20 challengers to watch in 2017

Welcome to our annual round-up of the brands and businesses we think are going to make the biggest impact in 2017. Covering categories as diverse as fitness, finance and football, and from new start-ups catching our attention to $16bn mega challengers we can't ignore - here's this year's 20 Challengers to Watch.

Shinola is a shining example of how to challenge the status quo by resurrecting, polishing up and relaunching a brand from the past that had lost its lustre and even gone out of business. It is a very appealing story of a ‘comeback kid’ synonymous with the American Dream. A classic ‘underdog’ challenger story that taps into the American ethos of rooting for the hard-working, blue collar everyman, the rebirth of down-trodden Detroit and the prevailing desire to create new jobs in the U.S.

Shinola is a brilliant example of a belief-driven brand – a luxury and lifestyle brand built on the simple but strong belief that Americans can produce luxury goods, and that people will pay significantly more for a product not just ‘Made in America’ but ‘(Hand)Made in Detroit’. It was conceived out of a simple insight found in a research study that showed consumers’ willingness to pay $5 for a pen made in China, $10 for one Made in USA and $15+ for Made in Detroit.

It is also a classic case of finding and creating opportunity out of adversity. Shinola was a deceased brand, that went out of business in the 60’s. It was resurrected out of the vision of Tom Kartsotis, the founder of Fossil brands, and financed with a $255m private equity investment in 2011 from Bedrock Manufacturing Co.

    “Success came because it tapped into a macro trend toward a renewed appreciation for the simple elegance and utility of a certain retro design ethos found all around Motown.”

Known initially for its affordable luxury watches, hand crafted bicycles and premium leather goods, the brand has skyrocketed from nothing to a successful ‘sold out’ luxury lifestyle brand that now includes audio turntables, pocket knives, wall clocks, electric power strips (the latter two produced in partnership with another nostalgic American Icon, GE) and most recently a Luxury Hotel in development in Downtown Detroit. It has been referred to as the ‘Coolest Brand in America’ and a shining example of ‘Manufactured Authenticity.’ Success came in part because it tapped into a macro trend toward a renewed appreciation for the simple elegance and utility of a certain retro design ethos found all around Motown.

Those familiar with the brand’s heritage will recognize the famous phrase – “You don’t know shit from Shinola.” It was coined during WWII by the story of a soldier who supposedly mocked a superior officer who couldn’t tell the difference between GI boots polished up with Shinola or dog waste. The company has proudly reprised this phrase and story in dividing the world according to their vision, and offering a POV that there are still some people who just can’t tell the difference between fine, hand-crafted [American] luxury quality and cheap crap ‘Made in China.’ Only a belief-driven, opportunistic Challenger might think to reappraise a phrase from the 1940’s and reintroduce it to the popular vernacular 75 years later in 2016.

Shinola has been tremendously successful in just 5 years since launch. The company has created over 400 jobs in Detroit, with a significant portion of their workforce coming from auto workers who lost their jobs during the economic collapse of 2008 and the decline of the US Auto Manufacturers. They have a flagship store in Detroit, have renovated a landmark Detroit building (formerly owned by General Motors) to create a design and innovation center, and have plans to open 15 retail stores in N. America, and more around the globe. Their products and innovative designs and limited edition models regularly sell out and they have reached $60m in sales in 2016.

Shinola has proven once again that there is no such thing as a tired brand or company, only tired marketers and managers who don’t know how to challenge themselves or the status quo.

This is a brand which has democratised the idea of Ayurveda in India. Ayurveda is an all natural approach to health and wellbeing, rooted in ancient Indian traditions. Once assumed to be a proposition only attractive to the wealthiest in Indian society, Patanjali are proving that Ayurveda products have widespread appeal, with a rapidly growing middle-class choosing natural alternatives to synthetic and chemically-based products.

The brand's ambassador is its originator - Baba Ramdev. Initially famous as a yoga guru, teaching yoga lessons on spiritual TV channels and holding mass workshops, he’s increasingly known as the outspoken co-founder of fast-growing Patanjali Ayurveda. Often critical of brands originating from the West, Ramdev has encouraged consumers to question their habitual purchasing decisions. ‘These [foreign] companies mix their products with harmful chemicals which cause addiction’, Ramdev told the Wall Street Journal in 2015.

Founded in 2006, Patanjali Ayurveda began selling natural medicines and personal care products, but in recent years have expanded their portfolio into a wide range of FMCG products, including food and beverages. Recording revenues of $769m in 2016 and growing by 146 percent across the year, established FMCG giants Unilever and Procter and Gamble are losing dramatic share to Patanjali, and things could get worse for them, with forecasts estimating Patanjali will reach $1bn in sales by 2020.

    “Will a nation obsessed by international brand names be willing to give Patanjali a shot when it comes to such an emotive category as fashion?”

One of Patanjali’s biggest selling products is their cornflakes – all the more surprising as Kellogg’s has struggled to sell cornflakes based upon an iron and vitamin-led proposition for many decades in India. Apparently, the power of yoga has turned out to be more persuasive than iron supplements for the Indian masses.

