A look at 20 brands rising up the ranks as category challengers and shopper favorites
Not all challenger brands are digital natives – although it sure seems that way lately.
To be perfectly honest, being a digital native is only logical these days. Any entrepreneur still seeking to build a brand the old-fashioned way – via brick-and-mortar distribution, gained one chain or even one store at a time – might be considered crazy given the comparative ease involved with launching a self-operated website and simultaneously gauging consumer interest while generating sales at a more manageable level (despite the occasional backorder-inducing overnight success, as you’ll soon see).
Then again, the term carries with it the implication that digitally “native” brands aren’t necessarily going to remain digitally exclusive. And that certainly has been the case for most of the 20 Standout Small Brands we profile over the next few pages. Unless their business models prohibit doing so (value propositions based on customized products can be tough to transition, for instance), nearly every brand on the list is already enjoying distribution through at least a few top national retailers.
That trend has been driven largely by the fact that most top retailers now view alliances with digitally native brands as a competitive advantage in attracting younger shoppers who are already buying them online – and, in many cases, can be called “digital natives” themselves.
Besides their online origins, what else do our Standout Small Brands have in common? It won’t be a surprise to learn that most of them offer healthier, more natural products (not to mention packaging). It also won’t be shocking to hear that many are the brainchild of someone who was looking to solve a personal need, and then determined that the need was far more common.
Another commonality among these standouts is their appeal to traditional brands, who lately have been borrowing liberally from the challenger playbooks when it comes to product development, marketing and sales – when they aren’t buying those playbooks outright through acquisition, as Colgate-Palmolive, Coca-Cola and Diageo have done.
Who knows? Maybe one of these digital natives is in your company’s future, too. Read on.
- Brand/Company Name: Ballsy
Year Launched: 2017
A more family-friendly publication might hesitate to even mention this brand (or maybe even its category), especially since much of Ballsy’s messaging is based on double entendre or even bawdy puns. Of course, that should be expected for a brand that makes “Men’s Products for Men’s Parts.” The line of below-the-belt body washes and other grooming products are made in the U.S. using all-natural ingredients. Selling mostly DTC at the moment, the company is actively soliciting retail partners through its website. Consumers can earn “ballcoins” rewards (what else) for liking and sharing on social media, as well as for purchases.
- Brand/Company Name: Blueland
Year Launched: 2019
Guided by its mission to eliminate the need for single-use plastic packaging, direct-to-consumer company Blueland offers three “safe yet effective” cleaning solutions – for multi-surfaces, bathrooms, and glass and mirrors – that are distributed in dry tablet forms with reusable glass bottles and hand soap. Blueland products are available in starter kits (ranging from $12 to $39) or sold separately on the brand’s website. The eco-friendly company made a splash last fall after landing a deal on the season premiere of ABC-TV’s “Shark Tank.” Products are also available in Bed Bath & Beyond, Walmart, Target and The Home Depot.
- Brand/Company Name: Bombas
Year Launched: 2013
Knowing that socks are the most requested clothing item in homeless shelters, Bombas launched with a pledge to donate a pair for every one purchased. The direct-to-consumer company received backing on “Shark Tank” in 2014, and has since surpassed $100 million in annual sales and added T-shirts to the offerings in April 2019. Also last year, Bombas added the Afterpay checkout option to its website to allow for free financing and paying over time. As of March, it had donated more than 33 million items to more than 3,000 giving partners.
- Brand/Company Name: Cece’s Veggies
Year Launched: 2015
It started as a ploy to get founder Mason Arnold’s gluten-allergic daughter Cece to enjoy vegetables. Now, Cece’s Veggies is a brand specializing in diet-friendly and veggie-based noodles and other alternatives for dishes such as rice and mac & cheese. The Austin, Texas-based company uses 100% real and certified organic vegetables and a patented technology to create a longer shelf life, while operating a zero-food-waste facility. Ranked No. 3 on Inc.’s 2019 list of the fastest-growing privately held U.S. companies in the U.S., Cece’s Veggies is available in the produce section at many retailers, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Target, H-E-B and Costco.
- Brand/Company Name: CleanCult
Year Launched: 2016
The zero-waste, cruelty-free subscription company makes eco-friendly cleaning and laundry products using ingredients like coconut and essential oils. First orders of CleanCult ship in glass containers, and refills are sent in recyclable cardboard cartons. After first exploring the business idea as part of Babson College’s Summer Venture Program, founders Ryan Lupberger and Zachary Bedrosian launched the company via crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter by promising non-toxic detergent tablets that would be as effective as conventional products for the brand’s first offering. Beyond selling a variety of memberships through its own e-commerce channel, the company also enables one-time purchases via Amazon and The Container Store.
