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Pioneer Brands: How They Disrupt and Why They’re Important

Written byBen Johannemann
October 12, 2020

The most successful brands garner awareness by flipping the script on category norms.

Brand differentiation has long dominated corporate goal-setting. We know that consumers opt for uniquely valuable products, and we expect that companies are in constant competition to identify new wants and needs. But to differentiate in today’s exceptionally crowded marketplace, it’s not enough to simply offer a cutting-edge product. In the wake of the startup economy — and the consequent millennial expectation for high-tech, high-touch offerings — the most successful pioneer brands are those that innovate new categories from the ground up. 

The modern pioneer brand is marked by a cultural commitment to innovation. This means that curiosity is the driving force of every business decision: from the C-suite through to junior employees, all members of the company are actively questioning conventional wisdom and exploring creative solutions. Driven to reimagine the status quo, category leaders invest not only in product differentiation, but in innovative experiences, messaging, and end-to-end lifestyle solutions. Novel categories resonate with consumers when they are supported by equally distinctive brand positioning. 

To see how pioneer brands work, let’s unpack the logic and strategy behind some of today’s most memorable cases in the food and beverage industry.

Subway: Good-for-you fast food

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When 17-year-old Fred Deluca borrowed $1,000 to open a sandwich shop in suburban Connecticut back in 1965, fast food was synonymous with greasy burgers and sugary milkshakes. Subway, Deluca’s now infamous sandwich empire, shot to popularity on the unprecedented premise that cheap, convenient food can also be good for you. Introducing fresh, low-calorie, and low-sodium ingredients — prepared behind clear glass partitions for ultimate transparency — Subway was the first fast-food brand to position itself as health-conscious. While newer chains like Chipotle and Cava have co-opted Subway’s “fresh and healthy” messaging, Subway will forever lead the vanguard of good-for-you fast food by virtue of creating the category. Today, the company continues to differentiate by adding zeitgeisty menu items like house-made pickles and Beyond Meatball™ Marinara, rolling out digital ordering methods, and retooling its stores with eco-conscious elements like energy-efficient LED lighting and upcycled wall coverings. 

Oatly: The first oat milk

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Headquartered in Malmö, Sweden, Oatly was the first manufacturer to commercialize oat milk back in 1994. Back then, cow milk alternatives were a fringe product purchased almost exclusively by hippies and the lactose-intolerant. Ironically, the brand catapulted into the mainstream after a Swedish dairy lobby sued it for denigrating cow’s milk in its advertising; though the lobby won, the resulting press was a win for Oatly. In 2016, CEO Toni Petersson introduced oat milk to America by partnering with 10 boutique coffee shops, effectively launching a micro-network of influential tastemakers to advocate on behalf of the brand. Once hipster baristas were sold — unlike many nut- and seed-based milks, oat milk has a neutral flavor profile and a mouthfeel similar to cow’s milk — it didn’t take long for Oatly to trickle into the mass market. The category-breaking product is reinforced with distinctly unique packaging: unlike the color-saturated graphics and minimal text of most CPG brands, Oatly stands out with muted pastels, blocky lettering, and quirky, conversational verbiage highlighting its health and environmental benefits. 

Ketel One: Vodka infused with natural botanicals

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The spirits industry leverages myriad aspirational appeals — wealth, beauty, prestige, and romance, among others — but until Ketel One, health was not on the list. Tapping into rising consumer desire for drinks that align with clean eating lifestyles, the brand launched Ketel One Botanical, a new range of low-ABV vodkas distilled with natural botanicals and free of artificial additives. Packaged with fanciful line-drawn imagery and a charmingly disruptive, deceivingly simple slogan — Drink Marvelously — Ketel One Botanical set a new industry standard for wellness-minded spirits.

These brands did more than put fresh spins on tired products — they broke from convention to set new industry standards, expanding the scope of what’s possible for both consumers and competitors. Successful pioneer brands understand that novel products don’t necessarily speak for themselves, which is why they invest in rich marketing and communications ecosystems to encourage adoption and integration. The payoff? When you invent a category, you get to lead it. 

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