With Baba Ramdev planning further expansion in 2017, launching new apparel brand ‘Paridhaan’, they are now entering categories which do not immediately link to their core proposition. Will a nation obsessed with international brand names be willing to give Patanjali a shot when it comes to such an emotive category as fashion?

Much of Patanjali’s success is based on the relationship and trust Baba Ramdev has with the Indian consumer. Patanjali is not a faceless multinational conglomerate. They are Indian and proud, and driven by a charming personality people identify and connect with. It remains to be seen if some of the recent findings from the Advertising Standard’s Council of India over misleading and inaccurate advertising tarnishes some of that long earned trust. A fascinating challenger to watch in 2017.

It’s a Sunday morning and time for coffee. I live in a rapidly gentrifying area of London, so my local coffee spot is painfully trendy; it’s all plywood benchtops, sourdough loaves and Monocle magazines. A scruffy haired guy wearing pyjamas and walking a Pug swans into the cafe and loudly orders a strong, non-dairy, piccolo (read: tiny pretentious coffee). What do I spy the poor barista making this offensive human’s coffee with? Oatly. Oatly has made it to Peckham. It’s official. Oatly is cool.

A Swedish non-dairy milk made from oats, it was originally developed in the early 1990s by scientists looking for a healthier alternative to cow’s milk that’s better for the environment, but since a radical re-brand in 2014 it's become something of a hot ticket in the non-dairy world.

It started with an executive board making an exceptional decision; they hired Toni Petersson, a CEO from outside the food category. Unencumbered by any industry baggage, Toni brought a sense of naivety to his new role, and working closely with Creative Director John Schoolcraft they broke with Oatly’s past as a business resembling a Dutch multinational, and propelled Oatly into a new future as a challenger brand.

    “Oatly see the carton less as packaging and more their primary communications opportunity.”

If you’ve ever found yourself perusing the milk alternatives aisle, you will have seen it riddled with bland packaging conventions – it’s all beige colour schemes, nondescript branding and gratuitous white liquid pouring and splashing merrily. It’s enough to ease you into a light, dairy-free coma. Oatly, on the other hand, is loud. Its bold colours, unpredictable typography and design catch the eye. They see the carton less as packaging and more their primary communications opportunity. Provocative copywriting covers all sides of the pack, including one side dedicated to their punchy manifesto.

Oatly is fast becoming the thought leader of the category globally; setting up the world’s first non-dairy coffee festival, selling t-shirts with slogans such as “Post Milk Generation” and more recently, releasing unbranded products under the label of “Not Milk”. It’s these activities which have put Oatly firmly on the path to becoming a lifestyle brand (read: Brand mecca). And they are already reaping the rewards; they clocked a revenue of $40m in 2016 and have plans to enter the U.S and Asia markets this year.

And on a personal note, if we must live in a world where pyjama clad, piccolo sipping, Pug walking millennials feel welcome in our cafes, then we can at least appreciate the fact that they are making environmentally friendly consumption choices. Perhaps we should consider joining them.


Ding dong globalisation is dead. Ok, it’s not dead exactly, but in need of a rethink. For the last couple of centuries the assumption of global trade has been that consistency is king. Companies create a great product, they ship that around the world, and it’s the same experience whether you’re in Melbourne or Mumbai. But in this hyper-connected world, 'local' has become scarce, and as a result, people have grown protective of local identity and culture. Brexit? Trump? ...I'm going broad here, but both political earthquakes were in part, a rejection of a one-world, no-borders assumption first made possible by free global trade.

The same revolt against this hegemony shows signs in business and marketing. Whilst Unilever scratch their heads wondering how they stop the meteoric rise of Patanjali in India, they should think: Will people prefer a faceless multinational now they have their own local dude to champion? For the Indian market, it's a no-brainer. Progressive global brands will adapt to this attitude shift - big global ambitions will have to be matched with an equal investment into creating genuine local relevance in markets. I don’t mean tweaking communications for local preferences, I’m talking about global brands co-creating the product, service and offer with regional partners.

Iflix, are a global video-on-demand service with a focus on emerging markets. With brilliant basics including a low-cost subscription (the same cost as a pirated DVD), access to 16,000 hours of content and the ability to download and watch offline, their game-changing, most challenger credentials, come in the form of their smart localized expansion strategies, of which there are five:

  •     Partnerships with regional TV and film producers to create original and market-specific local content.
  •     Collaborations with local influencers and ambassadors in each market, such as Malaysian actress and singer Maya Karin. Offering a playlist feature whereby subscribers can see and understand what their regional influencers are watching.
  •     A highly personable customer service based team, speaking 9 languages, responding to every query, complaint or social mention in under 4 hours.
  •     Integration of the subscription as part of bundles with existing regional telecoms providers (meaning no credit cards are needed).
  •     Careful customisation. From Bollywood to anime, iflix carefully curates, censors and subtitles all content out of respect for local legislation, customs, cultures and preferences.

“Governments around the world are trying to find a balance between the global community and local culture", co-founder and CEO Mark Britt told The Business Year,  "As part of the equation, we need to continue to navigate that evolution and contribute to that discussion.” This is someone who really gets it, as opposed to the hundreds of marketers and CEOs who will spend the next few years tweaking indifference.

