is no longer an acceptable option. 

For this growing cohort of environmentally conscious consumers, Liquid Death provides a fresh bottled water alternative by packaging its product in a recyclable can instead of plastic bottles.

Recap: The Growth Levers

  • Edgy advertising in a competitive niche
  • Strong multi-channel messaging
  • Sustainable packaging

NERF Keeps Up with the Kids Online

Initially introduced in the 1960s as the “world’s first official indoor ball,” NERF is maintaining its relevance across generations and consistently growing its revenue in the process. 

Over the last six decades, the company has introduced a seemingly endless stream of new products, from revamps of its timeless NERF balls and Super Soakers to never-before-seen dart guns and remote-controlled blaster drones.

What could be considered a classic toy brand has now become so much more and in 2022, NERF was valued at $463 million, an increase of $40 million year over year.

Keys to NERF’s Success

Growing brand relevance across decades is a challenge for any brand, no matter how well-known. Thanks to its keen adaptability, NERF has modified its strategy to reach a younger generation of consumers in an increasingly digital landscape.

A Profitable Metaverse Play

With 65 million daily users playing an average of two and a half hours each day, Roblox is a key marketing channel for growing brands. Today, 65% of Gen Z shoppers say they have spent money on virtual items within a Roblox game.

While there is plenty of valid skepticism surrounding the metaverse, it’s hard to ignore numbers like these. And since Gen Z is notorious for avoiding advertising, NERF met shoppers where they are by launching NERF Strike in 2021.

Roblox players can purchase various items in the first-person shooter game, including special guns, upgrades, and skins. But for NERF, it’s not just about digital sales. 

In a brilliant cross-channel marketing play, any time a NERF Roblox blaster is purchased in real life, either online or in-store, the player receives a unique code for a special skin to redeem inside the game.

TikTok Influencer Marketing

We’ve all heard (or even uttered) the words: “TikTok Made Me Buy It.” 

With an estimated 834.3 million users in 2023, the fast-growing social media platform will continue to be a major growth lever for brands that know how to tap into their loyal user bases. 

NERF is one of those brands. The company even hired longtime brand evangelist and 22-year-old TikTok influencer Sophie Lightning as its Chief TikTok Officer

At the time, Lightning’s 2.1 million followers far outnumbered NERF’s 918K. But with Sophie’s help, direction, and highly engaged follower base, NERF successfully tapped into key trends such as Cake or Real?, transforming it into a viral opportunity with a wealth of user-generated #NerfCake content.

What could be sweeter than that? As an early adopter of TikTok’s beta Shop feature, users can instantly buy NERF products without even leaving the platform.

Recap: The Growth Levers

  • Future-focused omnichannel marketing
  • Strategic influencer partnerships
  • Product and brand adaptability

The Farmer’s Dog Grows Up

Founded in 2014, The Farmer’s Dog is a subscription-based brand that’s all about improving the quality of life for man’s best friend.

Thanks in part to an emotional Super Bowl commercial and the increase in pet ownership following the pandemic, the pet food brand is now the top dog in the industry with annual revenue of $24 million.

Unlike the many brands that came and went during the e-commerce pandemic uptick, The Farmer’s Dog’s numbers are only expected to grow. Today, the pet food market is projected to reach $170 billion by 2030.

Keys to The Farmer’s Dog Success

Even in the age of Web3 shopping and TikTok, there’s a reason brands still spend billions of dollars on TV advertising.

By coming out swinging with a heartfelt inspirational branding campaign, The Farmer’s Dog has quickly become a household name.

Emotional Storytelling

Leveraging the heartstring-tugging story of an adorable puppy named Bear, The Farmer’s Dog captured viewers’ attention — and the money in their wallets. The Super Bowl ad was crowned the top commercial by USA Today’s Ad Meter, with search volume for “The Farmer’s Dog” growing 220% the night of the big game.

Sales for the quarter are yet to be announced, but it’s a safe bet The Farmer’s Dog and its big bark will translate into an equally big bite.

Subscription-Based Success

It’s estimated that 75% of DTC brands will offer a subscription service in 2023. 

Ever ahead of the curve, The Farmer’s Dog is clearly best-in-show with this popular e-commerce growth model. 

The brand offers shoppers all the healthy dog food must-haves and its packaging is personalized (and even edible) to help keep loyal customers coming back. The company also offers free starter packs or, after its Super Bowl ad aired, 50% off their first order which can then be converted into a recurring subscription.

Recap: The Growth Levers:

  • Emotion-driven brand storytelling
  • Clear commercial-to-subscription conversion path
  • Innovative subscription box packaging

Fly by Jing’s Recipe for Success

Starting as a series of pop-up restaurants in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, Fly by Jing’s founder Jing Gao discovered that her real passion isn’t just Sichuan cuisine — it’s storytelling. 

