The Naughty and Nice Brands of 2021 with Matt Williams

December 27, 2021

This week we have a special holiday episode of the On Brand podcast with the “Naughty and Nice Brands of 2021.” This seasonally appropriate snapshot of brand behavior was developed by Brand Federation. The consultancy’s Chief Growth Officer Matt Williams joined me to discuss which brands have been naughty and nice this year.

Enjoy This Episode Now

About Matt Williams

Matt Williams is chief growth officer for Brand Federation, a brand strategy consultancy in Richmond, Virginia. Prior to joining Brand Federation in 2019, Williams was CEO of the Martin Agency, one of the world’s most recognized advertising agencies, where he managed strategy development for world-class brands like GEICO, OREO, UPS, Discover Financial, Walmart, and more. Williams also is a Clinical Professor in the marketing department at the Mason School of Business at William & Mary. He teaches in the MBA program and is the developer and Faculty Director of the school’s Online Masters in Marketing.

The Naughty List

“The challenges of 2021 presented brands incredible opportunities to step up beyond sales and marketing,” said Williams. “Many did, but many also earned coal in their stockings.” Here’s the naughty list of brands in 2021 from Brand Federation.

Chevron– Despite claims of “reducing carbon intensity,” and investing in renewables, green groups, according to Reuters, found Chevron spent only 0.2% of its capital expenditures on lower-carbon energy sources. Brands, especially fossil fuel companies, need to play big roles in fighting climate change. Chevron is not.

Johnson & Johnson– Johnson & Johnson is recognized as the model for brand behavior during a crisis (seeNew York Times’ Tylenol made a hero of Johnson & Johnson). But it lost its way this year. Facing consumer lawsuits claiming asbestos in J&J baby powder, the company pulled a fast one in Texas. It spun off a new company to hold all the asbestos-related liabilities. The new company then promptly filed for bankruptcy, severely curtailing efforts by consumers to recover damages. It’s a case study for extremely poor brand behavior.

Subway– The sandwich chain was dogged by questions about exactly what was in its sandwiches. Following up complaints, aNew York Times investigation found that the tuna in Subway’s tuna sub… wasn’t really tuna. An independent lab found “no amplifiable tuna DNA in the samples.” (Other inquiries, however, did confirm the presence of tuna.) The fishy story followed one from last year in which an Irish court ruled Subway bread isn’t actually… bread.

Facebook– For tolerating misinformation, undermining democracy, and putting children, especially girls, in danger. The naughtiest.

Elon Musk–The influential billionaire behind pioneering brands like Tesla and SpaceX has cultivated its own brand. Sadly, it’s more petulant than inspiring. Frequent Twitter wars, possible digital currency manipulation, and an apparent mean streak put him on the naughty list.

The Nice List

“We saw missteps this year,” Williams said. “But we also saw brands show us what’s possible, lift people up, and move us, however slightly, toward a better world.” Here’s the nice list from Brand Federation.

Tesla—Despite its naughty founder, the transformational Tesla brand is leading the way to a more sustainable future. It’s driving acceptance of electric cars in the US, growing fast, and dominating U.S. electric vehicle sales. The uptake of EVs is still small, but Tesla and its hard-charging competitors are proving their viability. For the planet’s future, that’s nice.

Patagonia–Patagonia prioritizes the planet. The apparel company stopped adding corporate logos to its fleece vests, increasing their lifespan. Additionally, on Black Friday, the company donated the day’s $10 million in sales to environmental programs. The company stands up for its values in other ways, too, pulling its clothing from a Wyoming ski resort after it hosted a right-wing fundraiser with Marjorie Taylor Green in attendance. Nice!

Airbnb—Airbnb offered free temporary housing to 20,000 refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. Founder Joe Gebbia said it was an “easy call” because of its generous host community and its history of supporting temporary accommodation needs. It’s an easy call to put brands that serve more than transactions on the nice list, too.

Uber and Lyft–With Texas law threatening legal action against anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion, ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft pledged to pay drivers’ legal fees if they’re sued. Lyft also donated $1 million to planned parenthood. Uber and Lyft let their employees and customers know where they stand on an issue that affects their business. That’s good brand strategy.

Finally …

What brand has made Matt smile recently? Initially, with the list focus of the episode, I was worried that I’d taken all of Matt’s “smiles.” However, he assured me that he had several left including one for his former colleagues at the Martin Agency and their longtime smile-worthy client, GEICO.

To learn more about Matt Williams, check out the Brand Federation website.

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Until next week, I’ll see you on the Internet!

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is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.