The ambition is to redefine television for a billion people, with a target to reach that number by 2020. Launching as a two-man team out of an office in Malaysia in 2014, in under three years they have mushroomed to 600 people working across twenty offices globally. They've now reached four million subscribers worldwide and can count Disney, MGM and Paramount amongst content partners, and Sky PLC amongst its investors. Other streaming services watch out. This is the future of global brand building.

This must be the first piece on iflix to not mention the 'N' word.

By that I mean Netflix.

Ah balls.


Anyone who has ever walked into a mattress store to be confronted by a bamboozling array of choice and an ill-informed salesperson determined to sell you whatever she is getting commission on this week, understands the opportunity spotted by the founders of Casper. Surely it can be better than this?

Casper applied an Apple-like simplicity to the process of finding and buying a mattress, and quickly created a $200 million business. Given that everyone needs a new mattress at some point in their life, there’s plenty of upside left in their direct model yet, and partnerships with the likes of West Elm reveal the opportunity with new distribution partners able to create a better customer experience than the Sleep Station mega store out by the used car dealership.

But what makes Casper a challenger brand to watch in 2017 is the larger opportunity that they seem poised for: becoming the first power-brand in the world of sleep.

If health and wellness is a three-legged stool of diet, exercise, and sleep, as some suggest it is, then there is a huge business to be had around not just the mattress, but other aspects of the land of nod. Both Casper’s own blog and the wonderful spin-off Van Winkle's signal the seriousness with which the Casper team are trying to understand and educate about the mysterious third of our day that dictates so much about what happens in the other two-thirds.

With the current mania for performance enhancing life hacks of various sorts expect to see Casper’s influence – and business – grow this year and beyond.

Billed as the home of football fan culture, Copa90 is a fast-growing global sports media brand with a clear and directional focus on covering everything outside of the 90 minutes on the pitch. Launched initially as a YouTube channel in 2012, this is a platform geared for a generation growing up on Buzzfeed and Snapchat, and can now boast of a following of over 10 million users and a valuation of $77m, based upon their Series A funding.

Whilst Sky and BT Sport offer live match broadcasts, hyped up as armageddon and then analysed to death by ex-pros and experts post-match; Copa90 offer a daily, and constant, fan’s view of the game - the transfer rumours, rivalries, derby days, debate over team selection and everything in-between. When footballers appear on Copa90, they’re not presented as footballing gods from another planet, but sat on the sofa, disarmed and free of footballing cliché for a bit of Fifa and chill with Poet and Vuj, the channel's twenty-something hosts.

"I don't believe old media alone can satisfy the appetite of the modern football fan", Chief Strategy Officer, James Kirkham told Fast Company. "I go home, turn on the TV, and watch the game. But then I'll continue talking about what happened long after, and that's the void Copa90 is aiming to fill."

As part of a bold ambition to become 'the most influential sports media brand on the planet', Copa90 have acquired Kick, a US-based global sports media platform which provides access to the North American market, whilst their influence has already seen them land partnership deals with Adidas, Hyundai and Nissan.

New ideas are quickly adopted, and since Copa90 rose to fame, Sky Sports have re-launched their popular TV show, SoccerAM as a YouTube channel with the aim to create content for young millennials, whilst BT Sport (although already offering a more relaxed studio environment than rivals Sky) have recently introduced ‘Talk of the Terrace’, a live feature within broadcasts that has fans get their views across to the studio.

Whether these fan-centric initiatives are direct responses to the success of Copa90’s approach or not, the big TV sports broadcasters are evidently aware of the need to appeal to a new generation of fans wanting to feel closer to the action than they've previously been allowed. Whilst also recognising this 16-24 demographic want to, not just passively consume, but also interact with the beautiful game, when and where, they want to.

Whilst Sky and BT Sport have been in locked horns over Premier League TV rights, forking out a record £8.3bn in the latest TV deal, there’s a strong case that Copa90 have blindsided them both, capturing the attention of young football fans everywhere, without paying for their match ticket.


Founded just two years ago by Tyler Haney, Outdoor Voices is a fast-growing sportswear brand built around the insight that, actually Nike, not everybody wants to be an athlete, thank you very much.  Instead, Haney has built a performance activewear brand for those of us without the competitive streak.

Dubbed ‘technical apparel for recreation’ – these aren’t yoga pants for sitting on the couch binging on Netflix, nor are they pitched at those training for their next marathon ever harder, better, faster, stronger. No, this is a brand encouraging us towards the far more achievable goal of ‘doing things’ everyday; dog walks, hiking, jogging, yoga.  The difference with the multitude of fashion brands in the crowded athleisure space is that these clothes are designed for activity not lounging – as Haney puts it; "everything is meant to sweat in".

    “We believe in Doing Things — moving your body and having fun with friends. That when you drop the expectations to perform, the magic happens.”

— Outdoor Voices

Outdoor Voices had a great 2016. With a reported sales growth of over 800% last year, they are rapidly expanding into brick and mortar spaces, opening 3 new retail stores in the US at the end of 2016, and can currently lay claim to being the it-girl’s sportswear brand of choice after some very on-brand collaborations with A.P.C and ManRepeller’s Leandra Medine (and unofficial patronage from the likes of Lena Dunham).