- Brand/Company Name: Clio Snacks
Year Launched: 2015
Clio Snacks was born from founder Sergey Konchakovskiy’s desire to figure out fun ways to get his kids to eat nourishing foods. The company offers on-the-go Greek yogurt bars in a variety of sweet and tart flavors made with whole-milk Greek yogurt and wrapped in dark chocolate. Despite declining yogurt sales in recent years, Clio grew 275% from 2017 to 2018 and has quickly gained distribution at retailers including Walmart, according to Forbes. Last year, the company expanded its assortment to include packs of “mini” Clio bars.
- Brand/Company Name: Dropps
Year Launched: 2005
Dropps is a direct-to-consumer provider of eco-friendly laundry products. The company claims to have invented the original detergent pod four years before any of the established brands began adopting the innovation. Because DTC better fits its mission, Dropps pulled its products from retail shelves in 2017 and shifted to online sales only by offering cost-saving subscription plans shipped via sustainable packaging. In February, the company received a $16 million investment from The Craftory, a London-based global investment fund. It will use the money to broaden its product offering, expand market reach and bolster its infrastructure with a goal of capturing a sizable share of the household cleaning category.
- Brand/Company Name: Health-Ade
Year Launched: 2012
Health-Ade Kombucha is a sparkling, probiotic tea made with high-quality, organic ingredients and brewed in small-batch glass jars the old-fashioned way: using living cultures. The company’s three co-founders got their start selling homespun bottles at Los Angeles farmers markets. Today, Health-Ade is one of the more ubiquitous kombucha brands on store shelves, targeting mainstream soda drinkers with distribution across roughly 26,000 retail locations nationwide including Walmart, Target and Walgreens stores. The brand also operates its own DTC website and is available via Amazon. Coca-Cola became an equity investor last year.
- Brand/Company Name: Hello Products
Year Launched: 2009
At a conference last fall, founder Craig Dubitsky called the oral care market he’d been disrupting “a $40 billion category that is basically owned by three companies.” The challenger makes “naturally friendly” (a phrase it trademarked) toothpaste, mouthwash, floss and brushes that have appealed to younger consumers because of their healthier ingredients (like charcoal) and sustainable packaging (like plastic-free tubes). Alas, Hello joined the biggest of those three in January, when it was acquired by Colgate-Palmolive. The brand was widely available in the U.S. through Kroger, Walmart, Target, ShopRite and others before the deal. Soon after the announcement, it unveiled a new line of CBD-infused SKUs.
- Brand/Company Name: Kindred Bravely
Year Launched: 2015
CEO Deeanne Akerson co-founded Kindred Bravely because she couldn’t find a cute yet comfortable pair of pajamas to wear while nursing her then 1-year-old child. The company’s assortment now covers all stages of pregnancy and maternity with products designed “by moms, for moms.” Simultaneous efforts to build a supportive community of moms include an educational blog and ongoing charitable activity. A fit quiz on the brand’s DTC site lets women design ideally comfortable, supportive bras for pregnancy, nursing and pumping. Products are now being sold by various resellers on most online marketplaces.
- Brand/Company Name: Magic Spoon
Year Launched: 2019
Magic Spoon offers a premium, direct-to-consumer line of low-carb, high-protein cereals that aim to resemble the taste – and even the fun, loud packaging – of classic, less-nutritious cereals such as General Mills’ Cocoa Puffs and Kellogg Co.’s Frosted Flakes and Fruit Loops. The blatant upstart has been gaining momentum since its launch, when it sold more than two months of inventory within the first week, co-founder Gabi Lewis told Fast Company. Magic Spoon raised $5.5 million in a seed round last fall to help propel growth. The better-for-you cereals are sold in $39 four-packs via MagicSpoon.com.
- Brand/Company Name: NomNomNow
Year Launched: 2015
San Francisco-based NomNomNow is a subscription-based service that delivers fresh, portion-controlled dog and cat food developed by board-certified veterinarians and personalized to fit each pet’s unique health needs using a proprietary, data-driven technology platform. The company was started in a small kitchen by young entrepreneurs eyeing enormous opportunity in the category. Internet Retailer estimated that NomNomNow generated $47.5 million in sales in 2018, and late last year named it the fastest-growing online pet retailer. The company leans heavily on insights to continue improving the customer experience and innovate in new areas such as pet supplements and personalized research.