Launched on Kickstarter in 2018, Fly by Jing rapidly surpassed its $35,000 goal to reach the $120K pledged. Shortly after, Gao’s Sichuan sauce product line quickly shot to stardom. Now offering Chili Crisp sauce, dumplings, and hot-pot sets, the fast-growing global brand boasts a complete roster of tasty products.

These efforts are paying off big-time. In March 2023, the company raised $12 million in Series B funding to continue its red-hot expansion — and that’s not all.

Keys to Fly by Jing’s Success

Fly by Jing’s website pretty much says it all:

“Fly By Jing doesn’t conform to anyone else’s notions of value, taste, or tradition. It is one person’s recipes, one person’s vision, and one person’s story. With these products, I’m telling you mine.”

Let’s take a closer look at this inspirational brand’s secret sauce.

A Global Brand Story That Scales

Jing’s story is unique and it also happens to be key to her brand. Traveling around the world while growing up, Gao says she faced “constant adapting, code-switching, and trying to fit in.”

Cooking with her mother was her safe space. But in launching Fly By Jing, Gao found her voice. She ditched her American name, Jenny, and reconnected with her cultural heritage.

That voice has now transformed into a powerful inspirational brand message that resonates with consumers from LA to Hong Kong. Gao even teamed up with Disney for the release of Turning Red, formed partnerships with Shake Shack, and kept things extra spicy by launching a free OnlyFans with the promise to donate $1 for each subscriber to a “grassroots organization supporting the rights and safety of sex workers.”

In the current consumer landscape, global shoppers are hungry for marketing that humanizes — they don’t want to be sold to, they want to connect. With Jing’s authentic storytelling and quality product, she succeeded in driving deep brand loyalty across a wide global audience.

Bold Community Marketing

Community building is a key contributing factor to Fly By Jing’s growth. Once she’d found her footing in the market, it was time to lean in and listen.

“Instantly, I could see their feedback on the flavors. And so by the time that I was launching the product, I already knew which ones were resonating with people,” Gao told Entrepreneur.

With 44% of consumers saying they feel more connected to brands when they host relevant conversations online, potentially controversial moves like Fly By Jing’s OnlyFans have only brought the brand closer to its customers.

By staying true to her story and her fans, Gao continues to drive meaningful connections and all the sales that come with it.

Recap: The Growth Levers

  • Consistent product innovation
  • A brand story that resonates across borders
  • Community building and social listening

Madhappy Advocates for Mental Health 

Noah and Peiman Raf, Joshua Sitt, and Mason Spector started Madhappy as an apparel brand dedicated to evolving the conversation around mental health. 

What started as a small operation selling hoodies out of the Spector’s family home quickly turned into a booming brand featuring partnerships with notable high-street names like Guess, Columbia Sportswear, and Ugg.

Today the brand is much more than hoodies, boasting its own podcast, resource center, and charitable foundation.

Keys to Madhappy’s Success

Consumers crave purpose from the brands they buy from with 90% of consumers across generations reporting that they are more likely to support an inspirational brand with a strong purpose.

Madhappy meets that demand. And with more than 50% of Americans diagnosed with a mental illness, theirs is a cause that hits home for many. 

A Mission Worth Scaling

In the early days, Madhappy’s founders would gift clothing to the homeless community in LA and share it on Snapchat. 

“No consumer brand was really talking about mental health at the time… It was such a personal thing for me, having had my own mental health struggles, and I knew that it was something I could dedicate my life to,” says Spector. In addition to its wildly popular hoodies and loungewear, the brand owns several outlets to help build awareness for mental health. 

The Madhappy Podcast spotlights real-talk conversations around mental health experiences. The Local Optimist resource center shares interviews, playlists, and helpline information for those struggling with mental health.

The brand even launched The Madhappy Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to mental health advancement. The foundation funds the Pediatric Psychiatric Fund at Vanderbilt University Medical Center using 1% of each Madhappy sale.

The Right Funding Strategy

With a hot product and a noble cause, securing funding wasn’t going to be a problem for Madhappy. In 2018, e-commerce fashion and beauty startups raised $2.06 billion in venture funding. 

But Madhappy chose a different look.

Instead of turning to venture capitalists, Madhappy’s founders were extremely selective with private investors. They opted for partners in the fashion industry that could help support their goal of building a long-term business with a clear 15-year plan. 

“Everyone is celebrating raising money right now, and we aren’t trying to do that,” Peiman Raf told Vogue Business. “We want to build a profitable and long-lasting business, so it’s about figuring out what is the best way of doing that.”

Recap: The Growth Levers

  • A worthy mission
  • Smart funding strategy
  • Choosing right-fit over quantity

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