Having raised a total of $22.5million in funding to date through General Catalyst (who also back Warby Parker and Honest Company), this is a brand with big ambitions and wind in its sails. The question is, can they break through from being a niche label for the fashion-conscious to become, as Haney intends, "the next great activewear brand"?  

This lifelong sports refusenik is on board - now who wants to buy me some $100 leggings?

There are few brands that will be as credited with 'saving lives' as often as these guys. At the touch of a button, Bloom & Wild dispatches flowers to your loved one/angry one, arriving just as you need them.

Where Bloom & Wild excels is in their approach to understanding what today's consumers actually want, rather than creating an online version of what has always existed. Although they also offer a subscription model, a category first, Bloom & Wild's key innovation lies elsewhere. It’s not in colours or range, it’s not price or availability. It’s simply a matter of speed, and with a 2-hour delivery service, that’s what they are challenging within the market.

“We want to make it a joy to send flowers as well as to receive them – we want the whole end-to-end journey to be awesome so that users keep coming back", says Head of Product, Sharon Anne Kean, "That means innovating at every single stage through the supply chain to the customer experience - challenging how this has been done before”.

Bloom & Wild deals directly with growers to ensure that they get the flowers first, without having to deal with wholesalers or flower markets. They ask for flowers that are still closed, meaning that they can be easily transported, and will open a few hours after arrival. The natural outcome of the speed with which they get the flowers means that they end up lasting longer in your living room too.

On top of this, their packaging is designed to fit through a standard UK letter box (200mm x 38mm), to ensure there are no hold ups with delivery by your local postman (though same day deliveries are slung on a courier bike).  The specially designed box holds the flowers in place, and they are protected even as they fall through the letterbox to the floor.

Finally, faster flowers demand a speedy interface. Sharon and her team celebrate every microsecond they gain by speeding loading and processing times of orders, knowing that each step gets them closer to a service that is completely frictionless.

With a stated ambition to become Europe's most loved flower brand, expect Bloom & Wild to keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible in 2017, forcing progress on a category that has been static for years.


Is this the year that BrewDog makes its much-anticipated dent in the world of spirits?

Two years after the feisty and fast-growing beer brand announced their intention to move into hard liquor, Lonewolf’s first offering, two versions of a ‘prelaunch prototype’ gin and vodka, were finally unleashed in December 2016. Initially only released to BrewDog’s ‘equity punks’, a limited number of 50cl bottles are now available online.

With a stated aim to “challenge the perceptions of what a spirit can be”, Lone Wolf is explicitly calling out both the incumbents’ maintenance of the status quo; a reliance on Scottish provenance in whisky for example, and the so-called “charlatans” of the craft spirit boom.

By distilling their all-grain base vodka from scratch in house, Lone Wolf is committed to ‘going it alone’ and in one fell swoop de-positioning those who don’t.  While we are yet to see how that affects quality of the product, it certainly means that they can maintain the independence, transparency and spirit of experimentation that is core to the BrewDog brand. The decision not to focus on provenance is a smart one too, as it gives the brand the option to grow by opening distilleries in new geographies, without losing control of quality or diluting the brand.

With no marketing as yet, beyond a brand identity and spiky blog post, we’ll need to wait and see if they pursue the same strategy in spirits that has been so successful in beer – small batch limited edition products combined with headline-grabbing stunts – or will the longer production time require a different approach?

It’s early days of course, but if I was a gin, vodka or whisky brand with a market share to protect, I’d be keeping a close eye on the lone wolf at the door.

Streaming intimate live DJ sets and performances to screens around the world, Boiler Room is MTV for the internet age. Although whilst MTV were all about pop, Boiler Room’s focus is everything else - house, techno, hip-hop, even recently experimenting with jazz and classical. The key question for this challenger to watch is, how you grow your audience without ever crossing into the commercial music world you rail against?

“We’d been wondering how to get bigger, and we realised that going more commercial wasn’t the way”, Blaise Bellville, Founder and CEO told The Guardian, “Our fan base liked underground music and so did we.”

Boiler Room are proof that underground music has always had a large global audience – it just never had a platform with which to bring that music to the masses. Now, as we've seen with the success of Vice, these new media brands can harness the internet to reach huge global audiences without compromising on content, or the values and prejudice that sparked their creation.

Launched in 2010, Boiler Room has a monthly reach of 157m, with audiences in over 150 countries worldwide. They record 30 shows per month, with an average of 400k views per broadcast with the UK, USA and Germany being their biggest markets. The business model is based upon sponsorship, with carefully selected partners that are appropriate for Boiler Room’s audience. Red Bull and Ray-Ban have been long term partners.

    “Boiler Room are innovating around that proposition, finding new ways to bring their signature, intimate experience to the world”

From a challenger perspective, Boiler Room’s proposition is to be champion of the underground. This is raw, unpolished, live and serves the underserved. Whilst not made explicit, they are the anti-pop, rejecting the genre and the culture of celebrity, fame and fortune that surrounds it. With that as their North Star, Boiler Room are innovating around that proposition, finding new ways to bring their signature, intimate, underground experience to the world, without venturing into music that's remotely commercial.