- Brand/Company Name: Ooze Wholesale
Year Launched: 2015
Ooze Wholesale is unapologetic about its vaping and cannabis focus, and is holding its own in a fast-growing industry. As the exclusive distributor of more than 1,000 brands of smoking products and accessories (such as King Palm and Loud Lock compliant packaging), Ooze sells through dispensaries, smoke shops and convenience stores. In a four-year span, the company grew from a 10,000-square-foot warehouse to a 44,000-square-foot space while tripling its staff. Other partner brands include Truweigh scales and Green Monkey Grinders. Ooze landed at No. 58 on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in 2019 with $25.9 million in revenue.
- Brand/Company Name: Recess
Year Launched: 2018
Recess is sparkling water infused with hemp extract and “adaptogens” purported to reduce stress and improve both balance and mental clarity. “We canned a feeling,” co-founder Ben Witte told Business Insider. He also told Yahoo Finance that he believes CBD to be “the caffeine of the 21st century.” The brand’s successful launch in October 2018 resulted in 4,000 backorders. Recess offers free shipping on all DTC orders (an eight-pack of pomegranate hibiscus costs $39.99) and 18% discounts to subscribers. The brand has 55,000 followers on Instagram, where its messaging can get a little, well, trippy.
- Brand/Company Name: Seedlip
Year Launched: 2015
Offering three blends of “the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit,” UK-based Seedlip boasts a premium brand positioning and a price to match. It is intended to be mixed to create sophisticated non-alcoholic cocktails. After debuting in UK department store Selfridges in late 2015, the product is now sold in bars and retailers across some 25 countries. A non-drinker, founder Ben Branson took his inspiration from John French’s 1651 book “The Art of Distillation,” creating the sugar-free, zero-calorie beverage by mixing distilled botanical ingredients on his family farm. Diageo’s Distill Ventures investment arm purchased a minority stake in Seedlip in 2016 and acquired the company in 2019.
- Brand/Company Name: Skinny Dipped
Year Launched: 2013
Skinny Dipped was founded by a family who resolved to spend more time together after a friend’s death. Breezy Griffith and her mom, Val, took two years to perfect the chocolate-covered almond snack, which is made with real ingredients, plant protein and no sugar alternatives. The company ranked No. 32 on the Inc. 5000 last year with $10.2 million in 2018 revenue. Along with its DTC site, Skinny Dipped is now available across several retail channels, including mass (Target, Meijer), grocery (Kroger, Albertsons) and drugstore (CVS).
- Brand/Company Name: Soylent
Year Launched: 2014
Although its name might be a tad distasteful for Charlton Heston (Google it), 6-year-old Soylent is serving up meal replacement shakes, powders and food squares that are “affordable, sustainable, and satisfying” for “a world with a rapidly growing population and rapidly diminishing resources.” The brand’s Reddit community has 37,500 members sharing recipes. Available DTC in single orders or “subscribe and save,” the products also have distribution through 7-Eleven, Walmart, Target, Kroger and CVS; a recent deal with Cargo will have it available in Uber rides as well. Socially conscious from launch, the company had donated two million meals as of last fall.
- Brand/Company Name: Sweet Loren’s
Year Launched: 2010
CEO and founder Loren Brill created her all-natural cookie dough as she eliminated processed foods from her diet after beating cancer. Sweet Loren’s is now the top-selling natural cookie dough in the U.S. (and third-largest cookie dough seller overall). It ranked 114th on the 2019 Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. The product is carried in more than 10,000 stores, including Kroger, Albertsons and Publix locations, and is also sold online at SweetLorens.com. In February, the brand declared its raw dough as edible, while also debuting an updated logo and premium matte packaging.
- Brand/Company Name: Uncle Dougie’s
Year Launched: 1989
Doug Tomek “started making 100% natural, gluten-free, chemical-free, nothing artificial, good-and-good-for-you stuff before it was cool,” according to the Uncle Dougie’s website. Thirty years later, in 2019, the maker of natural and organic sauces, marinades and rubs dramatically reduced its carbon footprint by shifting to a flexible pouch for the newest line of barbeque sauces – the first condiment company to do so. And the company says it’s in a unique position to immediately adopt recyclable, flexible food-grade plastic once it becomes available. The product has distribution at multiple Albertsons-owned banners, Meijer and Whole Foods, among other retailers.
- Brand/Company Name: Wandrd
Year Launched: 2015
Wandrd is the brainchild of brothers Ryan, Spencer and Austin Cope who decided to come up with a stylish and functional camera bag after determining that the product was missing from the market. The brothers profess to be running more than a product company; their brand mission is to encourage people to see the world and live passionately. With a staff of roughly 12, Wandrd is now selling its travel bags and accessories via its DTC site and retail camera stores to consumers in more than 100 countries. It ranked 80th on Inc.’s 2019 list.