Broadcasting via Facebook Live increased engagement on live streams by over 400% in the space of three months last year, whilst plans for 2017 include the launch of the world’s first VR music venue – bringing an already immersive live experience even closer, and to audiences all over the globe.

Upcoming event sponsors for events in 2017 include Adidas Originals and Budweiser – a sign of the increasing value attributed to Boiler Room's audience by some of the biggest brands in the world. As they continue to increase both their scale and influence, it will be interesting to see how they balance achieving bigger and bigger commercial partnerships, with their mission of championing and serving the underground.

As a fit person once said, if you want to stay motivated, you should do the kind of fitness you love. Given I live in the city and there isn’t immediate access to any national parks for a good hike, or a pleasant ocean pool for a brisk lap, for me and the rest of city dwellers, we must inevitably turn our efforts to the local gym. It’s not all bad, there is a certain amount of motivation that goes along with watching £60 evacuate from my bank account each month. And having the knowledge that if I tried to quit, I’d have to take out a small mortgage to pay the break fee.  

Payal Kadakia, CEO of ClassPass, thought that was rubbish too.

After fruitlessly spending two hours searching online for an open ballet class in New York City, Kadakia decided there must be a better way for people to access the forms of fitness they love at a time that suits them. If people had greater access to a broader range of fitness styles, they would be inspired to move more. Her mission, therefore, became to democratise fitness; unlock the otherwise contractually binding world of gyms, and allow people to be fitness tourists.

ClassPass was born in 2013. The business model combines the breadth of a marketplace with a subscription pricing structure; $99 a month for a membership of unlimited classes. ClassPass has spent the last few years expanding rapidly, now operating in 31 U.S. cities and eight across the U.K., Canada and Australia. Mid last year, however, it encountered a problem. The platform was working too well.

    “The business model has changed a number of times to enable Kadakia’s vision for a global fitness platform to meet the changing behaviours of consumers. And in a way that’s profitable.”

ClassPass discovered that people were enjoying their new found fitness freedom and attending far more classes on average than the projections. Because ClassPass pays its studio partners every time someone books a session, the model had started to become unsustainable. To dampen demand, memberships were capped at five or ten classes a month, with the unlimited class membership almost doubling in price to $190/month. This decision saw the company lose 10 percent of its user base overnight and outraged customers took to social media.

Luckily, Kadakia has grown comfortable with taking such risks. ClassPass is actually the third iteration of the platform. The first, ‘Classivity’, launched in 2010 as an activity timetabling platform. Since then the business model has changed a number of times to enable Kadakia’s vision for a global fitness platform to meet the changing behaviours of consumers. And in a way that's profitable.

Perhaps in order to satisfy disgruntled members, ClassPass has recently launched some new features - a social aspect that allows you to see what friends are doing on the ClassPass schedule, and video on-demand, at-home workouts to open up access beyond studios and gyms.

Upending a category doesn’t come with a roadmap, so ClassPass has had to lean into risk and adopt a test and learn approach. What will be interesting to see this year, is whether its users have the patience to stick with ClassPass after their latest pivot. Personally, I’m waiting for the fifth iteration, instant access to hikes and ocean swims. It’s 2017 after all.

The “impossible” in Impossible Foods refers to the task their brilliant founder, Stanford professor Pat Brown, took on five years ago: to make a plant-based burger that tastes as good as the best meat patty on the market.

Now that Pat and his team are close to achieving that goal, and their Oakland, CA plant is ready to crank out large quantities of patties, the next impossible challenge rears its head: how to convince America to make the switch. That’s what makes this challenger so fascinating to watch.

Impossible Foods is a classic belief-driven organization. It is the answer to the question, “What single initiative can have the biggest impact on climate change?” The answer is, persuading all of us to stop eating meat. At least meat made from animals.

Meat generates as much greenhouse gas as all the world’s cars, trains, planes and ships combined. Chicken has 40 times the climate impact per unit of protein than a chick pea. Red meat is higher still. Meanwhile, global meat consumption is on the rise.

    “The right to slap a juicy cow-meat patty on the grill is about as American as the right to keep and bear arms — and just as hard to challenge.”

The sense of impending doom fueled the resolve of Pat and his team. Working at the molecular level, they identified heme as the secret to meat’s taste. They figured out how to synthesize it using plants, and add all the juicy bloodiness of beef. Here’s a wonderful little film that describes some of their journey.

Now, Pat might have a decent-sized business if he simply convinced those who share his concerns to buy the Impossible burger. But that won’t be enough. To make the kind of impact on climate change that is required, Impossible Foods needs to find tens of millions of converts in the heartland of America — they must “cross the chasm”, as they say here in Silicon Valley.

This won’t be easy. The right to slap a juicy cow-meat patty on the grill is about as American as the right to keep and bear arms — and just as hard to challenge. It will take some very juicy marketing to make the Impossible burger a tailgating staple.

In just three years, Joe Wicks – or The Body Coach as he’s more widely known – has rocketed from an unknown fitness fanatic to a celebrity in the health and fitness space. At a time when the market was saturated with yet more ever-changing fads such as superfoods and clean eating, Joe went smartly against the conventions by injecting realism into the category.

The Body Coach proposition is far-removed from the wholesome, green and extreme lifestyle that wellness experts such as Ella Woodward (Deliciously Ella) promote, and instead is more synonymous with Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthy eating. However, what is missing within Jamie's offering, a fitness element, The Body Coach capitalises on, and has played a key role in his quick rise to fame.

He has built the brand in a holistic manner by grounding his empire around the ‘Lean in 15’ meals, high intensity workouts (HIIT) and the 90 day shift, shape and sustain plan (SSS). A combination allowing his clients to live and eat a balanced, healthy and normal life, while also ultimately losing weight.

His ‘real and human’ personality led approach has come to be symbolic of the brand and is permeated throughout all of his communications. His charm and enthusiasm is given the perfect platform in his use of social media - live Facebook streams of his HIIT exercises coupled with quick, un-glamourised cooking videos make his approach to exercise and food look easy and enjoyable. The sheer size of his online following on Facebook (2.3M) and Instagram (1.7M) proves his appeal to his target audience.

The Body Coach has experienced exponential results in a relatively short space of time; the business brings in £1m a month and ‘Lean in 15’ was the best-selling non-fiction book of 2016, selling 900,000 copies. This year, he's also endeavouring to venture across the pond and grow his American audience. It may be a tough ride, given that the US market is already highly crowded, and in many ways ahead of the UK, in the wellness space. But we are betting that his refreshingly ‘real’ approach could prove as successful there, as it is here.


Like many challengers, Kiwi based shoe brand Allbirds was born out of frustration. Tim Brown, an ex-New Zealand soccer player, was fed up with Nike trainers as he believed their shoes were lacking in both performance and sustainability. This spurred him on to look for a better solution - the wool runner, an entirely new product which challenges the traditional sneaker.

Brown's Kiwi heritage led him to embrace a new material abundantly available in New Zealand, ultra-fine merino wool, and by teaming up with Silicon Valley engineer, Joey Zwillinger, they have brought a comfortable, sustainable product to the market with vision to “do things differently”. The resulting design is especially comfortable, lightweight and flexible, thanks to the properties of the new fabric. While it may not be for those looking for a hardcore running shoe, the range has been dubbed a higher quality and more stylish version of Kanye West's Yeezy Boosts for those looking for an understated recreational sneaker with a sustainable edge.

Allbirds attitude to branding is “less is more”, a trend we're seeing more and more in our research and one that seems increasingly popular with consumers (who are even picking away logos from their garments). Instead, Allbirds is relying on delivering a superior product experience, and a clear commitment to sustainability, to grow their consumer base.

They are so confident in the product they even offer a thirty-day trial period - a new tactic in apparel but one that has proved successful for e-commerce challengers like Caspar or Warby Parker (one of the co-founders of Warby Parker is an investor) in other categories.

Despite having only launched in March 2016, the brand is on a solid growth trajectory, with a clear mission to create a new category of their own in footwear. Their Kickstarter campaign has proven the concept, having already raised over $7.25m in investment. All of this has left us waiting, with great anticipation, for Allbirds to make it to the UK in 2017.

“Nothing changes the gender equation more significantly than women’s economic freedom” – Gloria Steinem

It’s well known that the world of investing is a very ‘pale, stale and male’ place meaning that, as a whole, women founders of start-ups disproportionally miss out.

There are exceptions trying to counter that imbalance, including the Female Founders Fund, Women’s Venture Capital Fund and BBG Ventures (also shout-out to those VC funds investing in underrepresented minority entrepreneurs such as The Comcast Ventures Catalyst Fund). However, it is Brava Investments, who make our Challengers To Watch list through their different, but still female focussed, approach to picking their portfolio.

Brava founder Nathalie Molina Niño discovered, through her own experience of investing, that there is a fundamental trade-off being made in the market – ethical investments, including those that focus on women or minority founders, have to be selected from a smaller field of companies, which means you are less likely to reap above average returns.

    “The pool of possibilities is just smaller. If you have good intentions, and you say, ‘I only want to help women founders,’ you’re less likely to hit the next unicorn, the next Google.”

— Nathalie Molina Niño (The Washington Post, 17th Oct 2016)

Instead of prioritizing female owned companies, Brava intends to create a billion dollar portfolio by backing companies whose output will disproportionately benefit women. They are placing bets on those ideas that will affect the many, rather than concentrating on the representation of the few at the top.

As well as putting their money where their mouth is, Brava are getting stuck in at the grassroots -  partnering with the United State of Women to provide entrepreneurship training as part of their curriculum across the USA in 2017. Having closed first investors in late 2016, including huge successful investment partners such as Howard Buffett, and recruiting an impressive board of likeminded experts such as Kathryn Kolbert, we’re interested to see how this new purpose driven model unfolds, and if the experiment pays off.

There’s a lot of debate that goes on at eatbigfish about the Challengers To Watch list. Brands are nominated and we discuss – are they too niche? Too established? Are they a brand? What are they really challenging? Why this year? And so when WeWork was thrown into the ring we did the same. A challenger that can’t be ignored, that’s for sure, but are they a challenger to watch specifically this year?

The 6-year-old ‘decacorn’ disrupter has certainly made an impact on the world of work, leading the revolution in how companies and individuals rent office space; and is still growing fast. With a $16bn valuation, 110 locations across the world, and a doubling of its membership in one year to 85,000 – this is the goliath of the co-working category. 2017 will see them expand into India, Argentina and Brazil.  And all without a conventional marketing spend.

    “We don’t need to spend money on marketing. Because we’re part of a mission and a movement. And if you’re part of a mission and a movement, your members will sell you.”

— Adam Newman, co-founder of WeWork (The Guardian, 11 Jan 2016)

But it’s not all sunshine and roses and free craft beer on tap. After WeLive launched in April last year, we expected to see the co-living concept begin to take off - but have they shaken up the private rental sector in the same way?  It’s safe to say that, so far, WeLive hasn’t quite delivered on WeWork’s ambitious predictions. Having initially announced plans for 14 locations by the end of 2016, there are currently only two available, New York and Crystal City, VA, with no mention of new locations in the pipeline, and in December, rents at the existing buildings jumped up 50%.

Perhaps co-living as a concept is just proving a shared space too far. However, I wouldn’t write off WeLive just yet.  Unlike their co-living competitors like Common in the US and The Collective in the UK, WeLive is offering nightly bookings of its apartments from $135 a night – offering a compelling alternative to a hotel room or Airbnb for a certain type of traveler, so perhaps a pivot is in the pipeline. As with another of our Challengers to watch – Jo&Joe – we may find that the reinvented dorm room/hostel approach gains legs in 2017, and WeWork already has an evangelical community of 85,000 members worldwide to sell it too.

These are interesting times for the 'new establishment' of Silicon Valley behemoths (see also Airbnb, Uber et al) as they become the target of new challengers entering their lucrative markets. It goes without saying that we expect WeWork to continue to grow rapidly this year (especially if today's reports of a possible billion dollar investment from Japanese telecom giant SoftBank prove true), but can they continue to be the co-working 'thought leaders' as well as the market leaders? One to watch.


Solar is at its tipping point. For the first time in history, the sun provided more electricity than coal power for one full day in the UK last year. The cost of solar panels has dropped 80% compared to just five years ago. A revolution is quietly bubbling away in the energy world and the stage is set for a challenger brand or business to take the bull by the horns and drive a substantial shift towards clean and renewable energy.

Lightsource could be that challenger. As Europe’s leading solar energy company, their success to date has been attributed to their CEO's business-first approach, an attitude quite different from others in the renewables sector. “I chose solar because it’s predictable – I knew I could raise money because investors love long-dated, predictable revenue streams” founder and CEO Nick Boyle told EL2016.

With a background of twenty years in retail financial services, Nick saw the opportunity where others didn't, not from a position of social responsibility, although a motivating factor, but from long-term economic incentives. “While everyone else was walking round Cornwall knocking on farmers doors, we were walking round the City of London knocking on the financial institutions raising money”, Nick said.

    “Fossil fuel is killing the planet but we are business first, green second, if you get it in the wrong order you’re going nowhere.”

— Nick Boyle, founder & CEO

The energy industry hasn’t changed for 100 years. Up until now businesses buy energy off a centralised grid system, as and when they need it. What solar technology offers is ‘distributed generation’, a system away from the grid, where solar energy is both produced and consumed on the same site. It’s a disruptive business model, which is getting large corporate companies off the national grid, whilst offering huge savings in return - if they are willing to think and act long-term. Unlike fossil fuel energy providers, Lightsource’s use of solar means they can offer both energy security and steady, long-term savings in an otherwise volatile energy sector, still primarily based on fossil fuel.

Founded in 2010, Lightsource manage solar farms worth $2bn, providing enough energy to power more than 350,000 households in the UK per year. They launched the largest floating solar farm in Europe in 2016, the size of eight football pitches, and providing enough energy to power 1,800 homes. And they have shrewdly added a further environmental string to their bow - bees: they’re using land-based solar farms as bee sanctuaries; the Wilburton Solar Farm in Cambridgeshire alone houses 350,000 bees at a time when bee populations are in danger of further significant decline.

As the possibility of a real tip to solar beckons, and the economic argument becomes only more robust, the question Lightsource face in 2017 is: what is the balance they need to strike between rigorous financial logic on the one hand, and an accompanying emotional engagement of ideology, drama and ideas on the other? They’ll need a combination of both to secure for themselves a much bigger share of the future.

If any conglomerate other than Unilever had bought them, Seventh Generation wouldn’t have made this list. But the match between the two seems perfect, and makes this 27-year-old pioneer of sustainability suddenly a challenger to watch again.

Eight years ago, Unilever exited the US laundry category entirely, so this purchase puts them back in a fight with adversary Proctor & Gamble. That should be fun to watch. But the bigger opportunity will be abroad. Consumers in Brazil, China and Europe have a growing appetite for green brands, and Unilever has the presence there to meet it. Seventh Generation made $200 million in revenue in 2015, so if all goes well, this could be a $1bn brand within a few years, something that would’ve been impossible for Seventh Generation to pull off without huge resources.

Skeptics may raise an eyebrow at a truly mission-driven business like Seventh Generation being swallowed up by the biggest of Big Fish. But in our book, A Beautiful Constraint, we describe the extraordinary creativity and commitment that Unilever displayed in meeting the ambitions of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. Their commitment is real. Last year Unilever was #1 on the Dow Jones Sustainability list in its sector.

And Unilever’s track record of fostering the mission of Ben & Jerry’s must’ve been reassuring to the good people of Seventh Generation. There’s a clause in the contract that was specifically negotiated to ensure its preservation; and a Social Mission Board was created to oversee it, with a seat reserved for the original company founder. Nice.

There’s never been much spark in Seventh Generation’s marketing to be fair. But last year they had the good sense to award the account to 72&Sunny who have already given the brand some of the quirky cool it deserves. Let’s have more of that, please.


Are you a protein seeker or a free ranger? Buy our home testing kit and you can find out. Sound like another dieting-fad? – Campbell’s are hoping not, they’ve invested $32m in Habit, a food-delivery company offering personalised meals based upon the user’s DNA and the concept of a nutritional type.

Whilst there is evidence that suggests each person’s dietary requirements are different, Habit’s struggle is to challenge the widely understood, common-sense approach to improved health, which is simply - eat less triple-cooked cheese-dipped stuff and get off your great unwashed. Or the polite version: eat a balanced diet and exercise more.

Habit may not be for everybody – which as a challenger looking to punch above its weight is fine of course, but with testing kits costing $299 and individual meals between $12 - $15 each, it would seem to target a more affluent audience. And according to studies, perhaps one already conscious of the impact of dietary choices on their health.

    “Creating a purpose-driven brand people connect with and trust”

The food-tech industry is a fascinating space, however. An explosion of new ideas such as the Impossible Burger and New Wave Food’s algae prawns are merging biology and technology to create new foodstuffs that aim to be healthier, tastier and more sustainable than what has gone before. The growth strategy of the world’s biggest food brands, such as Campbell’s and Unilever, appears to be to invest in these small challenger brands and help them scale, rather than launch sub-brand competitors that may be encumbered by gridlocked internal thinking and processes.

Habit founder and CEO, Neil Grimmer, already has experience of building a successful food business - he sold Plum Organics to Campbell’s in 2013 after becoming America’s No.2 organic baby food brand and reaching annual revenues of $93m. Neil will bring from that incredible journey, not just business acumen, but a deep understanding of creating a purpose-driven brand people connect with and trust, as parents did with Plum.

“We consider ourselves to be far more than just a meal delivery company. We’re offering a personal well-being platform”, Grimmer told FoodNavigator-USA. The platform includes the Habit Food app which features your personalised nutritional blueprint, eating guidelines and various tracking tools to help Habit become your nutritional sidekick, whilst extending the brand's experience into user’s daily routine.

A strong values-led brand and seamless on/off-line experience will go a long way, but will personalised nutrition provide lasting utility and benefit beyond the initial buzz of a new idea?

The proof of this gluten-free pudding will be in the eating in 2017.


Imagine reinventing the entire hotel design approach; catering, service provision, tech requirements and customer journey – simultaneously and in a very short timescale. Imagine committing to a roll-out programme of 50 city-centre, individually designed units in just three years and imagine the learning that will come from such a project. And just imagine you were the marketer or operations person being presented with this almost impossible brief personally by the CEO one Monday morning (because that’s what happened).

Accor Hotel Group, Europe’s largest hotel group, decided to proactively respond to both the growing threat they face from Airbnb and the sharing economy, as well as growth in budget travel, so loved by millennials. In fact, they’ve responded in such an entrepreneurial way, they could easily ‘disrupt the disruptors’, creating a whole new hospitality category, and fast.

By establishing a marketing innovation lab inside the business – one ring-fenced from the politics, policy and procedures of the parent company, the new division has its own budget, and have been given license to write their own rules and generally be allowed to kick corporate butt.

Jo&Joe is a new lifestyle brand pitched at millennials and offering stays for just €20-25 a night. Accommodation has been designed as a ‘living space’ or innovative ‘open house’ and whether you’re a ‘Townster’ (living nearby) or a ‘Tripster’ (a visitor to the city) – it’s a place to promote social interaction and foster positive community, an integral part of the neighbourhood, where there is always something going on.

In developing the new concept, the innovation lab worked with young people to ask them to design the experience they want and then help bring the units to life by co-creating with suppliers, rather than just try to get under the skin of their target through dull focus groups and questionnaires.

The whole experience is enhanced by a judicious application of tech, including a Jo&Joe app which connects to existing social networks and provides a rich and enabling digital ecosystem. It’s that notion of the ‘third space’, once the North Star of Starbucks, that somehow didn’t quite reach fruition for them, realised completely. Jo&Joe have made a very cool bed, it may not just be millennials that end up lying in it.

As Jo&Joe’s first locations will open in 2018, with plans for 50 globally by 2020, we may not be able to become ‘Tripsters’ this year, but the development of the brand and popularity of the concept is certainly one to watch.

This piece first appeared on eatbigfish's site here.